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First Transcontinental Railroad

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At the ceremony for the driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869
Transcontinental Railroad 75th Anniversary Issue of 1944

The First Transcontinental Railroad (known originally as the "Pacific Railroad" and later as the " Overland Route") was a 1,907 mile (3,069 km) contiguous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869 across the western United States connecting the Pacific coast at San Francisco Bay with the existing Eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa on the Missouri River. The rail line was built by three private companies: the original Western Pacific Railroad Company between Oakland, California to Sacramento, California (132 miles (212 km)), the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California eastward from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah Territory (U.T.) (690 miles), and the Union Pacific Railroad Company westward to Promontory Summit from the road's statutory Eastern terminus at Council Bluffs on the eastern shore of the Missouri River opposite Omaha, Nebraska (1,085 miles).

Paddle steamers initially linked Sacramento to the cities and their harbour facilities in the San Francisco Bay until the WP grade (which had already been acquired by the CPRR) was completed and opened to Alameda and Oakland (MP 6) by the CPRR in the Fall of 1869. (Service between San Francisco (MP 0) and Oakland Pier (MP 6) was provided by ferry.) The CPRR eventually purchased 53 miles of UPRR built grade from Promontory Summit (MP 828) to Ogden, U.T. (MP 881) which then became the interchange point between the two roads where passengers changed trains. The transcontinental line was popularly known as the Overland Route after the principal passenger rail service that operated over the length of the line through the end of 1962.

After years of study, argument and lobbying by influential people such as Theodore Judah as to where the "eastern" terminus would be and how the cost of construction would be paid the construction and operation of a transcontinental line was authorized by the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and the even more generous act of 1864 during the American Civil War when southern Democratic opposition in the Congress to the central route near the 42 parallel was absent. Other railroads were also authorized under much the same terms. Two railroad companies, the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad, were chosen for the first transcontinental railroad and supported by 30-year U.S. guaranteed government bonds (at 6% interest). The bonds were to be issued at $16,000/mile for track laid at level grade, $32,000/mile for track laid in foothills and $48,000/mile for track laid in mountains. In addition, a 400 feet (120 m) right-of-way grant and land needed for all sidings, stations, rail yards, maintenance stations, etc. on which to build the railroad were granted. Extensive land grants of alternate sections of government-owned lands along the tracks for 10 miles (16 km) on both sides of the track--6,400 acres (2,600 ha) per mile (1.6 km) of track were granted. Grants were not allowed or given in cities or at rivers or on non-government property. While some of this land had potentially exploitable minerals, was good farm or forest land, and quite valuable, much of it was essentially valueless desert. Provisions in the Pacific Railroad Acts were made for the telegraph companies, who had just completed the First Transcontinental Telegraph in 1861, to combine their lines with the Railroad's telegraph lines as they were built. Railroad allocated land not sold in three years was to be sold at the same government price homesteads were sold at, $1.25 per 1 acre (0.40 ha) if there were any buyers. If the bonds were not repaid all remaining railroad property, including trains and tracks, were to revert to the U.S. government for disposal—they were all repaid with interest.

Title page of Dr. Hartwell Carver's 1847 Pacific Railroad proposal to Congress

Completion of a Pacific railroad was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line beginning as early as 1832 when Dr. Hartwell Carver publish an article in the New York Courier & Enquirer advocating the building of a transcontinental railroad from Lake Michigan to Oregon, and in 1847 he submitted a Memorial to Congress entitled "Proposal for a Charter to Build a Railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean" seeking a charter to build such a road. In 1856 the Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph of the US House of Representatives began its Report recommending the adoption of a proposed Pacific railroad bill by stating that: "The necessity that now exists for constructing lines of railroad and telegraphic communication between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of this continent is no longer a question for argument; it is conceded by every one. In order to maintain our present position on the Pacific, we must have some more speedy and direct means of intercourse than is at present afforded by the route through the possessions of a foreign power." Opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869, with the driving of the "Last Spike" with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit, the road established a mechanized transcontinental transportation network that revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West by bringing these western states and territories firmly and profitably into the "Union" and making goods and transportation much quicker, cheaper and much more flexible from coast to coast.

Most of the capital investment needed to build the railroad were got from selling government guaranteed bonds (granted per mile of completed track) to interested investors. The financial incentives and bonds would hopefully cover most of the initial capital investment needed to build the railroad. The bonds would be paid back by the sale of government granted land and prospective passenger and freight income. In addition to the railroad land grants which the railroads sold at low cost to pay back their government backed bonds (all were repaid) the 37th United States Congress passed the Homestead Acts which were several United States federal laws that sold an applicant 160 acres (65 ha) of unclaimed government owned land, typically called a "homestead", at low cost when the applicant did some prescribed work on it. There was now a strong and relatively low cost incentive for the settlement of the west which many thousands took advantage of. The railroads started new population growth and potential population growth induced many other railroads to be built and connected to the transcontinental railroad to serve communities and states off the original main track.

Most of the engineers and surveyors who figured out how and where to build the railroad on the Union Pacific were usually engineering college trained Union Army veterans who had learned their railroad trade keeping the trains running and tracks maintained during the U.S. Civil War working for the U.S. Military Railroad (USMRR) which was established by the United States War Department as a separate agency to operate and repair any rail lines needed by the Union army or seized by the government from the Confederate States of America railroads during the American Civil War. Nearly all of the Union and Confederate armies were supported and transported by extensive rail networks which had to be built up, protected and repaired as the armies advanced and retreated. Most key workers and supervisors were trained by previous on-the-job training and knew what needed to be done and how to direct workers to get it done. Most of the semi-skilled workers on the Union Pacific were recruited from the many discharged Union Army and Confederate Army veterans and emigrant Irishmen escaping poverty and famine in Ireland.

