17 Epic Facts about the Transcontinental Railroad
When the Golden Spike connected Central Pacific and Union Pacific rails at Promontory Summit, Utah, in May 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was finally complete. And Westward expansion was just heating up.
By 1860, the United States had more than 30,000 miles of railroad, mostly concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, connecting major hubs like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis.
This was well and good, but folks wanted to get out to the West coast, where rumors of good land, resources and opportunity still ran rampant.
At the time, heading to San Francisco meant months on a rugged overland journey through Indigenous lands (even if the routes were well-established), or months aboard a ship that went around Cape Horn or stopped off at the Isthmus of Panama.
None of the routes were fun, cheap or easy, but the Transcontinental Railroad, which connected Sacramento and Omaha, would change all that. After May 10, 1869, a New York to San Francisco trip what was once a thousand-dollar, months-long journey would now take about a week to complete. A one-way emigrant-class ticket cost as little as $70.
Moving people, mail and freight across the country had changed forever, and it sped up the Westward migration that had been growing since the days of the California gold rush.
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Building the Transcontinental Railroad
Building what would become the Transcontinental Railroad was a monumental task, one that seemed near impossible in scope.
But in a seven year span from 1863 to 1869, thousands of men laborers, contractors, financiers, directors, Civil War veterans, ex-slaves, immigrants, Mormons, Native Americans and others completed the nearly 2,000-mile route, connecting the States’ coasts for good.
The venture was uniquely American: it was a competition between two companies for land grants and government bonds. There was corruption, bribery and scandal, and railroad executives often profited at the expense of laborers and contractors who did the actual work.
It was done in the name of speed not quality or integrity but it was built nonetheless.
Here are 17 facts about the Transcontinental Railroad’s construction that made it such a memorable part of American frontier history.
1. The idea of a Transcontinental Railroad dated back to the 1830s.
When the February 6, 1832 edition of Emigrant a weekly newspaper in Michigan was published, it contained an article outlining a potential transcontinental railroad route from New York to Oregon.
The concept was incredibly novel at the time, according to The First Transcontinental Railroad author John Galloway.
First it appeared at a time when just two railroads were getting started in the country, the Charleston and Hamburg in South Carolina, and the Baltimore and Ohio, and when there were probably less than 200 miles of track in operation, he wrote.
Steam-powered locomotives had been in operation for only a few years: Englands Stockton & Darlington Railway first ran with passengers in 1825, and by the early 1830s, the United States had only a few running passenger trains.
But that didnt stop entrepreneurial Americans from dreaming, and from the early 1830s on, the idea of a transcontinental railroad gained traction. Many politicians, including Daniel Webster and Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, advocated for a transcontinental route, but their plans never materialized.
In the 1840s, American merchant Asa Whitney (relative of cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney), having trade success in China, championed for a transcontinental line that would connect the riches of the Orient with the hustling trades of Europe, viewing the U.S. as a bridge between the two.
Whitney failed to bring the railroad to life, but he lived long enough to see the Transcontinental Railroad finished before his death in 1872.
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2. The Civil War paved the way for the Transcontinental Railroad.
The need for a transcontinental railroad was clear to all political parties in the country, but Northern and Southern politicians couldn’t agree on the best route to build. Southern states followed the lead of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who argued for a line from New Orleans to San Diego, and eventually up to Los Angeles.
Northern states wanted a more central line with an eastern starting point of St. Louis, Chicago or Minneapolis. Southerners didn’t want to build above the Mason-Dixon Line, and Northerners didn’t want the South to advance the practice of slavery into more western states and territories.
The stalemate broke when Lincoln was elected President in November 1860, and South Carolina seceded from the Union the following month. As more states seceded, more Southern politicians were removed from Congress, freeing the vote for a northerly route.
Despite Congress’s focus on the Civil War, on July 1, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, providing the Union Pacific and Central Pacific with financial assistance for construction of the cross-country lines.
The route would start near Omaha in Council Bluffs, Iowa and follow the Platte River as it headed west.
