150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad

150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad

Daniel Franchetti, Contributor

This May 10, 2019 will be the 150th anniversary of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in America. To celebrate the event, a Big Boy locomotive of the 4-8-8-4 notation will be completed and operated, despite not existing during the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. This engine was become the world’s largest operating steam locomotive. The Transcontinental Railroad marked an achievement in American history that, as I like to think of it, made America the world player it is today. 

The idea of a transcontinental railroad came about during the 1832, and surveys of the land ran between 1853 and 1855. There were three proposed routes, and one of them was to pass through the southern U.S. This is a reason why the Gadsden Purchase happened, but that route was taken out of consideration during the Civil War. The next was a northern route along the Missouri River and through Montana. The chosen route ran along the Platte River and the Oregon Trail for economic and safety reasons. 

The construction of the over 1800 mile project started in 1863. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads built from west and east respectively, and they used government grant land. The Central Pacific had to have materials imported by ship to California, then by riverboat to the start of their end of the line. The project was staffed mostly by either discharged members of the Civil War or immigrants. They were given about $600 monthly (about $2/hour in today’s money), food, lodging, and, essentially, a way to get across the country just for labor. While this sounds terrible, keep in mind this is a steady stream of living during the Civil War. In only six years, the line was complete averaging just under a mile of track laid daily, not to mention the countless bridges and tunnels that had to be made. On May 10, 1869, Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, the last spike was hammered in as the news was telegraphed across the country. The famous golden spike that was hammered was replaced by a normal metal one after the ceremony. 

I consider the Transcontinental Railroad to be a wonder of the world at the time. It revolutionized transportation and the sense of control over America. While I do not technically consider it a transcontinental railroad, because it was not possible to board a train in New York City and arrive in San Francisco, it still enabled citizens to easily go west from the Mississippi River. A true transcontinental railroad would come to be after the completion of the Eads Bridge, the first permanent bridge across the Mississippi River, in 1874 by Andrew Carnegie’s Keystone Bridge Company. One massive, persistent problem that it had, that American railroads have today, is the need to use connection trains or having to share the line. One had to take a train to the Mississippi River, take a boat to the terminal in Omaha, then go to Utah for a connection, to then go to Sacramento, and finally get a ferry to San Francisco. Even today there is a major problem where companies must share lines for services. These lines are bidirectional, so one cannot run two trains on the same line. 

The railroad surpassed many achievements of its time. American trains claimed speeds of around 40-80 mph, horses were, at best 40 mph, and people walk at about 3 mph. Trips were cut from six months to six days. When a true transcontinental railroad was made, it took an express train from New York 84 hours to travel it. The railroad also replaced the transcontinental telegraph with their own. Snow sheds were implemented to eliminate plowing the tracks. The speed at which the line was completed is unimaginable even before considering it had to traverse under and over mountains, ravines, and rivers. It united the country after the Civil War and revolutionized how the west could be settled.