The Central Pacific had the same financial incentives the Union Pacific as well as some construction bonds that were granted by the state and the city of San Francisco. The Central Pacific hired engineers and surveyors who had extensive experience and training building railroads and knew what needed to be done and how to supervise others to get it done. The Central Pacific, facing a semi-skilled labor shortage, relied on some black employees escaping the slavery and turmoil of the American Civil War and many emigrant Chinese manual laborers for construction. Most of these Chinese emigrants were escaping the poverty and terrors of the Taiping Revolution in the Kwangtung province in China. Supervisory, engineering and skilled jobs were done with "white" workers including a lot of Irishmen. The Chinese, despite their small stature and total lack of experience with railroad work, handled most of the heavy manual labor needed to get over and through the Sierra Nevada mountains and across the Nevada and Utah deserts. Most of the black and white workers were paid $30.00/month and provided food and lodging. Higher skilled and supervisory jobs paid more. Most Chinese were initially paid $31.00/month and provided lodging. They bought and cooked their own food—just as they desired. In 1867 this was raised to $35.00/month after a strike.

Pacific Railroad Bond, City and County of San Francisco, 1865

The Central Pacific RR broke ground on January 8, 1863. Essentially all of their railway supplies: spikes, hammers, rock drills, black powder, bridge hardware, iron rails, fishplates, bolts and nuts, railroad switchs, railroad turntables, steam locomotives, railroad cars, telegraph wire, insulators, etc. would have to be imported over 18,000 miles (29,000 km) and about 200 day (by regular sailing ship) trip or about 120 day trip (by Clipper ship)around South America's Cape Horn or the much more expensive route across the new paddle steamer and Panama Railroad's crossing of the Isthmus of Panama—about a 40 day trip and twice as expensive. After the goods got to the San Francisco Bay area they would have to be unloaded from the ships and put on paddle steamers for transport over the final 130 miles (210 km) trip up the Sacramento River to Sacramento. The first track was laid in August 1863 when rail shipments finally reached Sacramento. Many of these steam engines, railroad cars, etc. were shipped dismantled and had to be reassembled in the Sacramento Central Pacific maintenance yards. Ties, lumber, telegraph poles, trestle and bridge timbers, firewood to feed their locomotives, etc. could be cut from timber already in California, Oregon, etc..

The Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) did not start construction until July 1865, due to the difficulty getting financial backing and the Civil War's need for workers, rails, ties, steam locomotives and railroad supplies. The U.S. Civil War ended 22 June 1865. In the first year, 1865, so little work was done by Union Pacific that they sold two of the four steam locomotives they had purchased. After the Civil War competition for railroad supplies to build a new transcontinental railroad while building or rebuilding new railroad nets and repairing and bringing up to date the damaged rail networks in the south initially caused railroad product's prices to rise. Completion of the railroad and the new Homesteading laws substantially accelerated populating the West. Land could now be obtained fairly cheaply and there was now a much cheaper and faster way to get "goods" to buy and sell and widespread markets for those goods regardless of where you lived. The railroads established the equivalent of inland "ports". It established the modern state's land highways of commerce and trade, resulting in the decline of territory controlled by the Indian tribes in these regions.

The gauge, the distance between the wheels, of both railroads was set at what is now called standard gauge—4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1.435 m). The railroad gauge used in the United States were not all standardized at this time with several different gauges being used. This made transferring railway cars and locomotives to different railways difficult. The gauge of the southern and Panama Railroads were 5 feet (1.5 m) then. The rails used were nearly all iron rails of a flat bottomed modified I-beam profile weighing 56 pounds (25 kg) per 1 yard (0.91 m) or 66 pounds (30 kg) per 1 yard (0.91 m). The heavier rails were used in the Sierras where they made it easier to plow the tracks for snow clearance. Railroad rails were restricted to U.S. manufacturers by congressional fiat. Today's engines and railroad cars are much heavier and use much heftier steel rails, often continuously welded. Steel rails had just been introduced by 1865 as the Bessemer process and open hearth furnace steel making processes started to be built in the United States. Steel rails lasted much longer but were not used in building the first transcontinental railroad. Eventually nearly all railroads converted to steel rails. Rails are one of the major costs of building a railroad and get a surprising amount of wear and would have to be replaced, particularly in corners, fairly regularly. The rail lengths are variously listed as 30 feet (9.1 m) (560 pounds (250 kg)) or 15 feet (4.6 m) long (280 pounds (130 kg)). The available pictures seem to favour the shorter length; but the longer rails may have been used on curves where their longer length made them easier to bend (using crow bars) around the curves. Time was not standardized in the U.S. then and time was set by each railroad to minimize errors in scheduling trains and only later (about 1883) were standardized time zones set up and time standardized so all the railroads could schedule their trains—later recognized by Congress.

Needing rapid communication for ordering more supplies or particular types of men with specific skills and scheduling the trains which had to go both ways on a single track, the companies built telegraph lines along the railroad rights of way as the track was laid. The close proximity of the railroad made these lines easier to protect, supply with operators for relay or train stations and maintain than the original First Transcontinental Telegraph lines, which went over much of the original routes of the Mormon Trail and across the very thinly populated Central Nevada Route through central Utah and Nevada deserts. The railroad's telegraph lines which followed the railroad and were needed to schedule train traffic to avoid conflicts and collisions, soon superseded the earlier telegraph lines in general use which were mostly abandoned by the original telegraph companies as they merged their business with the railroad telegraph lines—just as specified by Congress.

