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Central Pacific Railroad Museum



When East Met West

"I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier, I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers, I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world"
-From the poem "Passage to India"

Trust good ol' Walt Whitman to recognize in his own richly colorful way what was probably the greatest industrial project of nineteenth century America: the Transcontinental Railroad. Finally, America's Manifest Destiny had come true. She now spread from sea to shining sea. Goods and people could go anywhere now without too much effort.

When the final golden spike was pounded into the road at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869, it did more than just link the Eastern part of the US to the West. With this man-made Northwest passage at hand, access to Asia, so long dreamt about since the days of Columbus, had been achieved. The United States signaled to the world that she was now poised to enter the sphere of superpowerdom.

Prior to the railroad, traveling was a hazardous and arduous experience. It's difficult for someone like me to appreciate just how hard it was. After all, I've crossed the country by car and plane four times already in three months! But back in the day, your only options were wagons and ships. As early as 1818, Senator Thomas Benton had called for a national transportation system, but it was the Gold Rush of 1849 in California that really stimulated calls for a new method of reaching the West. The only way to reach California in 1860 was either by wagon or ship. In fact, it took less time and money to go from San Francisco to China by ship (two months) than to go from the Missouri River to San Francisco (six months by covered wagon).

As Congress began looking into building a railroad that would go from coast to coast, bitter battles ignited over which part of the country it should go through. The East was heavily prospering from the 9,000 miles of railroad tracks between the Atlantic states and the Mississippi River. The South, far poorer than the Northern Yankees, insisted that the railroad should pass through slave-holding states. The start of the Civil War decided the question and the South would have no say. While business interests were supposedly the reason for building the railroad, many also thought that it would put an end once and for all to the existence of those pesky Indians.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Railroad Act in 1862 allowing the Eastern route of the railroad to be built by Union Pacific Railroad while the Western route would be constructed by Central Pacific Railroad. It was hard for the companies to finance such an incredible project by themselves, so they turned to the government for help. The terms were generous. For every mile the railroad companies constructed on level land, they would receive $16,000, $32,000 for plateaus and $48,000 for the high-elevation mountain terrain. Within a year, lobbyists were able to double compensation. Even more valuable than the cash may have been the precious land they received: 12,800 acres per mile. This later led to outcries from small farmers demanding their own piece of land and condemnation from environmentalists who said the railroads were abusing natural resources and destroying the land.

31 million acres of public land were given away to the railroad companies in addition to all the money they got for building the railroad.

The competition was now on for control of the economic future of the country. Central Pacific had an easy start, but then ran into the Sierra Nevadas (the same place that the infamous Donner Party ran into, only from the opposite side. They were suffering from a severe shortage of workers and now came the daunting task of blowing a hole through mountains that reached 7,000 feet. Out of 5000 workers needed, they had payroll of 600. Many had walked off the job to search for silver in Nevada. One of Central Pacific's leaders suggested the Chinese be brought in. The man in charge of the construction, James Strobridge, balked at first, thinking the Chinese were too puny and weak to handle such a gigantic task. A reminder that the Chinese had built the Great Wall changed his mind. Eventually, the Chinese would come to make up 90% of Central Pacific's 10,000 man workforce.

Racism soon began to rear its head, both within the railroad camp and outside of it. My earlier dispatch on Chinese immigrants documents in gory detail how whites began to resent and fear the Chinese whose cheap labor they believed undercut white wages. Most of the foremen were Irish immigrants. The Irish, who had faced constant harassment and discrimination as well since coming to America now saw a chance to make another group the butt of jokes. You would think people who had been teased would be more sensitive about teasing others, but I've usually found that's not the case. The Irish would call the Chinese "niggers" and would be at the forefront of organizing anti-Chinese clubs.

The famous photo in Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869.