3. The railroad would cut directly through Indigenous lands, and change the physical and political landscape of the country forever.
In many ways, the Transcontinental Railroad was a tool of brute American expansion.
It cut through the Great Plains, through land belonging to the Lakota, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Arapahoe and other Indigenous groups. It created an iron obstacle that changed the movement and migration patterns of buffalo on the plains in turn changing the way Indigenous groups hunted and lived.
Settlers who followed the railroad and the Homestead Act of 1862 further changed the landscape, hunting more wildlife, overgrazing the lands with cattle and igniting skirmishes with local Native Americans.
The railway act provided land grants to the railroads for land that didn’t belong to the government, but that was built into the plan to penetrate the interior and build an infrastructure that could overcome Indigenous populations.
“Indigenous land rights, enshrined through treaties, fundamentally contradicted land grants to the Union Pacific Railroad Company, as provided by the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act,” wrote Manu Karuka in Empire’s Tracks. “To honor the property claim is to abrogate treaty obligations: to honor the treaties would be to dissolve the capital claims on territory and resources.”
The railroad would make it easier and more affordable to transport troops, stockpile supplies, build military forts in the interior and gain physical ground against the Plains tribes. In fact, the land grants outlined in the 1862 railway act allude to the railroad’s ability to “secure the safe and speedy, transportation of the mails, troops, munitions of war.”
The policy of the government, and many UP officials, was clear. General William T. Sherman and General Grenville Dodge, who would later become chief engineer of the UP, were to clear the plains of Lakota, Cheyenne and others who they believed “must die or submit to our dictation.”
Like so much of American expansion, “progress” on one front came at the expensive of Indigenous people and lands, and the Transcontinental Railroad was as much a military and political weapon as it was a way to transport people across the country.
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4. It was one of the last major American projects done by hand.
Nearly all of the back-breaking work needed to build the railroad was done by hand usually the calloused hands of immigrants. In remote stretches of the Sierras, deserts, or the Great Plains, railroad crews were responsible for grading land, digging ditches, hauling dirt and building structures by hand.
The work, wrote author Stephen Ambrose, was monumental in scale.
The dirt for filling a dip or a gorge in the ground was brought in by hand-cart. Some of the fills were enormous, hundreds of feet high and a quarter mile or more in length. Black powder was used to blast for tunnels, but only after handheld drills and sledgehammers had made an indentation deep enough to pack the powder.”Nothing Like it in the World
In the years to come, laborers for both lines would move thousands of tons of dirt, rock, rail, ties and bolts needed to build the nearly 2,000-mile railroad a physical feat that’s difficult to fully grasp to this day.
5. Chinese laborers made up the majority of the Central Pacific workforce, despite the company’s reluctance to hire them.
As the Central Pacific made its way toward the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Sacramento, it faced a serious work shortage.
White workers would often join the CP for enough money to get by while they scouted around for nearby prospecting opportunities. If there was a silver or gold strike in the area, the CP would lose hundreds or thousands of workers to the up-and-down booms, which is what happened in the winter of 1864.
By early 1865, CP exec Charles Crocker approached James Strobridge, head of construction, about hiring Chinese workers. “Stro” was against the idea because of the immigrants’ small stature and lack of construction knowledge.
He eventually agreed to a month-long experiment to work with local Chinese laborers, and was impressed by their performance when the trial ended. The Chinese worked dutifully, didn’t cause problems in camp, and picked up tasks with ease.
By the end of that year, there were about 7,000 Chinese laborers on the CP line more than three times the number of white workers left. And by May 10, 1869, when the Golden Spike tied the two lines together, nearly 20,000 Chinese laborers had worked the CP line at some point.
It was a stark change of direction for the CP, especially for Leland Stanford, the first Republican governor of California and one of the CP’s “Big Four.” In a 1862 speech, Stanford’s anti-Chinese politics were on full public display.
