May 10, 1869 – the first train tracks linking the east and west coasts of the continental United States were linked at Promontory Point, Utah.
The idea of building trans-continental railroad linking the East and West coasts of the continental US had been approved by Congress in the late 1840’s, and in the 1850’s several different routes were explored as possibilities. Eventually, Congress settled on a route connecting Omaha, Nebraska, with Sacramento, California, and then on to San Francisco Bay. Even as the Civil War raged in the East, Congress approved funding to build this trans-continental railroad in 1862. Two railroad companies were given the contract to build this railroad: The Central Pacific was to build the railroad from the west, and the Union Pacific was to build eastward.
The two companies were to be paid handsomely by the US government for their work. Not only did the government pay the companies for each mile of track laid, but both companies were also authorized to sell stock in their ventures to the public. In addition, the government granted over 200 million square miles of land to the railroads – whatever would not be used for railroad related activities could be sold by the companies for a profit (they also were granted an additional 75 million square miles by the various states involved). Needless to say, the men who owned these two entities, including Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, became quite wealthy.
Construction of the eastern route from Sacramento by the Central Pacific began in early 1863, even as the Civil War raged on. With American manpower short, the Central Pacific mainly used Chinese immigrant labor. At the time, many Chinese civilians were emigrating to California to escape a bloody revolution with religious overtones – the Taiping Rebellion – which was raging in China. At first, the railroad hired a few as an experiment; when they proved to be hard workers, the Central Pacific actively recruited Chinese immigrants, even going so far as to encourage emigration from China.
These “Celestials,” as the Chinese were called, generally worked under the direction of white supervisors. Overall, an estimated 90% of the laboring workforce – more than 10,000 overall – on the Central Pacific was Chinese. These workers turned out to be extremely hard-working and willing to labor under the extreme conditions encountered in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, particularly the extensive tunneling would that was required there.
Starting in Sacramento, California, the Central Pacific laid nearly 700 miles of track, including that over the Donner Pass, where the railroad gained over 7,000 feet of elevation and included seven lengthy tunnels which had to be blasted through the mountains. By 1868 the Central Pacific reached Promontory Summit in Utah, where they waited for the Union Pacific to link up and complete the line.
Construction on the western route from Omaha was delayed, however, until July of 1865, when the Civil War finally ended. Unlike the Central Pacific, the Union Pacific mainly relied on Irish immigrants for its labor force, who were joined by Civil War veterans (both Union and Confederate) and newly free blacks. In Utah, they hired thousands of Mormons as well.
For the next four years, the Union Pacific laid over 1,000 miles of track, struggling over rivers, mountains and desert. Frequently, the route had to be altered, tunnels blasted, and bridges built. When the project reached Indian lands on the Great Plains, the work crews became subject to Indian attacks, as many plains Indian tribes viewed the railroad as a violation of their treaties with the US government. IN response, the Union Pacific beefed up security, including hiring marksmen to slaughter any buffalo herds they encountered, as a way of starving out the natives, who relied on buffalo as their main food source.
Finally, on May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific crews reached Promontory Summit and the Central Pacific tracks, where the two tracks were to be linked. Central Pacific President Leland Stanford ceremoniously drove in the final railroad spike – made out of gold – with a silver hammer (that spike, of course, was removed and replaced with a regular iron one. The gold spike now resides in a museum). Amusingly, Stanford missed in his first attempt to hammer in the spike, resulting in a roar of laughter from the workers who were watching.
Besides making the owners of the two railroads wealthy, the opening of the railroad brought major changes to the west. Travel time from coast to coast was cut from six months to one week. Thousands of new settlers moved west, putting further pressure on the Indians who already lived there. New cities along the route sprung up, such as Cheyenne, Laramie, and Evanston. As spur lines spread out from the main route, this invasion of white settlers became even more pronounced, spelling the end of the plains way of life. The building of the line also had another human cost: at least 130 men building the lines died from tunnel blasts that went wrong, bridge collapses, Indian attacks, disease, and a variety of construction related accidents.
For the Chinese immigrants who built most of the Central Pacific lines, the end of the project meant the end of their welcome. In the 1870’s a racist anti-Chinese movement developed in the west, particularly in California. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all new Chinese Immigration into the US (although some still managed to enter the country illegally). Anti-Chinese discrimination and violence became commonplace. Like the Jim Crow laws in the South, segregation of Chinese and white populations in the west followed a similar course, with segregated schools, public facilities, and prohibitions against white/Chinese marriage. These laws would not be overturned until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s.
Hundreds of miles of track that was laid is still in service today. Modern Interstate 80 follows much of the line.