America’s Long Journey: Transcontinental

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)


At the close of the Civil War, in 1865, a trip by stagecoach from Missouri to California took about 28 days of day and night travel. The Oregon, Mormon and California Trails, which were too rugged for cargo shipments, required anywhere from three to four months travel over mostly unimproved roads. To travel by sea (as did about half of the Pacific Coast population and more than 90% of the cargo they needed), required travel by sailing ship around the tip of South America (Cape Horn) or else paddle steamers to Mexico, Nicaragua or Panama, land passage across, and another paddle steamer up the Pacific coast.

In the first days of June, 1876, an express train made the journey from New York City to San Francisco not in months, not in weeks, but in three and a half days. That’s the difference the transcontinental railroad made.

The Union Pacific Railroad, using mostly Army veterans and Irish immigrants, built westward from Nebraska. The Central Pacific Railroad, worked east from California, using some of the 50,000 Chinese immigrants then living on the West Coast, and then importing laborers from China. The Central Pacific’s road lay through some of the toughest terrain in the country, the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Union Pacific had merely to lay track across the plains, and, despite repeated attacks on the builders of the iron horse by Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors, was far easier. The two railheads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, 690 track-miles from Sacramento and 1,086 from Omaha. Between them, the two companies built 1,756 miles of railroad in six years.

The details of the railroad’s construction are fascinating, as you will learn if you Google “transcontinental railroad.” Building that railroad was the kind of outsized challenge that caught the imagination and mobilized the energies of 19-century can-do America. It required monumental feats of engineering, staggering amounts of labor, and huge amounts of capital (more than $100,000,000 in 1860 dollars) over six years.

It also required government subsidies in the form of 30-year 6% U.S. government bonds (issued to the two railroad-building companies at $16,000 per mile for track laid at level grade, $32,000/mile for track laid in foothills and $48,000/mile for track laid in mountains). No one knew at the time whether the railroad companies would prove profitable. The U.S. bonds were issued on condition that if they were not repaid on schedule, with interest, all remaining railroad property, including trains and tracks, were to revert to the U.S. government for disposal. Perhaps because of this foresighted provision, the bonds and interest were, in fact, fully repaid on schedule. In addition, the companies were given alternate sections (a section is one square mile) of government-owned lands along the tracks for 10 miles on both sides of the track (altogether, 6,400 acres per mile of track) to use or sell.

Naturally a project of stupendous scale was a lure for bandits. The continuous need for more capital, the availability of government money, and the prospect of more, subject only to political oversight, assured that the railroad would be mired first to last in political and financial corruption, as we saw in the Credit Mobilier section above. It also assured that the railroad interests would buy and operate state legislatures and heavily influence federal legislation for decades to come, until political reform combined with the impact of new technology to reduce their influence.

But, corruption notwithstanding, the railroad was an outstanding accomplishment, the 19th century equivalent of the 20th century’s race to the moon. For instance, a Wikipedia site detailed the Central Pacific’s task:

“Essentially all of their manufactured railway supplies: picks, shovels, axes, hammers, saws, sledge hammers, spikes (about 5,500/mile), rock drills, black powder, bridge hardware, iron rails (about 350 rails/mile of 30 foot rails; 200,000 pounds/mile), fishplates (700/mile if using 30 foot rails), bolts and nuts to bolt the fishplates on, wrenches, railroad switches for the many railroad sidings needed on a one-way track, railroad turntables, steam locomotives, railroad freight cars, railroad passenger cars, telegraph wire, insulators, batteries, telegraph keys, etc. would have to be imported from manufacturers on the East Coast of the United States.”

This all traveled 18,000 miles and 200 days around South America’s Cape Horn or down to the Isthmus of Panama, across and up, which took about 40 days and cost twice as much per pound. At San Francisco, it was put onto riverboats and carried another 130 miles trip up the Sacramento River to Sacramento.

The Pacific Railroad revolutionized conditions for trade, commerce and travel. The fare for a one week trip from Omaha to San Francisco on an emigrant sleeping car, traveling far faster and more safely than by stagecoach or wagon train, was only $65 for an adult. That was still a substantial sum in those days, but not impossible. Combined with the effects of the Homestead Act of 1862 (which sold unclaimed government owned land cheaply, at 160 acres per applicant, provided that they would do certain prescribed work on it), the new railroad made settlement of the west much more rapid and inexpensive. Easy and cheap transportation meant more settlers more quickly, which meant more freight customers for the railroads. The railroad carried in a new population, carried them what they needed to buy, and carried away the goods they produced for sale. As the railroads spurred population growth, other connecting railroads were built, to serve communities and states off the original main track. Thus the transcontinental line helped settle the entire West.

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