This year commemorates an important milestone anniversary in American transportation history. Think it’s the moon landing? Think again.
Sure, the impending 50th anniversary of man’s first footsteps on another world represents an epic moment in human achievement. But from a more practical perspective, events that transpired a century prior to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission likely had a bigger impact on America as we know it.
One hundred fifty years ago today, on May 10, 1869, events in a remote section of Utah helped quite literally bring the country together. The sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad reminds us how it transformed transportation, connecting West and East in a way that presaged the Interstate Highway System of the postwar era.
On that day, railroad crews who had been working feverishly for months from both ends to complete the first transportation system connecting the United States from the East to West coasts met and connected the lines. Coming but four years after the end of the Civil War, this helped lay the groundwork for an American age of industry set to explode onto the world stage.
Myths vs. Facts
My visit to the Utah site last fall led me to discover that the few tidbits many people think they know about this historic event contained as much fiction as truth.
I thought the completion of the railroad occurred at Promontory Point—a common misconception. However, Promontory Point sits approximately 35 miles to the south, at the end of a peninsula that juts out into the Great Salt Lake. The completion of the railroad actually took place at Promontory Summit, also called Promontory Junction.
While the history books talk of the driving of the “Golden Spike,” actually four ceremonial spikes—two of them gold, and two of them silver—completed the railroad. After the ceremony, during which Central Pacific President Leland Stanford and Union Pacific executive Thomas Durant both whiffed on their first attempts to drive the ceremonial spikes, workers replaced the ceremonial spikes with iron ones.
For all its historical import, Promontory served as part of the Transcontinental Railroad for a comparatively brief time. As trains grew larger and heavier, it took precious time and effort to haul them up and down the steep grades of the Promontory Mountains. On the old railbed, now converted to a hiking trail, a sign informs visitors of an incident in 1888, whereby a train laden with several boxcars of oranges sped out of control and crashed, giving local residents an unexpected supply of bruised citrus fruit to consume.
As a result, the Southern Pacific (which took over the Central Pacific’s operations) built a trestle across the Great Salt Lake from 1902-04, bypassing the Promontory section of the line, and changing the color and complexion of the Great Salt Lake’s northern half.
Elegance vs. Power
The displays at the historic site provide merely a glimpse of the rough conditions facing thousands of workers on the Transcontinental Railroad. Building the railroad took driving an estimated 40,000,000 spikes, an eye-watering amount of backbreaking labor. Digging and blasting tunnels, filling in valleys and leveling hills to meet the railroad’s maximum 2 percent grade—every step of the process consisted of grueling, exhausting work.
While Apollo 11 took on an almost celestial elegance—brainy engineers harnessing chemicals and physics to explore the heavens—the Transcontinental Railroad represented pure, brute force, man’s sheer willpower clearing a path for the machine. The crews that worked on the project included Chinese immigrants who came to the United States to work on the railroad’s punishing terrain in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Civil War veterans, Mormons who helped with the final Utah-based segments, and others. They faced countless hazards on the job site.
As their infamous “Hell on Wheels” name implies, the ramshackle tent cities that cropped up along the railroad’s route, full of gambling halls, bars, saloons, and brothels, provided their own dangers. One estimate claims that for every worker killed on the railroad, four more died in these makeshift establishments, whether from alcohol poisoning, disease, or vigilante violence.
The National Legacy
For all the hardship and labor needed to construct it, the Transcontinental Railroad revolutionized travel across the country. By 1876, one train traveled from San Francisco to New York in 83 hours, taking fewer than four days to complete a journey that, one decade previously, would have consumed months—whether by land, or even by sea around the coast of South America.
Just as important: The Transcontinental Railroad Act of 1862 not just authorized construction of the railroad, but an accompanying coast-to-coast telegraph line as well. On May 10, 1869, the entire country celebrated the railroad’s completion, because for the first time, the entire country could know of the occasion in real time. Four years after Appomattox, the American states had finally become physically united.
From coast-to-coast travel to instant news and social media (the latter a mixed blessing, no doubt), the Transcontinental Railroad began a revolution in American transportation, communication, and culture. That impact makes it worth paying tribute to the thousands of brave and resolute workers who helped make it all possible.