On This Day

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Associated Press
Railroad officials and employees celebrate the completion of the first railroad transcontinental link in Promontory, Utah.

On This Day: Transcontinental Railroad Completed

May 10, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads were connected in a ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah.

Golden Spikes Commemorate Completion of Transcontinental Railroad

The transcontinental railroad had long been a dream for engineers, entrepreneurs and politicians, but it was not until 1860 that engineer Theodore Judah developed a feasible plan for a railroad running from California through the Sierra Nevada and the western deserts to the Missouri River, where it would link with existing railroads.

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 gave Judah’s Central Pacific and the newly formed Union Pacific the land and money needed to construct the railroad. Over the next seven years, the two companies—Central Pacific from the west and Union Pacific from the east—raced to construct tracks and meet in the center.

By 1869, the two companies were nearing a meeting point; in April, they agreed to meet at Promontory Summit, Utah. In May, Central Pacific President Leland Stanford traveled east on the Jupiter, while Union Pacific Vice-President Thomas Durant traveled west on the 119, destined for the Promontory Summit with reporters and other dignitaries. The two trains arrived on May 10 and there was a ceremony to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

After a series of speeches, Stanford and Durant tapped in four commemorative spikes: two golden spikes from San Francisco businessmen, a silver spike from Nevada, and a gold and silver spike from Arizona. The spikes were then removed and replaced with regular spikes, the final one being wired to the national telegraph line.

“When the connection was finally made the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific engineers ran their engines up until their pilots touched,” wrote witness Alexander Toponce. “Then the engineers shook hands and had their pictures taken and each broke a bottle of champagne on the pilot of the other's engine and had their picture taken again.”
The railroad shortened the journey from the East Coast to the West Coast from months to days. It immediately transformed the American West, as people moved west and thousands of towns were created along the tracks.

“The railroad also profoundly affected the national psychology, creating a new spirit of optimism and unity,” writes PBS. “Just as the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse affirmed the union of North and South, so the Golden Spike established an unbreakable link between East and West, a strong band of iron that bound America together, making it really and truly ‘one nation, indivisible.’”

Background: Building the Transcontinental Railroad

The idea of a transcontinental railroad had existed since the 1830s, but attempts in the 1840s to organize the construction of one failed due to funding and logistical problems. The California Gold Rush of 1849 lured thousands of men to the Pacific Coast, increasingly the need for a transcontinental line.

In 1856, engineer Theodore Judah completed the first railroad line west of the Missouri River, the Sacramento Valley Line connecting the California capital to Folsom, Calif. But Judah has much larger plans for a transcontinental railroad, which he laid out in 1857 in “A Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad.”

“It is the most magnificent project ever conceived,” he wrote. “It connects these two great oceans. It is an indissoluble bond of union between the populous States of the East, and the undeveloped regions of the fruitful West. It is a highway which leads to peace and future prosperity. An iron bond for the perpetuation of the Union and independence which we now enjoy.”

In 1860 he discovered that the infamous Donner Pass was a suitable train route through the Sierra Nevada, which has been one of the great obstacles in building a western railroad. Judah and a group of five investors formed the Central Pacific Railroad Company and traveled to Washington to lobby Congress for funding.

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act into law, granting appropriations and land to Central Pacific and the newly chartered Union Pacific Railroad Company. The act called for the Central Pacific to build a railroad from California to the east, while the Union Pacific worked from the Missouri River to the west. Each company would receive $48,000 in bonds per mile built and agree to connect the railways when they reached each other.

Work began later that year; the Union Pacific relied heavily on labor from Irish, German and Italian immigrants, while the Central Pacific used primarily Chinese laborers. The Chinese represented 90 percent of CP’s final workforce, and were paid less than white workers until a 1867 strike earned them higher wages and better working conditions.

The most difficult stage of construction was through the Sierra Nevada, where the Central Pacific laborers worked through the cold and heavy snow to build 13 tunnels. Tunnel No. 6, which was 1,659 feet long and stood more than 7,000 feet above sea level, had to be “hand-carved, without electricity and without steam-powered tools,” reports PBS.

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