19th Century Literature & Culture
15 March 2013
The Transcontinental Railroad
The creation of the Transcontinental Railroad was an enormous achievement for America during the 19th Century. The locomotive technology, politics, and labor force played an important role in the process and construction of this incredible achievement. The feat was surely a difficult one, and over the course of seven years, it was accomplished.
The development of the locomotive and railroad technology occurred over a large span of history, and surprisingly had not originated in America. The first railway in the world was actually established in Leeds, England in 1758 by an Act of Parliament. At first, wagon roads were designed and built for English coalmines. Horses pulled the carts and wagons over heavy planks, not rails. This would later change. The steam engine was introduced and continued to develop along with the rail system. Locomotives were designed and tested, and would later substitute the animals used to pull the carts. Many years passed until the colonies would adopt these new technologies. The first established railroad system in America was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827 (SDRM). With the creation of the Eerie Canal and the proposal of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the port of Baltimore was threatened. A canal that would parallel the Potomac River would provide access to the west, and Baltimore’s thriving harbor would be bypassed, severely hurting the economy of the city. The B&O was created to allow access to the west, connecting Baltimore to the Ohio River. The first American built steam locomotive engineered by Peter Cooper of New York, was “Tom Thumb.” It ran on the tracks of the B&O railroad, traveling at the speed of 18 miles per hour, very stunning at the time. A race was held between Tom Thumb and a horse between Ellicott City and Baltimore. The locomotive eventually passed the horse during the race, but soon faced technical difficulties, losing the race in the end (EyeWitness to History). “After America's first steam locomotive debut in 1830, over the next two decades railroad tracks linked many cities on the East Coast. By 1850, some 9,000 miles of track had been laid east of the Missouri River” (The History Channel). The railroads put into place connected the many cities located on the east coast, allowing for easy transportation and trade. Still, there was a desire to create a transcontinental railroad that would completely connect the east and west coast. With the rise in railroad technology and development, this dream was certainly possible.
The demand for the transcontinental railroad had increased as settlers began to travel westward. The discovery of gold in 1849 sparked an enormous growth of settlers. The terrain was very difficult and risky to maneuver, leading to the death of many travelers. Some individuals even chose to travel a six-month route around Cape Horn by boat, risking many deadly diseases (The History Channel). “Pacific Railroad bills that proposed to grant lands, subsidies, and even as much as 90 million dollars towards the construction of this railroad had been periodically introduced in Congress since the 1840's” (Bushong). The politics behind choosing the ideal route of the railroad had delayed the construction for so long. Finally, in 1862, the Pacific Railroad Bill was passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln, granting public land and funds to build the railroad. There were two major companies that would play the roles of managing the construction of the tracks. The first was the Central Pacific Railroad, which would lay tracks from Sacramento, California heading east, and the second was the Union Pacific Railroad, which would lay tracks from Omaha, Nebraska, west (Calisphere). Over the next seven years these two companies would race to meet each other at a midpoint, which was undecided at the time. The more tracks that were laid, the more money the companies received from the government. The race was on, a quite difficult one, for both companies, with their own unique challenges and achievements. The terrain of the route was vastly different on both ends, calling for an efficient working force and skilled engineering to tackle the challenging goal.