For maps and Railroad pictures ( photography had just been invented) was of this era see:

The 100,000 square feet (9,300 m2) California State Railroad Museum at old town Sacramento, California has an extensive bookstore of railroad material and a lot of the original and later Union Pacific and Central Pacific locomotives, cars, etc.,

Transcontinental Route

Profile of the Pacific Railroad from Council Bluffs/Omaha to San Francisco. Map and profile not in alignment.

Union Pacific Route

Route of the first American transcontinental railroad from Sacramento, California, to Council Bluffs, Iowa. Other railroads connected at Council Bluffs to cities throughout the East and Midwest.

The Union Pacific's 1,087 miles (1,749 km) of track started at MP 0.0 in Council Bluffs, Iowa on the eastern side of the Missouri River This was chosen by the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, as the location of its Transfer Depot where up to seven railroads could transfer mail and other goods to Union Pacific trains bound for the west. Initially trains crossed the river by ferry to get to the western tracks starting in Omaha, Nebraska in the newly formed Nebraska Territory. Winter caused severe problems as the Missouri River froze over but not well enough to support a railroad track plus train and getting freight across an ice bound or ice floe filled river became very problematic for several months of the year. Starting in 1873 they crossed the river over a new 2,750 feet (840 m) long, eleven span, iron truss Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge to Omaha, Nebraska. After the rail line's initial climb through the Missouri River bluffs west of Omaha and out of the Missouri River Valley, the route bridged the Elkhorn River and then crossed over the new 1,500 feet (460 m) Loup River bridge as it followed the north side of the Platte River valley west through Nebraska, following the general path of the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails. By December 1865 the Union Pacific had only completed 40 miles (64 km) of track, reaching Fremont, Nebraska, and a further about 10 miles (16 km) of roadbed. At the end of 1865 Peter A. Dey, Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific, resigned in a routing dispute with Thomas C. Durant one of the chief financiers of the Union Pacific.

During the winter of 1865-66 John S. Casement, General "Jack", the new Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific, had several railroad cars equipped as portable bunkhouses for his men and gathered men and supplies to push the railroad rapidly west. His bunkhouses included a galley car which prepared meals and even provided for a herd of cows to be moved with the rail head and bunk cars to provide a movable source of fresh meat. The Platte valley sloped up at a gradual slope of about 6 feet (1.8 m) per 1 mile (1.6 km) and laying a mile (1.6 km) of track a day or more was often done in 1866 as Union Pacific finally started moving rapidly west. Near where the Platte River split into the North Platte River and South Platte River the railroad bridged the North Platte River with a 2,600 feet (790 m) long bridge (nicknamed 1/2 mile bridge). This was a bridge across the shallow but wide North Platte resting on piles driven by steam pile drivers. Here they built the "railroad" town of North Platte, Nebraska in December 1866 after completing about 240 miles (390 km) in 1866. In late 1866 former Major General Grenville M. Dodge was appointed Chief Engineer on the Union Pacific but hard working General "Jack" Casement continued to work as chief construction "boss" and his brother Daniel Casement continued as financial officer.

The original emigrant route across Wyoming of the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails was up the North Platte River through Casper, Wyoming along the Sweetwater River and over the continental Divide at 7,550 feet (2,300 m) South Pass. The original westward travelers in their ox and mule pulled wagons tried to stick to river valleys and do as little road building as possible—gradients and sharp corners were usually of little or no concerns. The ox and mule pulled wagons were the original off-road vehicles in their day since nearly all of the Emigrant Trails were cross country over rough un-improved trails. The route over South Pass's main advantage for wagons pulled by oxen or mules was a shorter elevation over an "easy" pass to cross and its "easy" connection to near-by river valleys on both sides of the continental divide for water and grass. The emigrant trails were closed in winter. Major disadvantages of the North Platte/South Pass route for a railroad were: it was about 150 miles (240 km) longer and more expensive to construct up the narrow, steep and rocky canyons of the North Platte. The route along the North Platte was further from and with a difficult connection to Denver, Colorado—a city that a railroad connection was already being planned for and surveyed.

A new, shorter, "better" route was already being surveyed out in 1864-1867. A new route across part of Nebraska and Wyoming was found and surveyed that ascended a gradual sloping ridge between Lodgepole Creek and Crow Creek to 8,200 feet (2,500 m) Evan's pass (also called Sherman's Pass) which was discovered by the Union Pacific employed English surveyor and Engineer James Evans in about 1864. This pass now is marked by the Ames Monument (41.131281,-105.398045 lat., long.) marking its significance and commemorating two of the main backers of the Union Pacific Railroad. From North Platte, Nebraska (elevation 2,834 feet (864 m)) the railroad proceeded westward and upward along a new path across the Nebraska Territory and Wyoming Territory (then part of the Dakota Territory) along the north bank of the South Platte River and into what would become the state of Wyoming at Lone Pine, Wyoming. Evan's Pass was located between what would become the new "railroad" towns of Cheyenne, Wyoming and Laramie, Wyoming. Connecting to this pass, about 15 miles (24 km) west of Cheyenne, was the one place across the Laramie Mountains that had a narrow "guitar neck" of land that crossed the mountains without serious erosion at the so-called "gangplank" (41.099746,-105.153205 lat., long.) discovered by Major General Grenville Dodge in 1865 when he was in the U.S. Army. The new route surveyed across Wyoming was over 150 miles (240 km) shorter, had a flatter profile, cheaper and easier to construct, closer to Denver and the known coalfields in the Wasatch and Laramie Ranges.

