The building of the transcontinental railroad

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"James W. Marshall walked along the American River inspecting John A. Sutter's millrace on a cold January morning in 1848. As he tried to determine the water pressure needed to turn the wheel of Sutter's sawmill, Marshall's eyes detected the glint of metal in the stream, yellow metal, and he collected samples. The nuggets he found that morning produced the California gold rush. Some fifty-three years later, Captain Anthony F. Lucas pushed more drill stem into a salt dome at Spindletop, Texas, near Port Arthur. A rumbling noise, a sharp vibration, and the Lucas gusher blew in on 10 January 1901, oil shooting two hundred feet in the air for nine days. Within four years, twelve hundred nearby wells produced over thirty million barrels of petroleum. Between the discovery of gold in California and the coming of 'black gold' in Texas, the economy of the trans-Mississippi West was transformed from subsistence agriculture and herding into a modernized and urbanized capitalistic economy integrated into a worldwide structure." from: The Oxford History of the American West.

The building (a traditionalist's version):

"By the 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 building.
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.

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The joining of the transcontinental rail routes at Promontory, Utah, on 10 May 1869:
triumph of 'American' labor and technology over the vast, inhospitable stretches of the western landscape

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...a huge movement westward which for the ones brought prosperity and wealth, for others destruction and death. It exploited nature ruthlessly and proved destructive for the Natives. This migration was far from being that idyllic as many still in our time think it was. This picture, in fact, tells it all: excluded from the celebratory image were the Chinese laborers who did almost all of the backbreaking work of building the Central Pacific's tracks through the Sierra Nevadas.


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