The Transcontinental Railroad of the 19th Century The Transcontinental Railroad played an important role in the early development of the vast western United States.
With the introduction of the steam-powered rail cars, what would have been a minimum six-month wagon trip, was shortened to just a two-week train trip. Before the transcontinental railroad, many would take these long wagon trips or even risk a long boat trip around the southern tip of South America in the hopes of finding gold on the American west coast. It all began in 1803 when Robert Trevithick developed the first version of a steam locomotive with the ability to glide across rails. From here George Stephenson took over, creating several different locomotives for various uses.
His locomotive dubbed “The Rocket”, built in 1830, achieved a top speed of 36 mph and significantly influencing the beginning of the railway age (Cavendish). By 1830, locomotives had been introduced into the American culture and were spreading quickly. They were immediately popular, steam engines could transport goods and people significantly faster, further and for a much lower price than other methods of transportation. By 1850, train track covered nearly 9,000 miles from the Missouri river to the east coast.
This discovery of transportation was so efficient, that in several people began to urge Congress to federally fund a transcontinental railway, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. Congress subsidized surveys in an effort to find a strong pass through the Rockies that would allow the railway passage to the Pacific. In 1860, Theodore Judah introduced America to “Donner Pass”, the perfect place to pass the railway through the Sierra Nevada (Transcontinental Railroad).
With the discovery of Donner Pass, Congress agreed to enact the Pacific Railroad Act. This piece of legislation tasked the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railway companies with completing a transcontinental railroad, each would be given thousands of acres of land and $48,000 for every mile of track they laid. In 1863, the first spike was set and the race to meet was on.
Union Pacific began their rail work around Omaha, Nebraska, where they laid tracks across the flat, expansive western world. As Union Pacific quickly pushed tracks down their flat path, Central Pacific on the other hand, struggled to push tracks through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Beginning near Sacramento, California, Central Pacific had to work their way through uneven mountain terrain and began around the clock work split into three shifts. Working around the clock required a large group of workers, Central Pacific filled that need with nearly entirely immigrants. Within three years of laying track, nearly 80 percent of Central Pacific’s entire work force supply were Chinese immigrants.
Both companies encountered struggles along the way that slowed down the process. For Central Pacific, they had to clear spots in the mountains for track and bridges, this required workers to be lowered to spots or put in tight areas with dynamite, expected to light an area and get away as fast as possible while it exploded. For Union Pacific on the other hand, plains Indians posed a great threat. While Union Pacific took over their lands, these Indians did not give in.
Indian raids were fought off, while peaceful Indians were killed for no real reason, creating more conflict as they moved across the plains. Yet, with all the dangers of the rail work, soon the two companies were within miles of each other fighting to reach the other first. With no real meeting point set, President Grant announced that funds would be withheld until a proper jointing point was set for the two companies. In 1969, after seven years of hard work, Promontory Summit in Utah was agreed on as the meeting point.
As the last of the tracks were laid, a golden spike finished the 1,776 miles of track from Sacramento to Omaha. The Transcontinental Railroad was complete. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad opened up a whole new world to Americans and immigrants alike. The once six-month journey across the country, would now take roughly two weeks to complete. The price of a cross-country journey dropped from a $1,000 wagon ride to a $150 first-class train ride.
While shortening the trip, it also allowed for small towns to spring up all along the track. It lowered the price of transportation and allowed farmers to ship their goods further and more affordably, causing the economy to flourish. I chose to research the topic of the Transcontinental Railroad because I have always had an interest in trains, finding out more about their beginnings, struggles, and strengths was very enjoyable. I learned so many things, and there were many details that our book just didn’t have space or time to explain. One of the most interesting things was learning about the race between the two companies, each struggling to reach the other first.
I was pleased to find that most of the information I read was confirmed in our readings, but I also got to learn about several things that were not it our chapters.