The railroad gained about 3,200 feet (980 m) in the 220 miles (350 km) climb to Cheyenne from North Platte Nebraska—about 15 feet (4.6 m) per mile (1.6 km). This "new" route had never become an emigrant route because of its lack of water and grass needed by its ox or mule pulled wagons—steam locomotives didn't need grass and they could drill wells for the water they needed if necessary. Coal had been discovered in Wyoming and reported on by John C. Frémont in his 1843 expedition across Wyoming and was already being exploited by Utah residents from towns like Coalville, Utah and later Kemmerer, Wyoming. Union Pacific needed coal as a fuel for its steam locomotives on the almost treeless plains across Nebraska and Wyoming. Coal shipments by rail were also looked at as a potentially major source of income—this potential is still being realized.

The Union Pacific reached the new town of Cheyenne in December 1867 having laid about 270 miles (430 km) that year. They paused over the winter to get ready to push the track over Evan's (Sherman's) pass. The Union Pacific connection at Cheyenne to Denver with its Denver Pacific Railway and Telegraph Company railroad line was made in 1870. The new "railroad" town of Cheyenne (elevation 6,070 feet (1,850 m)) on the new Union Pacific route was chosen to be a major "railroad" town with extensive railroad yards, maintenance facilities and Union Pacific presence. It was about 35 miles (56 km) from Evans pass and the highest point reached on the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad--8,200 feet (2,500 m). Its location made it a good place to install extra steam locomotives to trains with snowplows to help clear the tracks of winter snow or haul the freight over Evan's pass. The Union Pacific's junction with the Denver Railroad with its connection to Kansas City, Kansas, Kansas City, Missouri and the railroads east of the Missouri River again increased Cheyenne's importance as the junction of two major railroads. Cheyenne later became one of the state's largest cities and the capital of the new state of Wyoming.

The railroad established many townships along the way: Elkhorn, Grand Island, North Platte, Ogallala, Sidney, Nebraska as the railroad followed the North Platte River across Nebraska territory. The railroad even dipped into what would become the new state of Colorado as it followed the South Platte River west into what would become Julesburg, Colorado before turning northwest along Lodgepole Creek into Wyoming. In the Dakota Territory (Wyoming) the new towns of: Cheyenne, Laramie, Green River and Evanston, Wyoming (named after James Evans) were established as well as many more fuel and water stops. The Green River was crossed with a new bridge and a new "railroad" town of Green River constructed there after the tracks reached the Green River on October 1, 1868—the last big river. The tracks reached Evanston on December 4, 1868 having laid almost 360 miles (580 km) of track over the Green River and the Laramie Plains that year. Evanston in 1871 became a significant train maintenance shop town where extensive repairs were done on the cars and steam locomotives.

In the Utah Territory the railroad diverted from the main emigrant trails again to get over the Wasatch Mountains and went down the rugged Echo Canyon (Summit County, Utah) and Weber River canyon. To do this as fast as possible, Union Pacific hired Mormon contractors to work ahead of the rail head to cut, fill, trestle, bridge, blast and tunnel its way down the Weber River Canyon to Ogden, Utah. The longest of four tunnels built in Weber canyon was 757 feet (231 m) long Tunnel 2. Work on this tunnel started in October 1868 and was completed six months later. Temporary tracks were laid around it and Tunnels 3 (508 feet (155 m)), Tunnels 4 (297 feet (91 m)) and Tunnels 5 (579 feet (176 m)) to continue working on the tracks west of the tunnels. The tunnels were all made with the new dangerous nitroglycerine explosive which expedited work but caused some fatal accidents. While building the railroad along the rugged Weber River canyon, Mormon workers signed the Thousand Mile Tree which was lone tree alongside the track a 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Omaha. A historic marker has been placed there. The tracks reached Ogden, Utah on March 27, 1869 although finish work would continue on the tracks, tunnels and bridges in Weber Canyon for over a year. From Ogden the railroad went north of the Great Salt Lake to Brigham City, Corinne, Utah before finally connecting with the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory Summit in Utah territory on May 10, 1869. The portion of the original railroad around the north shore of the Great Salt Lake is no longer used. In 1904, the Lucin Cutoff, a causeway across the centre of the Great Salt Lake to Promontory Point bypassed Promontory Summit. The Lucin Cutoff shortened the rail route by approximately 43 miles (69 km). One reason for locating the railroad north of Great Salt Lake was the availability of water on that route—it was lacking on the salt deserts south of the lake.

Central Pacific Route

The Central Pacific laid 690 miles (1,100 km) of track, starting in Sacramento, California in 1863, and continuing over the rugged 7,000 feet (2,100 m) Sierra Nevada (U.S.) mountains at Donner Pass into the new state of Nevada. The elevation change from Sacramento (elev. 40 feet (12 m)) to Donner summit (elev. 7,000 feet (2,100 m)) had to be accomplished in about 90 miles (140 km), average elevation change 76 feet (23 m) per mile (1.6 km), and there were only a few places in the Sierras where this type of "ramp" existed. The discovery and detailed map survey with profiles and elevations of this route over the Sierra Nevada (U.S.) is credited to Theodore Judah, chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad up till his death in 1863. This route is up a ridge lying between the North fork of the American River on the south and Bear River (Feather River) and the South Yuba River on the north. As the railroad climbed out of Sacramento's 40 feet (12 m) elevation to the 7,000 feet (2,100 m) Donner summit there was only one 3 miles (4.8 km) section near "Cape Horn CPRR" where the railroad grade slightly exceeded two degrees.

1864 advertisement for the opening of the Dutch Flat Wagon Road.