The Central Pacific Railroad was run by four entrepreneurs of the time. They included Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. They became to be known as the Big Four. “With a choice between silver hunting, safe jobs in California, or dangerous work on the CP Railroad, fewer and fewer white workers were staying on with the railroad” (Bushong). Finding the necessary workforce to get the job done had become a difficult task; it was quite difficult to attract workers. The work required for the job was both difficult and dangerous. The Central Pacific Railroad began to recruit Chinese workers because they were hard working and accepted much lower wages than white workers (Calisphere). Crocker, the construction supervisor even looked to hire newly freed African Americans during the civil war, Mexican immigrants, as well as Confederate Civil War prisoners. He went as far as to petition Congress for 5,000 of these prisoners. In the end Chinese workers composed about 80% of the workforce (Linda Hall Library). The many achievements of the Central Pacific Railroad fascinate me greatly. The extreme working conditions these workers faced was incredible. They had to endure many harsh winters making their way through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which I can imagine was an incredibly difficult terrain to tackle. Snow sheds were built on the sides of mountains in order to protect the tracks from avalanches. These sheds covered the rails at various points where the train would be at a high risk. Snowplows were also built and placed on the front of locomotives to push away the snow covering the rails (Linda Hall Library). What I find most fascinating was how the Chinese workers often had to blast through granite sections of these mountains in order to create tunnels for the tracks to be laid. They used black powder and nitroglycerine, which are very dangerous explosive materials. There are many accounts of deaths related to the transportation and use of these explosives. Chinese workers were lowered in baskets along the edges of the granite cliff sides, where they would place and ignite the explosives inside the rock. “They blasted tunnels through the solid granite -- sometimes progressing only a foot a day” (Linda Hall Library). The Summit Tunnel and Bloomer Cut are the most notable achievements by the Central Pacific Railroad. Additionally, just before completing the Transcontinental Railroad, the Central pacific managed to lay down ten miles of track in one day as they raced to meet the rival company.
The Union Pacific Railroad faced many of its own unique challenges and accomplishments in comparison to the Central Pacific. The Union Pacific had a much easier time obtaining a workforce because there were tens of thousands of Civil War veterans out of work. The men composed mostly of Irishmen, whom were hard workers (Linda Hall Library). The workers of the Union Pacific faced much opposition by the native tribes inhabiting the land and were often ambushed and attacked. “Members of the Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes were understandably threatened by the progress of the white man and his ‘iron horse’ across their native lands” (The History Channel). The workers clearly had conflicting views regarding the land, and by intruding onto the already established territories of the Natives, it only caused more tension. The new settlers nearly extinguished the Buffalo population as well as inhabited the land for farming, forcing the Natives to be gathered onto reservations (Calisphere). Our perception of the “wild west” was developed by the observation of the ramshackle settlements that developed alongside the Union Pacific Railroad. The settlements brought gambling, drinking, gunfights, and prostitution (The History Channel). The settlements became to be known as “Hell on Wheels” towns. These towns were constructed of easily constructed canvass and wooden structures so that they could be transported along the railroad. Some notable achievements of the Union Pacific include the Sherman Summit, the highest point of railroad tracks in the world at the time, and Dale Creek Bridge, a 126 feet high and 700 foot long trestle bridge over a huge gorge. It was definitely a great engineering feat at the time.
Both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific finally met each other at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869. The “gold spike” ceremony took place, celebrating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The country celebrated as the event was telegraphed from coast to coast. “Now the country was connected as never before: a journey between San Francisco and New York that previously took up to six months now took only days” (Calisphere). Not only was it faster to travel, it was safe, and very much a pleasant experience.
Without the hard working labor force, developing engineering technology, and willpower of American people to achieve such a goal, the Transcontinental Railroad would never have been accomplished. It is important to note that the accomplishment was very much a difficult one, an incredible achievement at the time, and an inspirational piece of our American history.
"America's First Steam Locomotive, 1830." EyeWitness to History. EyeWitness to History, 2005. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/tomthumb.htm>.
Emord, Dawn, and David Bushong. "History of the Transcontinental Railroad." Bushong. Bushong, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://bushong.net/dawn/about/college/ids100/history.shtml>.
"Railroad Timeline History." Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association. Ed. Randy Houk. Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association, 01 Apr. 2008. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://www.sdrm.org/history/timeline/>.
"The Transcontinental Railroad." Calisphere. University of California, 2013. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/themed_collections/subtopic2b.html>.
"Transcontinental Railroad." The History Channel. A&E Television Networks, 2013. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://www.history.com/topics/transcontinental-railroad>.
"The Transcontinental Railroad." Linda Hall Library. Linda Hall Library, 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://railroad.lindahall.org/index.html>.