In the annals of our collective conscious, the locomotive endures as a symbol of a bygone era, one marked by danger as much as opportunity. The real history of the construction of America’s most ambitious transportation system of its time is one intimately linked to enterprise, development and opportunism.
The Oregon Trail
The first steam engine was introduced to the United Sates in 1830. Given that settlers of the time were confined to the East Coast, the early development of the railroad occurred east of the Missouri, proving a valuable innovation for trade, transport and development.
Westward expansion didn’t begin in earnest until quite some time later, but by 1839 the Peoria Party would be the first documented group of pioneers to set out west. Several years later, general John Gantt led an estimated 1,000 emigrants in the same direction in the Great Migration of 1843. They were far from the last large groups of settlers to try their luck on the opposite coast, as news of the discovery of gold in California in 1848 lured countless prospectors to seek their fortunes in the gold rush.
However, the Oregon Trail was harsh and dangerous. Those who could afford it opted instead to travel by sea through Cape Horn, a voyage that took around six months. Two decades after the introduction of the steam engine, there was a desperate need for safe and speedy transport across North America.
The theory of a cross-country train
In 1845, Asa Whitney, an entrepreneur who had made his money in the China trade, approached the U.S. Congress with a resolution to build a railroad from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. Congress was well aware of the utility of a railroad connecting the coasts but was divided on the particulars of construction. Whitney’s proposal wound up blocked in large part by senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who demanded the Western Route start in Missouri.
In spite of its failure, Whitney’s proposal brought the railroad to the center of public consciousness, and it remained an issue of its day. In 1853, the House appropriated funds to the Army Topographic Corps to determine viable routes. Five different surveys set out and came back with potential routes, but Congress still failed to act.
Luckily, Theodore Judah, the engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, dreamed of his life’s most ambitious project: a transcontinental railroad. Whitney approached Congress in 1860 with a potential route through Donner Pass in Northern California as well as a group of investors backing the project. In 1862, congress passed The Pacific Railroad Act, chartering the work of the Central Pacific Railroad Company (on the West Coast) and the Union Pacific Railroad (East Coast) to build a transcontinental railroad.
The railroad companies
The Pacific Railroad specified that the two companies were to build towards one another, receiving 6,400 acres of land and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track build. The bill did not, however, stipulate where the two tracks were to meet. This meant that whichever company built more track would be paid more.
Both companies were immediately swept up by opportunists. The “Big Four” partners of the central Pacific Railroad Company had no prior experience with railroads. They borrowed heavily and exploited legal loopholes to extract the most government funding possible. Meanwhile, Dr. Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific seized controlling interest of the company and established a front company, Credit Mobilier. The Union Pacific construction contracts were handed over to Credit Mobilier, and congressmen were given shares to incentivize their cooperation in the House – a scandal that would later tarnish several careers.
Theodore Judah was put off by the avarice of his counterparts in the Big Four and attempted to recruit new investors for a buyout, but he contracted yellow fever crossing the Isthmus of Panama and died in 1863.
Both railroad companies were confronted with challenges to construction. As the Union Pacific set out toward the West, construction began to encroach upon the lands of Native American tribes, the members of which were none too happy about their new guests. Attacks upon railroad workers became a regular problem of construction.
Meanwhile, the Big Four on the West Coast had to breach the mountainside to continue construction. Huge wooden trestles were built upon the western slopes where gunpowder and nitroglycerine were used to blast through the granite of the mountains. In order to recruit sufficient labor, Charles Croker recruited for railroad construction 14,000 Chinese immigrants who labored under brutal conditions.
The golden spike
By 1867, the companies were rapidly approaching each other in Salt Lake City, Utah, and President Ulysses S. Grant announced that he would withhold funds until the companies settled on a point of intersection. Promontory Summit, north of Great Salt Lake, was determined as the meeting point of the Transcontinental Railroad construction. For the final railroad spike, Leland Stanford of the Big Four had been given a 17.6-karat golden spike. It was driven into the ground at 12:47 p.m. on May 10, 1869, marking the birth of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Once the Transcontinental Railroad was functioning in full, travel time from the East Coast to West Coast was cut from several months to under a week. The American West was opened up to massive development, resources could be easily transported across the continent, and westward expansion boomed.