1850s, gold had made California the major destination for cross-country travel. National
public leaders like Ada Withney advocated
the construction of a transcontinental railroad that could ship the riches of California
to the East and deliver people and goods to the Far West.
The plans on paper for a transcontinental railroad looked simple than actual
construction proved to be. To sweeten the prospect for investors, Congress passed an act
that provided long-term loans for the builders. They could get $16,000 a mile for level
land, $32,000 a mile for the foothills, and $48,000 a mile for a mountain terrain. Indeed,
in a region supposedly characterized by personal freedom and rugged individualism, the
federal government played an astonishingly large role. In political terms, the federal
government created the territories and the states of the trans-Mississippi, and it has not
left them done. From the explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804 to
1806 to the atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs in southern Nevada from 1951 to 1958,
projects funded by Congress have always affected life in the West. Federal land grants
underwrote the establishment of four transcontinental after the Civil War, and military
spending transformed the West's economy during and after WW II.
The maps that the railway promoters drew up showed an astonishing lot of mountains.
The government also offered the railwaysa free right-of-way across government land, plus
ten sections of land, each section containing 640 acres, for each mile of track laid. The
land would not be continuous but would be dispersed along the right-of-way. Although much
of this land was desert, the railroads thus obtained vast acreages, which in time enriched
them. With incentives like these, promoters hurried to organize companies and start
On the Pacific coast, Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and
Charles Crocker (known as the 'Big Four') organized the Central Pacific Railroad Company
in 1862 and the next year started building east from Sacramento.
Meanwhile, the Union Pacific Company started westward from Omaha. Slowly the lines
crept across the land. The Central Pacific, short of labor, imported thousands of Chinese coolies to grade the roadbeds. No great
earthmoving equipment was then available. The grading was done with mules and drag pans,
picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. Bridges had to be built over terrifying canyons and
rivers, and tunnels had to be burrowed and blasted through the Sierra Nevadas and the
Rockies. How many Chinese and other workers lost their lives as the dangerous work
progressed, nobody knows.
The Union Pacific had somewhat easier terrain, but its workers, composed largely of
Irish immigrants, were harassed by marauding Sioux and Comanches and sometimes by great
herds of buffalo stampeding across the right-of-way. Armed guards kept watch for Indians
while the track beds were graded, ravines filled with earth, and tracks laid.
At long last, crews of the two companies were in sight of each other at a point in
Utah called Promontory, north-west of the city of Ogden. On May 10, 1869, they joined the
tracks. Officials from both East and West had come for the celebration. As a symbol of
importance of the event, the last spike to be driven was golden, at least gilded;
champagne flowed that day like water, and some reporters alleged that the officials given
the honor of driving the golden spike had trouble hitting it..."taken from:
Louis B. Wright, Life on the American frontier.