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Page history last edited by Stuart Starkweather 9 years, 7 months ago

The Transcontinental Railroad: Enabling modern America



Many moments throughout history work together to help define a nation. Yet, can a single moment be pinpointed as the most important unifying factor? The western expansion of the United States was a multifaceted, multipronged undertaking spanning the course of several centuries. It involved not only the movement of people, but the movement of ideas and infrastructure. As part of the expansion of American society westward, the improvement and expansion of transportation infrastructure made travel into the new world easier and also helped unite the new with the old. Such was the case with the growth of the railroad system in the 19th century. A vast expansion of railway networks enabled the swift movement of people and supplies across large areas of the nation. This culminated in the development of the transcontinental railroad. It could be argued that the instillation of a rail line which enabled travel across the country and subsequent expansion of this cross-country network exponentially increased the nation's westward growth potential. Not only did this development create new opportunity, it also became a unifying factor between the east and the west. In this sense, the development of the transcontinental railway system united the country by bringing the new and the old together. Upon the completion of the transcontinental railway system, the modern "lower 48" of America as we know it was born. The driving of "The Last Spike" in a way was the stamp of completion on the finally finished nation and was the single most important  continental unifying action in United States history.


Events Leading to the Development of the Transcontinental Railroad System

In the earlier part of the 19th century, individuals pushed west in an effort to stake their claims and create new lives for themselves. Many headed for the pacific northwest coast via The Oregon Trail or raced westward to California in search of gold. However this migration of people was slow, tedious, expensive, and dangerous. Many of the journeys took place in covered wagons or buggies pulled by horses.[1] An additional factor which drew individuals west was the Homestead Act. Signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, this new law incentivized citizens to claim lands in western territories. In exchange for a minimal fee, individuals could claim a 160 acre plot within designated federal land areas. This caused a rush of people westward to start their own small farms.[2] The Homestead Act of 1862 in addition to many other factors fueled the need for more efficient east-west transportation considering more individuals were moving to the west. There was no existing efficient way to cross the nation. Although there were existing railroads, none connected the country from Pacific to Atlantic Ocean. Abraham Lincoln sought to solve this problem with his passage of the Pacific Railway Act in 1862. Although research for potential rail routs had begun several years before as part of a Report of the Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph, it was not until the Pacific Railway Act was signed that federal funds could be issued to pay for specific projects and construction.[3][4] 


Image of the Pacific Railway Act



Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad

Construction of the first transcontinental railroad began in 1863. To complete the connection from existing hubs in Sacramento, CA and Omaha, NE, two companies competed to lay the most track and meet in the middle. The two companies involved in the construction were the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific. The construction was a race in a sense. Companies were compensated for how much track they laid down. This work was face passed and grueling. The conditions were not optimal. Many workers were killed in the construction of the transcontinental railroad.[6] 

As the west expanded, so did the nationalities of immigrants and their numbers within the United States. A group of predominantly Irish individuals worked on the westward construction of the railroad while a large number of Chinese immigrants worked on the eastbound portion. At this time in history, both the Chinese and the Irish were marginalized groups within society and they were both considered working or low-class. Although an anti-Irish sentiment remained from earlier immigration and work patterns, the Chinese received much prejudice for their part in the construction project. Many felt that the Chinese were stealing away the jobs of white men. The Chinese workers were paid less than whites and received no benefits.[7]



The First Transcontinental Railroad

Upon its completion, the first transcontinental railroad stretched over 1,700 miles connecting the major rail hub of Sacramento to Omaha and the networks of the east.[9] The project cost $50,000,000 to complete, notably more than price paid for much of the land upon which the track was laid.[10] Taking merely six years to complete, an astonishing fact considering the length of the track and the amount of raw manual labor involved, the final spike of the first transcontinental railroad was driven into the final tie at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10th, 1869.[11] The driving of the final spike became a momentous event in the history of the United States. The event is often referred to as merely "Golden Spike" because although no gold spikes were actually driven into the track, ceremonial gold spikes were given to key leaders of the project in commemoration. Pictured below, Samuel S. Montague, Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad, and Genville M. Dodge of the Union Pacific Railroad shake hands to signify the completion of the immense project. With this shake, the east was effectively connected to the west creating one accessible, contiguous nation from one ocean to another. To celebrate this monumental event, the United States National Park Service created "Golden Spike" as a National Historic Site.[12]


