America's first railroads were operating in the 1830's and people starting looking forward to transcontinental travel by rail. By the beginning of the Civil War, America's eastern states were linked by 31,000 miles of rail, and virtually none of this went beyond the Missouri River. People were looking forward to a rail system that would take them west, which would open up trade, shorten journeys, and help the army control American Indians resisting white settlement. It began in California with a young engineer named Theodore Judah who in 1862 surveyed a route over the Sierra Nevada and persuaded wealthy Sacramento merchants to form the Central Pacific Railroad.
That year Congress authorized Central Pacific to build a railroad eastward from Sacramento and at the same time chartered the Union Pacific Railroad in New York. The central route was the Mormon Trail with Omaha as the terminus. Each railroad received loan subsidies of $16,000 to $48,000 per mile, depending on the difficulty of the terrain, and 10 land sections for each mile of track laid.
The Pacific Central railroad broke ground in January 1863 and the Union Pacific that December. They did not do much work during the Civil War but when the war ended, the work began in earnest. They laid about two to five miles of track per day and the surveyors worked hundreds of miles ahead of the track layers. Using picks and shovels, carts, one-horse scrapers and black powder, graders prepared about 20 miles of bed at a time, cutting ledges, blasting hills and filing huge ravines.
The Central Pacific crews faced the rugged Sierra Nevada range while the Union Pacific worked on easier terrain. Its work parties were raided by Sioux and Cheyenne. Eight flatcars of material were needed for each mile of track, and supplies were a logistical nightmare, especially for the Central Pacific which had to ship their supplies 15,000 miles around Cape Horn.
The Union Pacific used America's unemployed: Irish, German and Italian immigrants, with Civil War veterans from both sides, ex-slaves and even American Indians. It was a volatile mixture, and drunken bloodshed was common in the "Hell On Wheels" towns that were thrown up near the base camps. The Central Pacific hired several thousand Chinese, which were the backbone of the railroad's work force.
By mid-1868 Central Pacific crossed the Sierra and laid 200 miles of track; the Union Pacific had laid 700 miles over the plains. As the two work forces neared each other in Utah, they raced to grade more miles and claim more land subsidies. Both pushed so far beyond their railheads that they passed each other, and for over 200 miles competing graders advanced in opposite directions on parallel grades.
|The Terrain at Promontory Point|
Congress finally declared the meeting place to be Promontory Summit. On May 10, 1869, dignitaries of the Union Pacific stand for a photograph. The two locomotives, Central Pacific's Jupiter and Union Pacific's No. 119 pulled up to the one-rail gap left in the track. After a golden spike was symbolically tapped, a final iron spike was driven to connect the railroads.
|Central Pacific Jupiter|
|Union Pacific No. 119|