Stanford branded Chinese ‘a degraded and distinct people’ who exercised ‘a deleterious influence upon the superior race’ and repelled ‘desirable immigration.” He announced his eagerness to seek government action.”Gordon H. Chang, Ghosts of Gold Mountain
Stanford publicly disliked Chinese immigrants until he realized it was a good business decision to employ them. The Chinese laborers worked hard and at lower wages than white men: it was a financial turnabout for the CP more than a moral one.
Unfortunately, the work performed heroically by Chinese laborers went largely unacknowledged. In Ghosts of Gold Mountain, Chang writes that “Chinese were not deemed sufficiently important or interesting to include in sweeping narratives about the rise of the nation.”
In the years after the Transcontinental Railroad was built, anti-Chinese sentiment ran high in California, leading to attacks on Chinese communities and leaders. Today, Ghosts of Gold Mountain is one of the best accounts of Chinese contributions to the railroad and other projects of the period.
6. The Union Pacific operated much like a military, thanks to Grenville Dodge’s Civil War experience.
In addition to Irish and European immigrants, the UP relied heavily on Civil War veterans for their workforce. When General Grenville Dodge left the army in 1866 to become the UP’s chief engineer, he made a series of organizational changes that improved the railroad’s efficiency and discipline.
Nearly all his chief subordinates had been in the Union Army, and with but a few exceptions his graders and track layers had been participants in the war. There were thousands of them, with more coming. Military discipline came naturally to them, for they were accustomed to giving or receiving or carrying out orders.”Nothing Like it in the World
Just as the Civil War had opened the path for the Transcontinental Railroad, the end of the war meant a flood of ex-soldiers looking for work and adventure, and Dodge was able to put them to work in a system that functioned much like the Civil War armies had.
The UP’s responsibilities also included protecting themselves from Indigenous groups Cheyenne and other groups sometimes attacked the lines so the transition from fighting in the Civil War to fighting on the frontier was appealing to many UP workers.
7. Brigham Young was an early proponent of the Transcontinental Railroad, despite the Utah War occurring only years earlier.
In 1863, just five years after the Utah War and six years after the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Thomas Durant discussed the building of the railroad with LDS Church President Brigham Young. The Mormon leader knew the geography of the Salt Lake region well and played an important role in the UP’s nearby route-finding and construction. He was also one of the UP’s earliest shareholders.
Young provided the UP with Mormon laborers and construction materials, and even worked with the CP line as it grew closer to the Great Salt Lake. He also attempted to convince both lines to go through Salt Lake City, though surveyors from both companies wouldn’t budge on their preference to go north around the lake, through Ogden.
Young understood the economic benefits of the railroad going through Mormon communities, but that didn’t mean he was cool with a flood of “Gentiles” in Utah territory.
“In a sermon in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in April 1866 the prophet reminisced with his followers that he had predicted the destruction of Zion unless some kind of control were exercised over the Gentile storekeepers who were beginning to crowd into Utah,” wrote Brigham Madsen in Corinne: The Gentile Capital of Utah.
Some of those controls included keeping out “as many of the hell-on-wheels construction camps as possible” and boycotting Gentile stores and businesses. He knew connecting to the rest of the country would be a boon to Salt Lake City and the church, but he wanted it done on LDS terms.
8. The railroads’ executives were often at odds with engineers deciding the routes.
The competitive nature of the Transcontinental Railroad placed an emphasis on speed of construction, rather than its quality. Getting it done was preferable to getting it done right, which often created tension between the lines’ top brass and surveyors determining the best routes across the country.
On the Central Pacific side, engineer and surveyor Theodore Judah was instrumental in getting the railroad act passed by Lincoln, but he often butted heads with the CP’s “Big Four” financiers: Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins.
Judah viewed the project as an engineering feat, where the Big Four viewed it as a financial venture and wanted to make sure it was profitable. So they gave themselves construction contracts, similar to the UP’s Crdit Mobilier scheme, and kept Judah out of the loop. When Judah died in November 1863, the Big Four took control of the CP and moved ahead with other engineers.
Like the Big Four, UP financier Thomas Durant wanted to make money from the railroad. He was less concerned with the engineering accomplishment it represented as he was making sure the construction phase of the railroad was profitable for him and his crew.
