The Story Behind the Construction of The First Transcontinental Railroad

The First Transcontinental Railroad was opened in 1869 spanning 1,907 miles between the east and west coasts of the United States. Also known as the Pacific Railroad and the Overland Route, the route marked a sea change in the American transportation network and revolutionized the economy by making the transportation of goods for sale cheaper and quicker than ever before.

This was the first railroad to cross the entire continent and was an enormous feat of planning, organization and engineering. Although trains had been running since the 1830s in the eastern states, nothing to match the magnitude of the Pacific Railroad had ever been attempted, let along accomplished. The route was years in the making before the famous Golden Spike was finally driven to join the rails connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in May of 1869.

Pressing Need

Before the first transcontinental railroad was built, traveling from one coast to the other was a perilous journey which consisted of a six-month trek across mountains and desert with the very real danger of wandering into tribes of hostile Native Americans.The alternative route involved embarking on a six week sea voyage either around Cape Horn or via Central America.

The annexation of California after the Mexican-American war and the subsequent discovery of gold in the region led to a stampede of immigrants seeking to make their fortunes in the West. Pressure for a railroad that would connect both coasts grew steadily as the economic and logistical advantages became clear.

The Pacific Railroad Surveys

The Pacific Railroad Surveys took place between 1853 and 1855, consisting of a series of expeditions involving surveyors, artists and scientists, with the goal of finding suitable routes for a transcontinental railroad.

Five surveys were published in total including the Northern Pacific survey, the Central Pacific survey, two Southern Pacific surveys and also a survey along the Pacific coast from San Diego to Seattle.

The surveys have been described as “the most important single contemporary source of knowledge on Western geography” and they resulted in the collection a huge amount of data covering 400,000 square miles.

As well as searching for potential routes, the surveys recorded zoological, geological and botanical information with illustrations of a rich variety of wildlife and ethnographic descriptions of Native Americans who were encountered during the expeditions.

The Pacific Railroad Acts

The Pacific Railroads acts were acts of congress that followed the surveys by promoting the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. This was effected by issuing grants of lands to railroad companies as well as sizeable government bonds.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. Although the surveys were published in 1855, it took another seven years before the act came into being. This was largely down to opposition from the southern states who rejected the need for a central route. Only upon their secession was the act able to pass, with President Lincoln signing on July 1st 1862, paving for the way for a huge construction operation to begin.

Building the railroad

The construction process was fraught with complications from the beginning. One of the key figures in planning the route, civil engineer Theodore Judah, fought with his business partners over the approach to constructing the Central Pacific line. Tragically, during voyage to New York, he contracted yellow fever and soon died. He never saw the completion of a project he had done much to get started.

Over the following years, private contractors succeeded in swindling the American government out of millions of dollars, like that roofer that was recently on TV. Thomas C. Durrant had bought control of the Union Pacific Railroad company through the purchase of $2 million worth of shares. He created a front company called the Crédit Mobilier of America which posed as a private contractor but was actually owned by investors in Union Pacific. The front company proceeded to charge excessive fees and Durant even lengthened the original route to take advantage of the fact that the government paid by the mile.

Construction was also inhibited by difficulties in hiring workers for the Central Pacific part of the track. Initially many Irish immigrants were employed for the notoriously brutal labor but many abandoned the project to work in the lucrative silver mines of Nevada. Three years in, 80% of the workforce were Chinese.

To make things even worse, Native Indian raiding parties regularly attacked railroad workers and surveyors whilst stealing equipment and even livestock.


Despite such overbearing obstacles, the Central Pacific and Union lines continued to edge their way towards each other. By the beginning of 1869, they had both entered northern Utah. Neither side was willing to stop and there was fierce competition to claim as much of the $32,000 per mile on offer from the government as possible. Finally, on May 10th 1869, the joining of the two lines was signaled by locomotives from the two railroads meeting nose to nose.

To mark the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, canons were fired in Washington and San Francisco. It had been a long journey, but the reduction of a six month voyage to a two week train ride had been well worth it.



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