The Golden Spike Ceremony



Further Expansion of the Transcontinental Railroad System

With the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, the opportunity to move west increased. As a result, further expansion of the transcontinental railroad system was needed. It could be said that the first transcontinental railroad was the catalyst for opening the floodgates between east and west. By the start of the 20th century, two new transcontinentals, the Northern and Southern Pacific were completed and in use.[14] Additionally, seeing the potential for business opportunity, James J. Hill funded the first and only privately built transcontinental, The Great Northern Railway, stretching from St. Paul, MN to Seattle, WA.[15] The implementation of this expanded transportation system enabled the speedy advancement of the westward movement in the United States to more communities.


(follow the link in the footnote to view an animated infographic)



Effects of the Transcontinental Railroad System

Arguably the largest effect of the transcontinental railway system was the extreme time difference it created for travel options. Prior to the transcontinental railway system, it would take individuals headed west months to reach their destinations. The options were going around the horn of South America, crossing at Panama, or taking wagon roads, all three of which were dangerous. What had taken months to travel now took only a week.[17] It is easy to see how profound an effect this could have on the people of a nation. The transcontinental railroad effectively made America much smaller; it reduced the time by which people were limited. As a result of the railroads, the time zone system was developed.

This improved ease of access alone was an incentive for individuals to move westward. Many towns and communities were created directly as a result of the railroad.[18] With help from foreign immigration, the transcontinental railroad ballooned the population of the state of California from 380,000 in 1860 to 3.8million in just 60 short years.[19]

Additionally, the railway system created new potential for trade. Goods received on the west coust from Asia could now be shipped to the east and eastern industrial products were now available in the west. The railroad effectively created a national and in ways global economy; very soon after the completion of the first railway, over $50million of freight was being shipped each year.[20]

Finally, the transcontinental railroad helped form and solidify the concept off Manifest Destiny. By creating a coast to coast transportation network, the United States could effectively accomplish its goal taming the west of offering opportunity to its citizens.


Advertisements for the railway system highlighting improved speed of transport


Manifest Destiny



The strike of the final spike in the first transcontinental railroad was the spark of a national evolution and the creation of a new global economy. No other event comes to mind with such significance in relation to the shaping of a young nation. Westward expansion created the need for efficient east-west transport and its subsequent delivery enabled the westward settlement of millions more.  This technological advancement enabled social, geographical, and economic advancement well beyond that of itself. Without the transcontinental railroad, the United States undoubtedly would not be where it is today.



  1. http://my.ilstu.edu/~jabraun/students/geiseman/facts.htm
  2. http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=31
  3. http://cprr.org/Museum/HR_Report_358_1856.html
  4. http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=32
  5. http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=32#
  6. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3147
  7. http://my.ilstu.edu/~jabraun/students/geiseman/facts.htm
  8. http://cprr.org/Museum/Chinese.html
  9. http://cprr.org/Museum/Riding_the_Rails_Intro.html
  10. http://my.ilstu.edu/~jabraun/students/geiseman/facts.htm
  11. http://cprr.org/Museum/Riding_the_Rails_Intro.html
  12. http://www.nps.gov/gosp/historyculture/index.htm
  13. http://www.nps.gov/gosp/historyculture/upload/Russell.pdf
  14. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-impact/
  15. http://www.gnrhs.org/gn_history.htm
  16. http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/railroaded/gallery/interactive-visualizations?page=1#lightbox=gallery/interactive-visualizations/transcontinental-railroad-development-1879-1893
  17. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-impact/
  18. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3147
  19. http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/calcultures/eras/era5.html
  20. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-impact/
  21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Overland_Route_Timetable_Cover_1881.JPG
  22. http://ows.edb.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/users/ceddins/westward.jpg

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