Durant debated surveying routes with chief engineer Grenville Dodge by hiring engineer Silas Seymour, who “questioned Dodge’s route and often tried to change it, primarily to add more miles, so that the UP would collect more government bonds and land grants,” wrote Stephen Ambrose.
Durant’s wanting to unnecessarily extend the line’s miles just to rack up bonds may have been true, but Ambrose pointed out that “despite 130 years of working to reduce the length of the lines, only a few miles have been shaved off,” meaning the UP’s engineers likely won many of the arguments.
9. Tunneling through granite limited the Central Pacific to several inches of progress per day in the Sierra Nevadas.
Judah’s idea to route the CP through the Sierra Nevada range was unprecedented, and many people thought it couldn’t be done at all. The weather, elevation, summits and granite-tunneling required would be back-breaking work, but the CP forged ahead and began its ascent of the Sierras in 1865.
Grading a line through the range meant blasting away tons of earth mostly granite that had to be moved with black powder or nitroglycerine. Trees and stumps had to be removed and a path wide enough for tracks and construction had to be cleared. A “three-hundred-man gang spent a full ten workdays clearing a single mile of right-of-way,” wrote Ambrose.
When they got higher into the mountains, it was time to tunnel through the granite instead of going around it. Here, Chinese laborers worked around the clock drilling holes, using black powder to blow up granite, then doing it all over again. The work was beyond dangerous.
The man holding the drill had to be steady or he would get hit by the sledgehammer. The man swinging the hammer had to have muscles like steel. When a hole was at last big enough for the black powder, the crew would fill it, set a fuse, yell as loud as they could while running out of the range of the blast, and hope.”Nothing Like it in the World
Even with this system, the crews sometimes made “between six and twelve inches per twenty-four hours.” It was a stark and grinding contrast to the miles each crew would eventually lay each day as they wound closer to Promontory Summit.
Nothing Like It in the World
“This book does an excellent job of threading together the fascinating story of the transcontinental railroad. Why it was built, how it was built and its impact on all of America in the mid-19th century.”
– Amazon review
10. The Union Pacific crews sparked transient “hell on wheels” towns across the plains.
As the UP moved west from Omaha, it did so with a force of thousands of workers, many of whom wanted a drink or the company of a lady after work hours. It was no surprise, then, that a crop of makeshift businesses followed the UP crew on its westward journey, eager to meet the frontier needs of the men.
These “Hell on Wheels” towns starting at North Platte sprang up in a day and could be taken down just as fast. Each town clung to the railroad line for weeks at a time before packing up and moving west.
The new towns were largely temporary, hastily thrown together, and consisting of tents and false-front businesses. What looked like brick or stucco buildings were, on closer inspection, merely wood fronts painted to look like something more substantial. These crude structures came to be known as ‘shebangs’ and housed the plentiful saloons filled with thieves, gamblers, and prostitutes.”Dick Krek, Hell on Wheels: Wicked Towns Along the Union Pacific Railroad
The TV show Hell on Wheels accurately portrayed the gritty existence of these mobile towns, and thanks to a lack of legal oversight, life here wasn’t pretty.
“These pop-up towns were murderous environments without organized law enforcement until the locals grew tired of the violence and established vigilante committees,” wrote Krek. “Men were strangled for a day’s pay, and ‘a man for breakfast’ was a common phrase among townspeople who woke up to find another body sprawled on their streets.”
Hell on Wheels towns were unique to the UP; the CP’s Chinese workforce didn’t have the same need to party hard, instead sticking to mellow opium sessions on Sundays and generally causing far less mischief.
11. Union Pacific also created a new territory: Wyoming.
The UP’s march west brought new opportunities to lands that were previously barren of white settlers. Moving a few months ahead of the UP tracklayers, Grenville Dodge platted the town that would eventually be Cheyenne, still a historic railroad community to this day.
More towns sprang up along the UP line in 1867, each with hopes of growing into prosperity. In 1868, the Wyoming Territory was made from parts of the Dakota Territory, as well as the Utah and Idaho territories.