In June 1864 the Central Pacific railroad entrepreneurs opened Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road (DFDLWR). This toll road wagon route, costing about $300,000 and a years worth of work, was opened over much of the route the Central Pacific railroad (CPRR) would use over Donner Summit to carry freight and passengers needed by the CPRR and to carry other cargo owned by others over their toll road to and from the ever advancing rail head and over the Sierras to the gold and silver mining towns in Nevada. As the railroad advanced their freight rates with the combined rail and wagon shipments would become much more competitive. The toll road freight traffic to Nevada was estimated to be about $13,000,000 a year as the Comstock Lode boomed and getting even part of this would help pay for the railroad construction. When the railroad reached Reno they had the majority of all Nevada freight shipments and the price of goods in Nevada dropped significantly. The rail route over the Sierras followed the general route of the Truckee branch of the California Trail going east over Donner Pass and down the rugged Truckee River valley.

The route over the Sierras had been plotted out by Central Pacific's Chief Engineer Theodore Judah in preliminary surveys before his death in 1863. Judah's deputy, Samuel S. Montague was appointed as the new Chief Engineer with Lewis M. Clement as Assistant Chief Engineer along with Charles Cadwalader as second assistant. To build this new railroad detailed surveys had to be run that showed where the cuts, fills, trestles, bridges and tunnels would have to be built. Work that was identified as taking a long time were started as soon as its projected track location could be ascertained and work crews, supplies and road work equipment found to send ahead and start work. Tunnels, trestles and bridges were nearly all built this way. The spread out nature of the work resulted in the work being split into two divisions with L.M. Clement taking the upper division from Blue Cañon to Truckee and Cadwalader taking the lower division from Truckee to the Nevada border. Other assistant engineers were assigned to specific tasks such as building a bridge, tunnel or trestle which was done by the workers under experienced supervisors.

The CPRR grade at Donner Summit as it appeared in 1869 and 2003.

In total, the Central Pacific had eleven tunnel projects (Nos. 3 through 13) under construction in the Sierra from 1865-68 with seven tunnels located in a 2 miles (3.2 km) stretch on the east side of Donner Summit. The tunnels were normally built by drilling a series of holes in the tunnel face, filling them black powder and detonating the powder to break the rock free. The black powder was provided by the California Powder Works near Santa Cruz, California. They had started production in 1864 when the U.S. Civil War cut off shipments of black powder needed by the mining and railroad industry in California and Nevada. The Central Pacific was a prolific user of black powder often using up to 500 each 25 pounds (11 kg) kegs per day. The summit tunnel (Number 6), 1,660 feet (510 m), was started in late 1865, well ahead of the rail head. The summit tunnel, through solid granite, progressed at a rate of only about 0.98 feet (0.30 m) per day per face as it was being worked by three eight hour shifts of workers hand drilling holes with a rock drill and hammer, filling them with black powder and trying to blast the granite loose. One crew worked drilling holes on the faces and another crew collected and removed the loosened rock after each explosion. The workers were pulled off the summit tunnel and the track grading east of Donner pass in the winter of 1865/66 as there were no way to get supplies to them or winter quarters they could live in. The crews were transferred to work on bridges and track grading on the Truckee River canyon.

The vertical central shaft of the CPRR "Summit Tunnel" (Tunnel #6) at Donner Summit which allowed drilling and excavation to be carried out on four faces at once.

In 1866 they put in a 125 feet (38 m) vertical shaft in the centre of the summit tunnel and started work towards the east and west tunnel faces giving four working faces on the summit tunnel. A steam engine off an old locomotive was brought up with much effort over the wagon road and used as a winch driver to help remove loosened rock from the vertical shaft and two working faces. By the winter of 1866/67 work had progressed enough and a winter camp had been built for workers on the summit tunnel which allowed continued working during the winter. The cross section of a tunnel face was 16 feet (4.9 m) wide, 16 feet (4.9 m) high oval with a 11 feet (3.4 m) vertical wall. Progress on the tunnel sped up to over 1.5 feet (0.46 m) per day per face when they started using the newly discovered nitroglycerin—manufactured near the tunnel. They used nitroglycerin to deepen the summit tunnel to the required 16 feet (4.9 m) height after the four tunnel faces met and made even faster progress. Nearly all other tunnels were worked on both tunnel faces and met in the middle. Depending on the material the tunnels penetrated they were left unlined or lined with brick, rock walls or timber and post. Some tunnels were designed to bend in the middle to align with the track bed curvature. Despite this potential complication, nearly all the different tunnel centre lines met within 2 inches (5.1 cm) or so. The detailed survey work that made these tunnel digs as precise as required were nearly all done by the Canadian born and trained Lewis Clement, the CPRR's Chief Assistant Engineer and Superintendent of Track, and his assistants.

Hills or ridges in front of the railroad road bed would have to have a flat bottomed V shaped "cut" made to get the railroad through the ridge or hill. The type of material determined the slope of the V and how much material would have to be removed. Ideally, these cuts would be matched with valley fills that could use the dug out material to bring the road bed up to grade-- cut and fill construction. In 1860's there was no heavy equipment that could be used to make these cuts or haul it away to make the fills. The options were to dig it out by pick and shovel, haul the hillside material by wheelbarrow and/or horse or mule cart or blast it loose. To blast a V shaped cut out they had to drill several holes up to 20 feet (6.1 m) deep in the material, fill them with black powder, and blast the material away. Since the Central Pacific was in a hurry, they were profligate users of black powder to blast their way though the hills. The only disadvantage came when a nearby valley needed fill to get across it. The explosive technique often blew most of the potential fill material down the hillside making it unavailable for fill. Extra material would have to be dug out and hauled in to fill the valleys.

