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Transcontinental Railroad

Abraham Lincoln saw military benefits in a transcontinental railroad line, as well as the bonding of the Pacific Coast to the Union. The United States Army was quick to see the potential that railroad transportation offered, especially in the western territories. Prior to the building of a railroad network, the Army had planned to build and outfit an extensive fort system, each post having responsibility for a defined geographic area. This, of course required investments in materials and manpower both of which the post Civil War Army had very little. General William T. Sherman saw that the railroad could move soldiers and supplies rapidly over a wide geographic range, eliminating the need for an extensive system of forts. With this in mind, Sherman did all he could to support the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, visiting the Union Pacific work site several times a year and keeping in close correspondence with Grenville Dodge (Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific).

Railroads played an enormous role in American history, particularly in the saga of the settlement of the American West in the nineteenth century. Railroads have also played a major part in military operations and civilian supply activities during wartime. Stewart H. Holbrook, in The Story of American Railroads, discussed the reaction to railroads in the 1830's: "The coming of the railroad, and the rapidity with which it expanded during the 1830's, found a public wholly unprepared, and pretty much confused. What, thoughtful men now asked one another, was a railroad? There had been little thinking on the subject, hence there was no philosophy of railroads. The canal builders and operators, of course, simply damned the new method of transportation on every count they could think of. It was dangerous. It wouldn't work. It was merely a clever method by which smart scoundrels could steal your money more or less legally by selling you worthless stock. The canal men had something there, for a terrible amount of stock did prove worthless. The railroad was also against nature. And, finally, it was against God; and many a preacher found friends among canal and stagecoach men when he opened up full blast on this new curse that a tireless Satan had promulgated to try all Christian men."

From the perspective of years, the building of the first transcontinental railroad seems less a commercial enterprise, stimulated by political considerations, than a great melodrama in which the stage was a continent and the audience a nation. Like many another prosperous production, the first act of this episode in real life was swamped with talk and skimped in action. But thereafter the thrills came thick and fast in an ascending scale of climaxes, culminating in a grand finale which earned a world's applause.

President Franklin Pierce's sponsorship of the Gadsden Purchase (1853), ceded by Mexico for $10 million was unsettling to the North, as the apparent rationale was to facilitate construction of a transcontinental railroad along a southern route. It consisted of the southern strips of present Arizona and New Mexico. Minister James Gadsden had sought but failed to acquire a far larger part of northern Mexico.

The event that spelled the doom of the temporary sectional truce, however, was the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced it, but the President vigorously championed it. This measure divided the relatively unsettled central portion of the Louisiana Purchase into Kansas and Nebraska Territories. One aim of the legislation may have been to aid construction of a transcontinental railroad, this one from Douglas' home State, Illinois, along a central route to the Pacific. Mindful of southern Democratic congressional sentiment, he added to the bill the provision that the settlers in the new Territories should decide for themselves, by the process of popular sovereignty, their position on slavery.

Taking all the circumstances into consideration, no railroad project so daring had ever been proposed. Bearing in mind the small population and the poverty of the Nation, the half-developed state of the practice of railroad building and operation, and of the myriad other sciences upon which it depends, the immensity of the wilderness to be crossed, the distance from the base of supplies, the crudeness of transportation facilities, the number and implacable ferocity of the savage foes to be encountered, it must be conceded that the building of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific must forever remain unparalleled in the annals of the railroad.

he connection of the Army with the development of the system of transcontinental railways was direct, and the assistance rendered was of great value, a fact which was always admitted by those engaged in the construction. The first exploring party sent into the field for the special purpose of ascertaining the feasibility of constructing a railway on a portion of the line of one of the transcontinental routes was that under charge of Captain Warner, of the Topographical Engineers, which was organized and set in motion by orders conveyed in 1849. All the explorations from that time on until 1855, including all the transcontinental routes, were conducted by Army officers, with the single exception of the northern route, the exploration in that case being under the direction of an ex-officer. However, all these explorations were in charge of graduates of the Military Academy, and the results of their labors prove how zealously and efficiently they were conducted.

Two of the leaders, Captains Warner and Gunnison, were killed by hostile Indians, and all endured every hardship. But it was not alone officers of the Army who gave efficient service to this work. Civil assistants were largely employed, and amongst them we find the names of many who afterwards became prominent in other directions because of the very qualities displayed by them in this work.

The explorations finished and the work of construction begun, the labors and privations of the troops were greatly multiplied. The Union Pacific (both branches), a considerable portion of the Northern Pacific, part of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and, to some extent, the Southern Pacific railroads, were built directly in the face of hostile Indians. An enumeration of the combats with this foe would be startling in its length. The loss of life which actually occurred was far beyond what is supposed. But it was not warfare with the savages that was most trying to the soldiers; it was the necessity for constant watchfulness, the subjection to every hardship, the generally unwholesome way of living, and the feeling that the lives of many unarmed laborers depended upon them, that told most severely.

In some cases transportation by wagon was twenty times more costly than by railway. Taking the route from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Union, for example, the average cost by wagon per 10O pounds per hundred miles for the sixteen years from 1855 to 1870, both inclusive, was $1.77, while by rail it was less than a tenth of that amount. This represents the relative cost of wagon and railway transportation.

