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The Transcontinental Railroad: Blood, Sweat, Tears And An American Dream

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The late 19th Century was a revolutionizing period in American History evident by the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War. However, it was the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad which profoundly changed the United States. The discovery of gold, the acquisition of Mexican territories and the continued settlement of the West increased the need for a primary railway system connecting the East and the West Coasts.

The Transcontinental Continental Railroad aided the settling of the west and closed the last of the remaining frontier, bringing newfound economic growth, such as mining farming and cattle ranching to our burgeoning country. On May 10, 1869, near Promontory Summit, Utah, a boisterous crowd gathered to witness the completion of one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th Century: the first Transcontinental Railroad. The breathtaking moment as the Golden Spike was driven in marked the culmination of six years of grueling work by ingenious entrepreneurs whose unscrupulous financing got the line laid, brilliant engineers who charted the railroad's course and hurdled the geological obstacles in its way, armies of workers who labored relentlessly on the enterprise and the lives of countless Native Americans which were destroyed in its wake. The First Transcontinental Railroad served as a vital link for trade, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of late 19th century America.

The latter half of the 19th century was a time of expansion in America. The discovery of gold near Sutter's mill in California in 1848 resulted in a huge influx of people lured by the promise of "free gold" into California. During 1849, 55,000 people traveled along overland routes and another 25,000 voyaged the sea to California (Howard 65). With large numbers of people heading west, the deficiency of travel and trade across America shifted the focus of Congress. A transcontinental railroad was proposed. The railroad was considered the key to westward expansion and imperative to the economic future of the country. A cross-country route would unlock the west by reducing the time required for the journey and eliminating countless hardships involved with traveling across the vast terrain of America; thus, encouraging further settlement of the west, expanding and developing the interior of the nation and bolstering the economy through increased trade routes.

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862

Congress, throughout the 19th century, faced the question of whether it should assist in constructing a railroad which would cross the entire country. Pacific Railroad bills which proposed the granting of lands, subsidies, and as much as ninety million dollars to the construction of the railroad were introduced in Congress. None of the bills were passed since a route could not be decided on. Congress was split along geographical lines; northerners wanted a northern route and southerners wanted a southern route due to the issue of slavery in the "New West" (Howard 57). Congress was divided as to whether slavery should be permitted in the new states. Northerners pressed for a northern route extending from Chicago and St. Louis to northern California, a free state (Howard 65). Southerners continually advocated a southern route and spurred the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 of 45,535 square miles of land south of the Gila River and east to El Paso del Norte

which would enable a southern route to California (Howard 65). In 1853, Congress sent

five surveying teams to explore possible railroad routes to California. The surveying

results were reviewed by Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, the Secretary of War in the fall of 1854. Davis concluded that the southern route, running through the newly purchased Gadsden lands, would be the most cost effective (Howard 84). Congress, however, remained split on the proposed route for the transcontinental railroad. In 1861, the Southern congressman withdrew from Congress as a precursor to Southern secession and funding for a northern route was immediately approved. The final decision of the North on a route, the central route through Nebraska, relied upon an analysis of how the Railroad would impact the impending Civil War (Gordon 151). In 1862 Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act which provided Federal subsidies in land and loans for the construction of the railroad. According to Maury Klein in Union Pacific: The Birth of a Railroad 1862-1893, the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 made construction of the transcontinental railroad possible. The legislation designated the 32nd parallel as the initial transcontinental route and authorized two companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to construct the lines (Klein 8). The railroad would be built eastward from Sacramento by the Central Pacific Railroad of California and the Union Pacific, a new company would build westward from the Platte River Valley in Omaha.

The Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad

The Central Pacific and Union railroads vied to establish routes across the

territory from western Iowa to northern California in a vicious contest. The Pacific

Railroad acts granted land and government bonds to the companies on the basis of how

many miles of track they laid, setting the stage for a seven-year race. For each mile of

track, the government was loaning the railroad from $16,000 for flat land to $48,000 for mountainous land. The supplies needed to lay a single mile of track included forty train cars to carry four hundred tons of rail and timber, ties, bridgings, fuel, and food which all had to be assembled in a depot on the Missouri River. While the Central Pacific labored eastward in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, the Union Pacific built more rapidly across Nebraska and Wyoming. The Union Pacific had the twin advantages of comparatively flat land and a continuous supply line back to the factories of the East coast. The Central Pacific, however, had to fetch most of its materials, except timber, by sea, twelve thousand miles around the tip of South America. The conclusion of the seven-year race for railroad supremacy resulted in a meeting point at Promontory Point, Utah. The Central Pacific had laid 690 miles (1110 km) of track, starting in Sacramento, California, and continuing through California (Newcastle and Truckee), Nevada (Reno, Wadsworth, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Elko, Humboldt-Wells), and connecting with the Union Pacific line at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory (Gordon 302). The Union Pacific had laid 1,087 miles (1,749 km) of track, starting

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