Thursday, May 10, 2012

Today in History: Transcontinental Railroad links USA East to West (May 10, 1869)

(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.




from Wikipedia:

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.    


  1. that's amazing Doug every inch of rail had to be laid by hand digging through mountains. I wonder how many men died building it? absolutely amazing

  2. Now this is history Doug as the railways were what truly brought about technology along with the next step in opening a passage which brought about a means for furthering economic diversity within the west.
    I thought I would add this link:

  3. Very interesting Jack! Yes, if you ask me a lot of the the economic and social growth in the USA--at least from 1830-1930-- is really tied up into the development of the railroads. The article makes a good point about the Los Angeles/Salt Lake City line. Without it, Los Angeles would not have been the metropolis it became early in the last century.

    Thanks for the link.

  4. Yes truly amazing how hands of different nationalities could build something so spectacular...all working together for the growth of this country.

  5. I just love that painting!! Great post, Doug.

  6. That's how I feel, Marty. There were cases of bad discrimination, the Chinese immigrants (a third of the total labor force according to one site) had the most difficult work in digging and blasting the tunnels for rail-lines into steep mountain-sides and the like. And people like the Irish-Americans working to bring tracks over the Rockies likely weren't paid what they should have received.

    This was like the Apolllo moon-landing program NASA created 100 years later; an incredibly difficult, multi-national and multicultural undertaking. And it succeeded! A public-private project that defined the amazing growth of the USA for decades.

    As as fuel prices continue to go up, we may be seeing a revival of progress in railroad transportation.

  7. I was happy to find it Christy. Thanks.

  8. Maybe so Doug, I was once on a train going from Warwick Rhode Island to Mystic was cool! It was a trip with our high school class and I really enjoyed it....but I had a seat that faced backwards and it kinda made me a bit

  9. It was an interesting time within history Doug and your most welcome with the link. There is some cross section between the Canadian National Railway system which I do forget yet within a disussion today with the building of the railway system we both did make on grave mistake with how we treated the chinese as it was very close to slavery.

    Regardless this is a most interesting site I thought I would post
    as well Doug.

  10. Yes, that sounds like a nice trip, Marty. I find that its plane flights which really play havoc with my insides.

  11. Yes, I don't know as much as I should about the Canadian Railway, but it doesn't surprise the Chinese got the worst of it. The 1860s-1880s were very hard times for Chinese immigrants on the Pacific Coast.

  12. I dont like planes at all Doug, I have only flown twice in my life...once from San Jose to Disneyland on a comercial plane and the second time was on a private jet when I won employee of the year where I worked, from Roseburg to Reno....those two flights were enough to last me a lifetime. Scared to death the whole time in the air.

  13. I have trouble with take-offs and landings, Marty. The worst landing I ever had was in Reno---the high winds coming off the Sierra Nevadas make it a very bumpy place to land in. I remember the plane i was in kept going up and down in elevation. The flight-attendant told me all the bumpiness was "normal". Yikes!