The first soil actually moved in the attempt to build a transcontinental railroad was turned July 4, 1851, on the south bank of Choteau pond, on the outskirts of St. Louis, by Mayor Luther M. Kennett, who then expressed the eloquent hope that the spade with which he did it " would not rust until it was finally burnished by the golden sands of the Pacific." In the decade from 1850 to 1860, Congress devoted a large and steadily increasing proportion of its time to discussion of the Pacific railroad project. As the idea grew, no Congressional orator considered an address on any topic complete without a fulsome peroration devoted to the Pacific railroad.

In 1862 Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Acts which designated the 32nd parallel as the initial transcontinental route and gave huge grants of lands for rights-of-way. The legislation authorized two railroad companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to construct the lines. Beginning in 1863, the Union Pacific, employing more than 8,000 Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, built west from Omaha, Nebraska; the Central Pacific, whose workforce included over 10,000 Chinese laborers, built eastward from Sacramento, California. Each company faced unprecedented construction problems—mountains, severe weather, and the hostility of Native Americans.

The spring of 1868 found the two companies on equal terms. While the Central Pacific had been crossing the Sierras the Union Pacific had surmounted Evans Pass, the highest point on the line, at an elevation of 8,242 feet. Both had ample funds at last, and both were almost equally distant from Monument Point, at the head of Great Salt Lake, the Union Pacific being 522 miles away and the Central Pacific 545 miles. As soon as the weather permitted a construction campaign was begun which has never yet been equaled. From twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand men, and from five thousand to six thousand teams were employed, and from five hundred to six hundred tons of material were used daily. At one time the Central Pacific had no fewer than thirty vessels loaded with supplies at sea, on the long voyage of nineteen thousand miles from New York around the Horn to San Francisco. Twenty-five sawmills around Truckee worked up timber for the use of the Central Pacific, while a dozen mills in the Black Hills and the Rocky Mountains did a similar work for the Union Pacific.

Money was no object now. Speed, not economy, was the great desideratum. In their eagerness to earn as much as possible of the subsidy the rival companies pushed their grades ahead until they overlapped more than two hundred miles. In an attempt to get beyond Promontory Point, where there was a section of the most intricate alignment, heaviest grades, and sharpest curves on the entire line, the Union Pacific took the work out of the contractors' hands and put on day and night shifts to finish the job in a hurry.

The engineers were the skirmishers, and the tiemakers, of whom there were fifteen hundred employed in the mountains, were the advance guard. The ties had to be sent to the railroad in large wagon trains, under strong military escort. Two thousand graders prepared the line. Back of these came the tie-layers. Bridges were framed and the pieces numbered at the mills, ready to be put together immediately on reaching the front.

Twenty miles back of the tie-layers were the construction trains, and still back of these half a dozen miles were the supply trains. Cars were loaded with the proper proportion of rails, chairs, bolts, and spikes, so that there should be no delay in putting down the iron. First of all was the boarding train of rough sleeping, kitchen, dining, and office cars, that the men might lose no time between their meals and their work. The boarding train would be pushed up to the end of the track while a supply train was run up behind it and unloaded. Then the boarding train would be pulled back, to allow the material to be loaded on little dump-carts, which two horses would take to the front at a gallop.

Arriving there, four men on each side would seize the rails, run forward, and drop them in place, in an average time of thirty seconds to the rail. A gang following them would half drive eight spikes to the rail and place the bolts. A second gang drove home the spikes and put in the rest with an average of three blows of the sledge to each spike and tightened the nuts on the bolts.

Lastly came the surfacing gang, which threw in the ballast, leveled the track, and tamped the ties in place. On many a day the construction gangs of the two companies laid more miles of track than an ox team averaged in a day's travel on the old overland trail. Such performances as these attracted the attention of the newspapers in the East, which began to send their star correspondents to the front and to announce the number of miles of track laid each day, as baseball scores are announced nowadays.

The result was that at the finish it cost $618,000 to move 178,000 cubic yards of material, whereas it had cost but $623,000 to move 800,000 yards under the contract system. The track-layers followed the graders as. closely as the delivery of material would permit. In 1867 the Union Pacific laid 240 miles of track; in 1868, 425 miles, and to May 10, 1869, when the tracks met, 125 miles. The Central Pacific laid 94 miles through the mountains in 1867, 368 miles in 1868, and 186 miles to May 10, 1869.

On May 10, 1869, in a ceremony at Promontory, Utah, the last rails were laid and the last spike driven. A strangely mixed crowd of Mormon saints, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, freed slaves, Irish laborers, army officers and their wives, Eastern bankers, bullwhackers, muleskinners, frontiersmen, and camp followers had assembled to watch the proceedings with varying degrees of interest, curiosity, or ennui. Congress eventually authorized 4 transcontinental railroads and granted 174 million acres of public lands for rights-of-way. The completion of the Pacific railroads did more than anything else to put an end to organized outlawry in the West, and to curb hostile Indians, who up to that time had cost the government one hundred thousand dollars each to kill.

US Exploration 1850 Transcontinental Railroad Pacific Railroads Transcontinental Railroad Transcontinental Railroad Transcontinental Railroad

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Page last modified: 05-02-2018 13:18:46 ZULU