History of the First Transcontinental Railroad

History of the First Transcontinental Railroad

When the opposite sides of a continent are connected through a railway network, it is known as a transcontinental railroad. This idea first came up in North America in the sixth decade of the nineteenth century. Read on to find out more about this historic project...
Historyplex Staff
What seemed impossible or illogical a couple of centuries ago, has become a need of the time today. A civilized society just can't continue without basic infrastructure. Trains became the most important means of transport in the nineteenth century. The transcontinental railroad was constructed to join the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards of the flourishing USA.
In 1838, John Plumbe, an entrepreneur, called a convention for the planning of the Pacific Railroad in the United States. In 1845, the basic plan, with all the requirements, was presented to the federal government by Asa Whitney, a railroad projector and American merchant. He requested the government to subsidize the cost incurred.
As the route of the Pacific Railroad could not be finalized, the bill was never passed, even though 90 million dollars were granted for its construction. Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth President of United States, promoted the plan, and later, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln passed the bill under the title of the Pacific Railroad Bill.
In 1846, gold mines were discovered in California. Shortage of workers was not a problem, as there was a huge influx of people. Many Irish and Chinese workers migrated from their respective homelands to the United States to work on this project. There were many incidents of accidents and avalanches during the construction of this mega-project. Even when there was no snow on the ground, working in Sierra Nevada was very dangerous and slow, and workers were not able to progress more than six inches per day. There were explosions carried out on a hard platform of granite, and the lives of the workers were risked.
Theodore D. Judah was the chief engineer of the railroad surveying team that finished its work in 1854. The Secretary of State, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had vested interests, and found the route running through Gadsden lands very cost-effective. There was a split in Congress over this issue. In 1861, most of the southern Senators left Congress, resulting in the funding beginning immediately and allowing work to be started on the Northern route. In the same year, Theodore Judah established the Central Pacific Railroad. In 1862, Judah was appointed as the Secretary of the House and Senate Committees. In accordance with the remaining part of the plan, the Union Pacific Railroad Co. was established in Chicago in September 1862. It started work on building the railroad from Missouri River Bluffs. Simultaneously, the Central Pacific Co. started work on building the railroad from Sacramento, working on both sides meeting each other.
The two railroad sections finally met at the Promontory Point in Utah, where the tracks were joined. To celebrate this event, a gold spike and bronze hammer was used to tie the last joint. This historical event in the history of transportation, occurred on May 10, 1869, and is still known as the Gold Spike Ceremony.
The journey across the continent was reduced from a matter of months to just a few days. Initially, it took six months to travel from San Francisco to New York, but after the railroad was completed, it took just ten days. Thus, with the transcontinental railroad, the country was connected like never before. People traveled more often and farther, and in very pleasant conditions. It also changed the lives of native Americans. Its tracks ran through a number of tribal territories, which resulted in two things. Though there was conflict between the natives and the whites, it helped in the intermixing of the two races and cultures. The new railroad also attracted an increasing number of European American settlers to the west.
One consequence of this influx was the depletion of the buffalo herds, a major source of food for native Americans. European Americans would often shoot buffaloes for sport from the train, and by 1880, most of the buffaloes had perished. People who started moving West discovered millions of acres of open grassland and started settling there. Eventually, most of this arable land, that was dormant for many ages, became irrigated farmland that fed a growing and developing nation. The railroad brought the West closer to the rest of the country. The project became a blueprint for many future generations. The life of the people changed a lot, and trade between the East and the West flourished significantly. It is estimated that trade had grown to 50 million dollars within the first decade of the completion of this railroad.
After the success of Pacific railroad link, many organizations, like North Pacific Railway, were established. In 1882, the Southern Pacific Railroad was connected to Atchison, Kansas, and then to Los Angeles. Then in 1883, it was extended from Los Angeles to New Orleans, thus linking the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. In the same year, Northern Pacific Railway linked Chicago with Seattle. Today, there is a web of rail lines spread across the length and breadth of the country, stretching in every possible direction. This railroad link proved to be a boon for settlers coming in to settle on the millions of acres of land, thus acting as a catalyst for further growth and progress.