“Fourteen months earlier it had not contained a thousand white inhabitants, not counting troops, but by now the coming of the railroad had produced a population estimated at 40,000,” wrote Robert Athearn in Union Pacific Country. “Before it had penetrated Wyoming even halfway, the Union Pacific had spawned a new western territory and had changed the political map of the United States.”
Most of the economic opportunities in Wyoming never quite materialized, and once the railroad was complete, many people simply passed through the territory as they had during the overland travel days of the 1840s and ’50s.
Today, Wyoming is the least populous state in the nation (which sounds incredibly appealing). More fun facts: when traveling across the country in the 1860s, Virgil Earp and Wyatt Earp graded railroad with Union Pacific for a short time.
12. Telegraph gangs worked side-by-side with railroad crews.
The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 required a telegraph line be installed alongside the railroad, making it easier to send updates back east. The first transcontinental telegraph had been completed in 1863, so the system of building long-distance telegraph lines was well underway by the time the CP and UP hit their strides.
A gang of telegraph laborers would work alongside the railroad crews, each moving at a pace to compete with the other. The telegraph crews would dig holes, install poles and cross-bars, then raise and secure telegraph wire that was unwound from a nearby wagon.
The dueling crews were naturally competitive, and when the telegraph gangs would run low on supplies, they’d use anything they could including rail ties to keep the telegraph wire up and going. They’d return later to install the proper poles and cross-bars.
13. As the two lines came together, they graded next to each other, and even picked fights between crews.
In early 1869, as both lines moved toward Promontory Summit, the grading crews for each railroad worked near each other. For about 200 miles, in fact, there were two different and sometimes paralleling lines being graded at the same time.
The wasted efforts and resources were made worse by Congress, which stood by idly for those 200 miles before finally proclaiming the “chosen” line in April 1869. In the meantime, the CP and UP grading crews butted heads, especially as they got closer together.
“The two lines of embankment at times were within 100 feet of each other,” wrote Wesley Griswold in A Work of Giants. “Then tempers flared among the U.P.’s Irish. Obviously, one side or the other was just wasting its labor, and these Irishmen were in no mood to be made fools of.”
The Irish would throw dirt and rocks at the Chinese, who then retaliated, much to the Irishmen’s dismay. At one point, the UP crew detonated parts of their grade without warning CP workers, causing serious injuries from scattered debris.
When the CP used the same tactic in return, it closed the door on the short-lived battle.
“It [the blast] deposited a cascade of dirt and rocks on the UP’s Irishmen, several of whom were buried alive,” wrote Ambrose. “That ended the war.”
When the railroad was complete, the abandoned miles of grading cost the UP $200,000 and the CP more than $750,000, proving to be one of the more wasteful aspects of the railroad’s construction.
14. The lines competed to see who could lay the most track in one day, and the results were nearly unbelievable.
Building the Transcontinental Railroad was a competition, and both sides knew it. When the UP laid 4.5 miles in one day in 1868, Strobridge and his CP crews laid just over 6 miles another day, setting a record that would again be broken by the UP, when it laid 8 miles in a day.
Then, on April 28, 1867, with just 14 miles left to build until Promontory Summit, Strobridge set to work thousands of CP laborers, including Chinese, Irish, former slaves, Native Americans and white men. They worked tirelessly until 7 that night some 10 miles and 56 feet later.
It was a remarkable achievement that wasn’t matched, much to the chagrin of the UP’s construction bosses, Dan and Jack Casement. Dan even offered to tear up existing UP track to try to beat the record, but Thomas Durant axed the idea.
When it was all said and done, the CP’s 10-mile day put down more than 25,000 railroad ties, 3,500 rails, 28,000 spikes and 14,000 bolts.
15. The two lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah, with a mostly forgettable ceremony.
In early April, the UP agreed to sell a portion of its line to the CP the track from Ogden, Utah to Promontory Summit for $4 million. That deal took away most of the competitive nature of the journey, but a final celebration was planned just the same.