The Summit Tunnel at Donner Summit, West Portal

The route down the eastern Sierras was done on the south side of Donner Lake with a series of switchbacks carved into the mountain. The route down the rugged Truckee River Canyon, including required bridges, was done ahead of the main summit tunnel completion when the Central Pacific somehow hauled two small locomotives, railcars, rails etc. on wagons and sleighs to what is now Truckee, California and worked the winter of 1866-68 on their way down Truckee canyon ahead of the tracks being completed to Truckee. In Truckee canyon five Howe truss bridges had to be built. This gave them a head start on getting to the "easy" miles across Nevada. Later many miles of snow sheds and snowplows on the front of special locomotives would have to be employed to try and keep the railroad clear in the winter time.

On June 18, 1868, the Central Pacific reached Reno, Nevada after completing 132 miles (212 km) of railroad up and over the Sierras from Sacramento, California. By then the railroad had already been prebuilt down the Truckee River on the much flatter land from Reno to Wadsworth, Nevada where they bridged the Truckee for the last time. From there they struggled across forty mile desert to the end of the Humboldt river at the Humboldt Sink. From the end of the Humboldt they continued east over the Great Basin desert bordering the Humboldt River to Wells, Nevada. One of the most troublesome problems found on this route along the Humboldt was at Palisade Canyon (near Carlin, Nevada) where for some 12 miles (19 km) the line had to be built between the river and basalt cliffs. From Wells, Nevada to Promontory Summit the Railroad left the Humboldt and proceeded across the Nevada and Utah desert. Water for the water towers needed by the steam locomotives was provided by wells, springs or pipelines to nearby water sources. Water was often pumped into the water tanks with windmills. Train fuel and water spots on the early trains with steam locomotives may have been as often as every 10 miles (16 km). On one memorable occasion, not far from Promontory, the Central Pacific crews organized an army of workers and five trainloads of construction materials and laid 10 miles (16 km) or track on a prepared rail bed in one day—a record still today. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific raced to get as much track laid as possible and the Central Pacific laid about 560 miles (900 km) track from Reno to Promontory Summit in the one year before the Golden spike was driven on May 10, 1869.

Central Pacific had 1,694 freight cars available by May 1869 with more under construction in their Sacramento yard. Major repairs and maintenance on the Central Pacific rolling stock was done in their Sacramento maintenance yard. Near the end of 1869 Central Pacific had 162 locomotives, of which two had two drivers (drive wheels), 110 had four drivers, and fifty had six drivers. The steam locomotives had been purchased in the eastern states and shipped by sea to California. Thirty-six additional locomotives were built and coming west and twenty-eight more were under construction. There were inadequate numbers of passenger cars ordered and more had to be ordered. The first Central Pacific sleeping car, the "Silver Palace Sleeping Car", arrived at Sacramento June 8, 1868.

The CPRR route passed through Newcastle, California and Truckee, California, Reno, Nevada, Wadsworth, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Elko, and Wells, Nevada, (with many more fuel and water stops) before connecting with the Union Pacific line at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory. When the eastern end of the CPRR was extended to Ogden by purchasing for about $2.8 million dollars the Union Pacific Railroad line in 1870 from Promontory to Ogden, it ended the short period of a boom town for Promontory and extended the Central Pacific tracks about 60 miles (97 km) and made Ogden a major terminus on the transcontinental railroad as passengers and freight switched railroads there.

Later, the western part of the route was extended from Sacramento to the Alameda Terminal in Alameda, California, and shortly thereafter, to the Oakland Long Wharf at Oakland Point in Oakland, California and on to San Jose, California. Train ferries transferred some railroad cars to and from the Oakland wharves and tracks to wharves and tracks in San Francisco. Before the CPRR was completed, developers were building other feeder railroads like the Virginia and Truckee Railroad to the Comstock Lode diggings in Virginia City, Nevada and several different extensions in California and Nevada to reach other cities there. This new railroad connected to the Central Pacific near Reno, Nevada and went through Carson City, Nevada, the new capitol of Nevada.

After the transcontinental railroads were completed many other railroads were built to connect up to other population centers in Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Oregon, Washington territories, etc. In 1869 the Kansas Pacific Railway built the Hannibal Bridge, a swing bridge to allow passage of paddle steamers up or down the Missouri, was built across the Missouri River from Kansas City, Missouri to Kansas City, Kansas as to connect to railroads on both sides of the Missouri. When completed this would be an another major east-west railroad. To speed completion of the Kansas Pacific Railroad to Denver, construction started east from Denver in March 1870 to meet the railroad coming west from Kansas city. The two crews met at a point called Comanche Crossing, Kansas Territory, on August 15, 1870. Denver was now firmly on track to becoming the largest city and the future capitol of Colorado. The Kansas Pacific Railroad linked with the Denver Pacific Railway via Denver to Cheyenne in 1870.

The original transcontinental railroad route did not pass through the two biggest cities in the so-called Great American Desert—Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Feeder railroad lines were soon built to service these two cities and other cities and states along the route.

Modern-day Interstate 80 closely follows the path of the railroad from Sacramento across modern day California, Nevada, Wyoming and Nebraska with two major exceptions: Interstate-80 crosses Donner Summit and proceeds east down the north side of Donner Lake (the railroad goes down the south side) and East of Wells, Nevada, Interstate 80 passes through Wendover, Utah and then goes across the salt flats on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake on its way to Salt Lake City, Utah (the railroad goes on the north side) and passes up Emigration Canyon, Utah before rejoining the railroad near the Echo Canyon junction of Interstate 84 and Interstate 80. I-84, built much later, simply "blasted" its way down Weber Canyon with no tunnels. The interstate diverges somewhat from the railroad route as it was built much later with much more powerful equipment, better explosives and much higher cost. In addition interstate highways can be built with up to about a six degrees of grade which allows them to go many places the railroads had to go around since they tried successfully to hold their grades to less than two degrees.

