Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
First Transcontinental Railroad
The First Transcontinental Railroad was a transcontinental railroad in North America that was finished in 1869. Since 1859 the most westerly railroad from the Atlantic coast reached Omaha, Nebraska. To connect it with the Pacific coast the Central Pacific Railroad was built from Sacramento, California eastward and the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha westward, until they met.
It was considered by many to be the greatest technological feat of the 19th century. It served as a vital link for trade, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of the late-19th century United States. The establishment of this transcontinental railroad would quickly end the romantic, yet far slower and more dangerous Pony Express and stagecoach lines. In addition, the march of "Manifest Destiny" and the establishment of the so-called "Iron Horse" across Native American land would greatly accelerate the demise of Great Plains Indian culture.
This line was not the first railroad to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific; that honor goes to the Panama Railway, a 48-mile-long line across Panama, completed in 1855. Other transcontinental railroads followed: The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885; the Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed 1905; the first trans-Australian rail line was completed in 1912; the first north-south trans-Australia line was completed in 2003.
The Central Pacific laid 690 miles of track, starting in Sacramento, California, and continuing through California (Newcastle and Truckee), Nevada (Reno, Wadsworth, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Elko, Humboldt-Wells), and connecting with the Union Pacific line at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory.
The Union Pacific laid 1086 miles of track, starting in Omaha, Nebraska, and continuing through Nebraska (Elkhorn, Grand Island, North Platte, Ogallala), Julesburg in the Colorado Territory, Sidney, Nebraska, the Wyoming Territory (Cheyenne, Laramie, Green River, Evanston), the Utah Territory (Ogden, Brigham City, Corinne), and connecting with the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit.
Although Theodore Judah is considered to be the father of the First Transcontinental Railroad, Asa Whitney made what some consider the first concerted attempt to get the government to seriously consider such a project. He was not the first or only man of his time to conceive of a railroad running across the frontier from the Great Lakes to the Pacific coast, but he was the first to lead a team of eight men in June 1845 along the proposed route in order to assay available resources, such as stone and wood; to see how many bridges, cuts and tunnels might be necessary; and to determine how much land would support farming. Additionally, Whitney traveled widely to solicit support from businessmen and politicians, printed maps and pamphlets, and submitted several carefully considered proposals to Congress, and he did all this at his own expense. Unfortunately for Whitney, politics, opportunists, and the war with Mexico obstructed all his best efforts over a period of six years.
Theodore Judah was perhaps no more committed than Whitney, but he had advantages and opportunities that Whitney never got. He became the chief engineer for the newly-formed Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1852, surveyed the route for the road, and oversaw its construction. The job was an especially juicy plum to Judah, because he was convinced that, from Sacramento, a rail line could be laid over the Sierra Nevada mountains, and he wanted to be the engineer to do it.
Interest payments bankrupted the Sacramento Valley Railroad, though, so Judah had to find another way to build his road. He traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1856, hoping to learn how to lobby Congress for his project. To that end, he wrote a 13,000 word proposal in support of a Pacific railroad, had it printed, and distributed it to Congress, department heads, and other influential persons, all at his own expense.
Judah was chosen to be the accredited lobbyist for the Pacific Railroad Convention, first assembled in San Francisco in September 1859. Although factional bickering threatened to derail the Convention proceedings, Judah rallied them to adopt his plan to survey, finance, and engineer the road. Judah returned to Washington in December 1859, where he was given an office in the capitol building, an audience with President Buchanan, and represented the Convention before Congress. Iowa Representative Samuel Curtis introduced a bill in February 1860, which called for finances and land grants to support the Pacific road, but it was not passed by the House until December that year, and came to nothing when it could not be reconciled with rival bills.
Judah returned to California in 1860, and split his time between raising enough money to live, and crossing and re-crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains in search of a pass suitable for a railroad, convinced that if he found it, no one could deny the worth of his project. That summer, a local miner, Daniel Strong, had surveyed a route over the Sierras for a wagon road, a route he realized would also suit a railroad. He described his discovery in a letter to Judah, and together they formed an association to solicit subscriptions from local merchants and businessmen to support their paper railroad.
Collis Huntington, a prosperous Sacramento hardware merchant, heard Theodore Judah lecture at the St. Charles Hotel in November 1860, and invited Judah to his office to hear his proposal in detail. Huntington was savvy enough to realize the importance of a transcontinental railroad to business. He also knew that selling subscriptions door to door was no way to raise money for such a grand enterprise, so he found four partners to invest $1500 each and form a board of directors: Mark Hopkins, his business partner; James Bailey, a jeweler; Leland Stanford, a grocer, and future governor of California; and Charles Crocker, a dry-goods merchant.