The Union Pacific people had their own problems. Most of their workers were again Irish, along with other recent European immigrants from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Holland. Several hundred free blacks and Mexicans joined the effort as well. The Union Pacific had to face Indian raids from tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux whose lifestyles were facing utter ruin with the completion of the railroad. Eventually, 5,000 federal troops were brought in to "restore order." Red Cloud, upon seeing the railroad track marring the Sioux's former hunting grounds, said, "The white children have surrounded me and have left me nothing but an island."


One of the coolest things about traveling...

What both sides shared was backbreaking, 6-days a week, sun-up to sun-down labor. Thousands died during construction due to the extreme weather conditions, snow avalanches, nitroglycerin explosions and just plain burnout. Central Pacific did not keep track of "coolie casualties," but it's estimated that around 1200 Chinese died. But what's surprising is that more people died in the newly sprung railroad towns than they did on the job. The towns were cesspools of prostitution, gambling, drinking and brawling. One newspaper even ran a daily column called "Last Night's Shootings."

But despite all the hardships and turmoil, the 1,775-mile railroad was finished in six years. It was only completed when President Ulysses Grant ordered the two companies to stop foolishly building tracks that had already passed the other company's and to find a common meeting point. Promontory, Utah was chosen as the place where at last East would meet West, and America would never be the same again. The meeting place selected was a bit of an insult to Mormon leader Brigham Young. His people had invested $2 million in resources and labor in the project, hoping that by giving up their much-cherished isolation they could gain a piece of the economic riches if the railroad passed through Salt Lake.

Teddy and Nick pretend to be railroad barons. Many would say it was unfair for the government to take all the financial risk while only the railroads kept the profits.

When the final golden spike was nailed into the ground on May 10, 1869, the nation, hearing word by telegraph, immediately began celebrating this magnificent accomplishment. Washington DC celebrated by dropping a ball from the Capitol. The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia rang with pride and in San Francisco, a banner screamed, "California Annexes the United States." Dignitaries and famous folk all crammed to get into the famous photo. It should be noted that the Chinese were shooed away from being in the photo, making invisible for a very long time their critical role in the project.

The immediate effects of the railroad were to make automatic boomtowns out of unknown cities like North Platte, Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge. To get from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, CA now cost only $100. Traveling from New York to China would now take 30 days instead of 100. But in their haste to build the railroad, the companies often sacrificed quality. The government had to spend millions more to repair the shoddy work.

Three years later, a New York newspaper exposed the incredible depth of corruption within Union Pacific Railroad. The scandal reached the highest levels of government, implicating the vice-president, cabinet secretaries and numerous members of Congress. Union Pacific had created a company called Credit Mobilier and awarded all contracts to them. Investigations revealed that Credit Mobilier had been paid $73,000,000 for work worth $50,000,000. Bribes were offered to officials to keep the situation under wraps. Central Pacific had engaged in the same practices, but those weren't discovered till later. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad suggests we owe our prosperity less to the idea of "rugged individuals" working hard than to the greatness of "rugged government" and "rugged corporations."

The Chinese built their own Buddhist shrines and celebrated their own holidays.

Today, many of original Transcontinental Railroad tracks lie abandoned. Highways, cars, and airplanes made the railroad obsolete in many places. But those dusty and neglected tracks are a valuable symbol of our past, showcasing the ingenuity, risk-taking, and diligence that is responsible for so much of our "progress" and development. They also remind us of the other side of the coin that American prosperity depends on: greed, exploitation, racism, corruption, violence. Still, the Transcontinental Railroad represented, after the preservation of the Union, the enduring accomplishment of America in the 19th century. People now could truly conceive of America as a connected and unified nation, linked from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But the new economy ushered in by the Railroad would also have its disturbing side in the decades to come, as my fellow trekkers will show in their dispatches.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - The heroic and fateful quest of the Nez Perce
Nick - Massacres and mayhem: manifest destiny at its worst
Irene - We don't need no thought control
Steph - Potatoes, beans and cornbread. It's the life of a cowboy
Neda - Never give up: the story of Geronimo