History of Transcontinental Railroad

The official poster announcing the Pacific Railroad's grand opening.

With strong congressional support and under the direction of the Department of War (then run by Jefferson Davis) the Pacific Railroad Surveys (1853–1855) were an extensive series of explorations of the American West to explore possible routes for a transcontinental railroad across North America. The expeditions included surveyors, scientists, and artists and resulted in an immense body of data covering at least 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 km2) on the American West. "These twelve volumes... constitute probably the most important single contemporary source of knowledge on Western geography and history and their value is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of many beautiful plates in colour of scenery, native inhabitants, fauna and flora of the Western country." Published by the United States War Department from 1855 to 1860, the surveys contained significant material on natural history, including many illustrations of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. In addition to describing possible routes, these surveys also reported on the geology, zoology, botany, paleontology of the land as well as provided ethnographic descriptions of the Native peoples encountered during the surveys. Despite the over 12 volumes of data produced there was almost no detailed topology maps produced over competing routes that would be needed to estimate the feasibility, cost and best route to build a "real" railroad. One by-product of these surveys was the purchase of the Gadsden Purchase of the southern parts of the future states of Arizona and New Mexico for $10,000,000 as it was realized the best southern route lie south of the Gila River boundary in a mostly vacant Mexican territory—fortunately Santa Anna, President of Mexico again, needed money to pay for his army and was happy to sell some "desert". The U.S. Congress was strongly divided on where the eastern terminus of the railroad should be—in a southern or northern city. The Southern Pacific Railroad (later merged with the Central Pacific Railroad) would start construction after the U.S. Civil War was concluded and finish a southern transcontinental route across the U.S. in 1880.

Leland Stanford and the officers of the CPRR in 1870

The Pacific Railroad constituted one of the most significant and ambitious American technological feats of the 19th century following in the footsteps of the building of the Erie Canal (and many other canals) in the 1820s, the building of extensive railroad networks in the eastern, southern and midwest parts of the U.S starting in the 1830s and the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama by the a U.S. company built Panama Railroad in 1851-1855. The transcontinental line served as North America's vital link for trade, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of the late 19th-century United States. It brought the states of Nevada, California, Oregon and the Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington territories firmly into the Union and made settlement of the west much more rapid and inexpensive.

The railroad established the nation's economic infrastructure for the future. The far slower, more hazardous and more expensive stagecoach lines from Missouri to California with about 28 days of day and night travel were mostly used for carrying a few intrepid passengers and mail services. The route along the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails was so rugged at about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) and 140–160 days travel over mostly unimproved roads that almost no cargo to coastal states or territories went by land. About the only cargo shipped overland by wagons went to the "landlocked" cities of Salt Lake City, Utah and later to Virginia City, Carson City, Nevada and Denver, Colorado. In fact, about 50% of the population and more than 90% of the extensive cargo shipments needed in rapidly developing Pacific states had arrived by sailing ship to the Pacific around Cape Horn of South America or by paddle steamers to Mexico, Nicaragua or Panama, a land transit to the Pacific Ocean and then another paddle steamer to California, Oregon or Washington.

The developing railroads provided the technology for much faster, safer and cheaper transportation of emigrants and goods. The railroads, bankers and the United States government in the East promoted this worldwide migration to attract specific populations for agricultural progress with the sales of land-grant lots, and then provided farmers the cheap and quick transportation for the cornucopia of crops, minerals and timber. The need for wheat and its now easy transport and other staples led to the rapid settling of the supposed " Great American Desert".

California Developments

Asa Whitney

Talk of a transcontinental railroad started in 1830, shortly after steam powered railroads were invented in Great Britain and began to be introduced into the United States. This talk intensified as railroad technology advanced and the Oregon Territory and California were added to United States Territory in 1846 and 1848. Early debates were not so much over whether it would be built, but how it would be paid for and what route it should follow:

  • "central route", to avoid the worst of the Rocky Mountains by following the Platte River in Nebraska and the South Pass in Wyoming, much of the path of the Oregon Trail, or
  • "southern route", to avoid the barrier of the Rockies by going across Texas, New Mexico Territory, across the Sonora desert and on to Los Angeles, California.

A "northern route", roughly following the path of the Lewis and Clark Expedition along the Missouri River through present-day northern Montana to Oregon Territory, was initially considered impractical because of rough terrain and extensive winter snows. Later the Northern Pacific Railway (NP) found and built a better route across the northern tier of the western United States from Minnesota to the Pacific Coast. It was approved by Congress in 1864 and given nearly 40 million acres (160,000 km2) of land grants, which it used to raise money in Europe for construction. Construction began in 1870 and the main line opened all the way from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean when former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant drove in the final "golden spike" in what is now western Montana on Sept. 8, 1883.

One of the most prominent champions of the central route railroad was Asa Whitney (a distant cousin to cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney). Whitney envisioned a route from Chicago and the Great Lakes to northern California, paid for by the sale of land to settlers along the route.

In June 1845 Whitney led a team along part of the proposed route to assess its feasibility. Whitney traveled widely to solicit support from businessmen and politicians, printed maps and pamphlets, and submitted several proposals to Congress, all at his own expense. Legislation to begin construction of the Pacific Railroad (called the Memorial of Asa Whitney) was first introduced to Congress by Representative Zadock Pratt. Congress did not act on Whitney's proposal.

The Oregon Question was settled in 1846 when the United States and Great Britain agreed to a Canadian–U.S. boundary at the 49th parallel. U.S. forces took over California in 1846, which came under formal United States control in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. The discovery of gold in California in January 1848 set off the California Gold Rush, and the number of settlers going to California skyrocketed. By 1850 California had enough settlers, over 120,000, arriving by the California Trail and by sea to become the 31st state.