The top brass from both lines set the meeting date for Saturday, May 8th, but the UP had trouble getting there in time, and because newspapers around the country were given this date ahead of time, the country celebrated anyway. In Sacramento and San Francisco, parades and festivities were held all weekend long, accurate dates be damned.
UP officials finally arrived at Promontory Summit and the day of the Golden Spike ceremony was Monday, May 10, 1869. Most of the workers for both lines had been sent home by then, so there were only a few hundred people left at the meeting point, and some of the railroads’ most important executives didn’t bother to make the trip out.
That morning, engines from both tracks lined up across from each other, and the ceremony was underway. It was underwhelming, wrote Ambrose, and mostly forgettable.
To announce the connecting of the rails to the public, a telegraph was attached to the golden spike that Leland Stanford would hammer into the railroad. But when it was go-time, Stanford swung and missed, “striking only the rail.” Nice.
The telegraph announcement went out anyway, and cities around the country celebrated the joining of the rails.
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16. Despite using only basic technology, the railroad’s surveying still holds up to this day.
Before the Transcontinental Railroad chose the Platte Valley route from Omaha, that path was used by Native Americans, and later, by overland emigrants heading west in covered wagons and handcarts.
And many years after the railroad was completed, that same route was used for Interstate 80, the second longest interstate in the country.
I-80’s route is a testament to the railroad’s surveyors, including Judah, who originally chose the general path, and later surveyors who adjusted specifics along the way. None of the surveyors back then had topographic maps, Ambrose noted, or really any maps of land outside major settlements like Salt Lake City.
Much of the country’s geography was still in question, and surveying crews did the best they could with that period’s basic surveying tools and methods.
Nearly a full century later, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the surveyors flying in airplanes and helicopters and equipped with modern implements and maps laid out a line for Interstate 80, they followed almost exactly the route laid out by the original surveyors.”Nothing Like it in the World
Even the CP’s pass through the Sierras, over the “Donner Lake Route,” was still determined to be the best route forward more than 50 years after the initial surveying.
17. The Transcontinental Railroad fueled one of the first major financial scandals in American history.
Thomas Durant foresaw profits in the construction of the railroad rather than its daily operation, so he wanted to ensure the UP’s stakeholders, himself included, made money from the initial enterprise.
He and George Francis Train did that by creating a company, Crdit Mobilier, which acted as a construction contractor for the UP. The details get complicated, but essentially the UP awarded Crdit Mobilier with inflated construction contracts. The excess profit would go directly to CM stakeholders.
And they profited enormously.
By the time the railroad was completed, the billed costs of the project were millions more than the actual cost, and those millions often went right into the pockets of Durant and other stakeholders, including prominent politicians.
That the railroad’s costs were inflated was no secret, but the Crdit Mobilier story didn’t become a nationwide scandal until 1872, when the New York Sun ran an investigative piece.
The politicians who participated in the scandal included congressman Oakes Ames, Vice President Schuyler Colfax and others. Ames was censured, others were absolved, and Durant escaped any consequences because he was removed from Crdit Mobilier in 1867.
The CP ran a similar scheme with its “Contract and Finance Company” but didn’t take the same heat as Crdit Mobilier the CP’s books were destroyed in a fire, and many of its records were lost forever.
What a coincidence.
Explore the American West
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- Lost Treasure in California: True Stories of the Golden States Hidden Riches
- Register Cliff: Where Pioneer Graffiti Becomes an Historic Time Capsule
- 16 Iconic Landmarks on the Oregon Trail
- Why Did People Move West in the 1800s?
Sources & Further Reading
- Nothing Like It in the World, Stephen E. Ambrose
- Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, Gordon Chang
- Union Pacific Country, Robert G. Athearn
- Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, David Haward Bain
- Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White
- Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads, and the Making of Modern America, Michael A. Hiltzik
D.T. Christensen is the founder of OldWest.org, a history website committed to sharing and preserving stories of the American West. He was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, studied journalism at Northern Arizona University, and also writes for Territory Supply and True Crime Time.