From January or February 1861 until July, Judah, Strong, and a party of ten surveyed the route for the railroad over the Sierra Nevada, through Clipper Gap, Emmigrant Gap, through Donner Pass, and down to Truckee. While he charted the road's line, Leland Stanford met with President Lincoln in Washington, and a special congressional session was convened, where the Pacific Railway bill was re-introduced by Rep. Curtis. Congress was more concerned with issues surround the Civil War, however, and the bill was not passed until the next session.
Judah traveled to Washington in October 1861 to lobby for the Pacific Railroad Act with Aaron Sargent, once a newspaper editor and one of Judah's strongest supporters, now a freshman Congressman assigned to the House Pacific Railroad Committee. Judah was named the committee's clerk. While they helped push the Pacific Railroad bill through committee, Stanford and Crocker traveled to Nevada to secure a franchise from the Nevada legislature to build the Central Pacific through the territory.
The Pacific Railroad bill passed the House of Representatives on May 6 1862, and the Senate on June 20. Lincoln signed it into law on July 1 1862. The act called for several companies to build the railroad: from the west, the Central Pacific and the Nevada Central ; and from the east, the newly chartered Union Pacific. Each was required to build only 50 miles in the first year; after that, only 50 more miles were required each year. Besides land grants along the right-of-way, each railroad was subsidized $16,000 for each mile built over an easy grade, $32,000 in the high plains, and $48,000 for each mile in the mountains. The race was on to see which road could build the furthest.
Six months later, on January 8 1863 in Sacramento, California, Governor Leland Stanford ceremoniously broke ground to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. The Central Pacific made great progress along the Sacramento Valley, however construction was later slowed; first by the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, then by the mountains themselves and most importantly by winter snow storms. As a result, the Central Pacific expanded its efforts to hire immigrant laborers (many of which were Chinese ). The immigrants seemed to be more willing to tolerate the horrible conditions, and progress continued. Unfortunately, the increasing necessity for tunneling then began to slow progess of the line yet again. To combat this, Central Pacific began to use the newly-invented and very unstable nitroglycerin explosives — which accelerated both the rate of construction and the mortality of the laborers. Appalled by the losses, the Central Pacific began to use less volatile explosives. Construction began again in earnest.
In the East, the progress started in Omaha, NE by the Union Pacific Railroad, proceeded very quickly due to the featureless terrain of the Great Plains. However, they too would soon become subject to slowdowns as they entered Indian-held lands. The Native Americans living there saw the addition of the rail-line as a violation of their treaties with the United States. War parties began to raid the moving labor camps that followed the progress of the line. Union Pacific responded by increasing security and by hiring marksmen to kill buffalo — which were both a physical threat to trains, and were the primary food source for the Plains Indians. The Native Americans then began killing laborers when they realized that the so-called "Iron Horse" threatened their very existence as a culture. Security measures were further strengthened, and progress on the rail-line continued.
Because of the nature of the way money was given to the companies building the railroad, they were sometimes known to sabotage each other's railroads, to claim that land as their own. As well, when they first came close to meeting, they changed paths to be nearly parallel, so that each company could claim subsidies from the government over the same plot of land. Fed up with the fighting, Congress eventually declared where and when the railways should meet.
Six years after ground-breaking, laborers of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east, met at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was here on May 10, 1869, that Stanford drove the golden spike (which is now located at the Stanford University Museum ) that symbolized the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in North America. As soon as the ceremonial spike had been replaced by an ordinary iron spike, a telegraph message was transmitted to both east and west coasts that simply read, "Done". The country erupted in celebration upon receipt of this message (which was the first coast-to-coast broadcast of a media event in the United States). Now travel from coast to coast was reduced from four or more months to just one week.
Between 1865 and 1869 the Union Pacific laid 1,086 miles and the Central Pacific 689 miles of track. The years immediately following the construction of the railway were years of astounding growth for the United States, largely due to the speed and ease of travel this railroad provided. For example, on June 4, 1876 an express train called the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco, California via the First Transcontinental Railroad only 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left from New York City. Only 10 years before the same journey would have taken months overland and weeks on ship.
The majority of the Union Pacific track was built by Irish laborers, veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies, and Mormons who wished to see the railroad pass through Ogden and Salt Lake City, Utah. Mostly Chinese (coolies) worked for the Central Pacific even though at first they were thought to be too weak or fragile to do this type of work. The men worked for an average of between one and three dollars a day.
Current passenger service
In the north of the U.S.A., Amtrak runs a service, the Empire Builder, on another transcontinental railroad, in the south on two more.
- Empire Express, David Haward Bain
- Nothing Like It In The World, Stephen E. Ambrose
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