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Historical Research and Development of the Transcontinental Railroad

In 1863, the United States started constructing a railway connecting the East Coast to the West Coast. They started building from both ends of the country and finally met at Promontory, Utah, in 1869. It took them six years to complete this project, and they were able to lay down approximately 1,800 miles of track.

Before the mid-1800s, traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast in the United States was challenging. People could sail around South America by ship or go through Panama and then board another boat to head back north. To alleviate the transportation hardships, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862. The act provided funds to construct a transcontinental railroad and designated the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads to carry out the project.

The Union Pacific Railroad, led by Thomas C. Durant, was tasked with building westward from Omaha, Nebraska. Meanwhile, under the leadership of four Californian businessmen, the Central Pacific Railroad began building from Sacramento, California, heading towards the east.

Building the Railroad

While the Central Pacific started building railroad tracks in 1863, the Union Pacific had to wait until 1865 due to the American Civil War. To compensate for lost time, the Union Pacific hired former soldiers, Irish immigrants, and Mormons to help lay tracks. They made quick progress through flat areas of Nebraska and Wyoming but encountered resistance from Native American groups who often attacked the railroad camps, damaging the tracks and equipment.

In 1865, Crocker, who was responsible for hiring workers for the Central Pacific, decided to employ Chinese workers whom he paid lower wages than white workers. The work was difficult, and the workers had to deal with harsh weather conditions in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They also had to use dangerous explosives like nitroglycerin to blast tunnels through the granite, which resulted in some fatalities. Despite these challenges, the workers eventually crossed Nevada by 1868, and their progress picked up after passing the mountains.

In April 1869, Promontory Summit in northern Utah was chosen as the spot where the two railroads would meet. On May 10th, the two companies finally joined their tracks, and telegraph messages were sent to inform the public about this incredible achievement. Together, they had completed the Overland Route, connecting the east and West coasts of the United States.

Financing the Railroad

In 1862, the United States government supported companies constructing a railway through the Pacific Railway Act. The government provided long-term loans to each company through government bonds, with the amount of credit given based on the amount of track laid. The companies were also given large plots of land along their routes.

During the project, one of the companies, Union Pacific, was almost forced into bankruptcy by its leader, Durant, who embezzled the railroad funds. This unethical behavior which also implicated several members of the U.S. Congress, was revealed as the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.

Effects of the Railroad

The construction of the transcontinental railroad significantly reduced travel time between the East and West Coasts from several months to less than two weeks. This made it easier for people to move around and allowed for faster transportation of goods. As a result, demand for goods increased, leading to the research and development of the U.S. economy. However, the building of the railroad harmed Native American communities. For instance, the railroad split their lands and attracted settlers encroaching further on their territories. It also led to the decimation of bison, a vital source of food and clothing for Native Americans. Ultimately, the railroad destroyed the Native American way of life, and survivors were forced to live on reservations.

Additional Resources

· Why the Transcontinental Railroad Was Built

· Transport Before the Transcontinental Railroad

· Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad?

· Use of Nitroglycerin in Blasting Tunnels

· How Long Did It Take To Build the Transcontinental Railroad?

· Challenges That the Railroad Workers Faced

· Why Native Americans Opposed the Construction of the Railroad

· How Chinese Workers Helped Build the Transcontinental Railroad

· Irish Immigrants and the Construction of the Railroad

· Funding of the Transcontinental Railroad

· Why the Chinese Blasted Tunnels in the Sierra Nevada

· How the Native Americans Slowed the Progress of the Union Pacific

· The Significance of the Promontory Point

· How the Transcontinental Railroad Impacted the U.S. Economy

· The Impact of the Railroad on the Native American Population


This page was last updated by Steven Jefferies