(above) An 1881 painting, "The Last Spike", celebrating the event, and a poster for the 1939 Hollywood film spectacular "Union Pacific" with Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea. It was directed by the master of spectacle of pre-1960s Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille.
This May 10th marks the anniversary of the first major transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah in 1869. The Union and the Central Pacific railroad workers (of Irish, Chinese and other immigrant stock) dynamiting and shoveling and pushing and laying wood and rails across deserts and mountains and forests to bring two civilizations under the same flag together. It's the story many of us learned in school---the forging of an iron link from two competing railway companies, uniting a growing nation, just four years after the Civil War.
A recent PBS documentary on that first great railroad link-up.
The construction and operation of the line was authorized by the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864 during the American Civil War. Congress supported it with 30-year U.S. government bonds and extensive land grants of government-owned land. Completion of the railroad was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line. It was one of the crowning achievements in the crossing of plains and high mountains westward by the Union Pacific and eastward by the Central Pacific. Opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869, with the driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah, the road established a mechanized transcontinental transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West.
The Pacific Railroad constituted one of the most significant and ambitious American technological feats of the 19th century following in the footsteps of the building of the Erie Canal in the 1820s and the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama by the Panama Railroad in 1855. It served as a vital link for trade, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of the late 19th-century United States. The transcontinental railroad slowly ended most of the far slower and more hazardous stagecoach lines and wagon trains that had preceded it. The railroads led to the decline of traffic on the Oregon and California Trail which had populated much of the west. They provided much faster, safer and cheaper (8 days and about $65 economy) transport east and west for people and goods across half a continent."
The other story is more complicated--the first great technological advance in closing of the "American frontier" brought the growth of corporate railroad power to Atlantic and Pacific in a way that would both close the frontier a generation later and further accelerate the end of Native American independence in the West. These stories--and the struggles of the immigrant workers themselves being a third-- have to all be told for there to be an honest attempt to balance what was achieved at what price to so many who gave away so much of their labor, and what was lost forever to the nations of the original Americans.