Whitney saw a version of the central route completed, although he was not formally involved.

The southern route and the Gadsden Purchase

Concerns lingered that snow would make the central route to California impractical. A survey after 1848 indicated that the best route for a southern route had been overlooked when the US accepted a boundary proposed by Mexico in their peace treaty. With Santa Anna in power in Mexico, the US in 1853 made the Gadsden Purchase, acquiring the southern portions of what is now New Mexico and Arizona for $10,000,000. The southern route could now be built entirely within U.S. territory.

Because the US Congress was divided between slave and non-slave state members, it could not reach agreement on supporting construction of a particular route. Each region wanted the railroad because of its benefits. The decision became embroiled in the divisive sectional dispute that eventually turned into the American Civil War. The southern route was not constructed until 1880, when the Southern Pacific Railroad crossed Arizona territory.

Theodore Judah

Theodore Judah, architect of the Transcontinental Railroad and first chief engineer of the Central Pacific.
Lewis M. Clement, Chief Assistant Engineer and Superintendent of Track

The next big champion of the central route was Theodore Judah. Judah undertook to survey and plan a way through what was one of the chief obstacles of a central route to California: a way over the high and rugged Sierra Nevada mountains.

Judah was chief engineer for the newly formed Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1852, the first railroad built west of the Mississippi River. Although the railroad was to go bankrupt when the easy placer gold deposits around Placerville, California were mostly mined out, he was convinced that a properly financed railroad could pass from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada mountains to reach the Great Basin and hook up with rail lines coming from the East.

In 1856 Judah wrote a 13,000-word proposal in support of a Pacific railroad and distributed it to Cabinet secretaries, congressmen, and other influential people. In September 1859, Judah was chosen to be the accredited lobbyist for the Pacific Railroad Convention. The convention approved his plan to survey, finance, and engineer the road. Judah returned to Washington in December 1859. He had a lobbying office in the United States Capitol, received an audience with President James Buchanan, and represented the Convention before Congress.

In February 1860 Iowa Representative Samuel Curtis introduced a bill to build the railroad. It passed the House but died when it could not be reconciled with the Senate version.

Judah returned to California in 1860. He continued to search for a more practical route through the Sierras suitable for a railroad. In the summer of 1860, a local miner, Daniel Strong, had surveyed a route over the Sierras for a wagon toll road, a route he realized would also suit a railroad. He described his discovery in a letter to Judah. Together they formed an association to solicit subscriptions from local merchants and businessmen to support their proposed railroad.

From January or February 1861 until July, Judah and Strong led a 10-person expedition to survey the route for the railroad over the Sierra Nevada, through Clipper Gap, Emigrant Gap, Donner Pass, and south to Truckee. They discovered a way across the Sierras that was gradual enough to be made suitable (with much work) for a railroad.

Before major construction could begin Judah traveled back to New York City to raise funds to buy out The Big Four. Shortly after he arrived in New York, however, Judah died on November 2, 1863, of yellow fever that he had contracted while traveling over the Panama Railroad's transit of the Isthmus of Panama. The CPRR Engineering Department was taken over by Samuel S. Montegue as his successor as Chief Engineer, and Canadian trained Chief Assistant Engineer (later Acting Chief Engineer) Lewis Metzler Clement who also became Superintendent of Track.

The Big Four and Central Pacific Railroad

Leland Stanford's official gubernatorial portrait

Collis Huntington, a hardware merchant, heard Judah's presentation about the railroad at the St. Charles Hotel in Sacramento in November 1860. He invited Judah to his office to hear his proposal in detail. Huntington changed Judah's strategy of finding several investors and instead sought to raise the money from three partners: Mark Hopkins, his business partner; James Bailey, a jeweler; Leland Stanford, a grocer, future governor of California, and founder of Stanford University; and Charles Crocker, a dry-goods merchant and eventual owner of Crocker Banks. They initially invested $1,500 each and formed a board of directors: The investors became known as The Big Four and their railroad was called the Central Pacific Railroad. Each were eventually to make millions of dollars from their continuing investments and control of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR).

Pacific Railroad Act

The Pony Express from 1860 to 1861 was to prove that the Central Nevada Route across Nevada and Utah and the sections of the Oregon Trail across Wyoming and Nebraska was viable during the winter. With the American Civil War raging and a secessionist movement in California gaining steam, the apparent need for the railroad became more urgent.

In 1861 Curtis again introduced a bill to establish the railroad, but it did not pass. After the secession of the southern states, the House of Representatives on May 6, 1862, and the Senate on June 20 finally approved it. Lincoln signed it into law on July 1. The act established the two main lines—the Central Pacific from the west and the Union Pacific from the mid-west. Other rail lines were encouraged to build feeder lines.

Each was required to build only 50 miles (80 km) in the first year; after that, only 50 miles (80 km) more were required each year. Each railroad received $16,000 per mile ($9,940/km) built over an easy grade, $32,000 per mile ($19,880/km) in the high plains, and $48,000 per mile ($29,830/km) in the mountains. This payment was in the form of government bonds that the companies could resell. To allow the railroads to raise additional money Congress provided additional assistance to the railroad companies in the form of land grants of federal lands. They were granted right-of-ways of 400 feet (100 m) plus 10 square miles (26 km2) of land (ten sections) adjacent to the track for every mile of track built. To avoid a railroad monopoly on good land, the land was not given away in a continuous swath but in a "checkerboard" pattern leaving federal land in between that could be purchased from the government. The land grant railroads, receiving millions of acres of public land, sold bonds based on the value of the lands, sold the land to settlers, used the money to build their railroads, and contributed to a rapid settlement of the West. The total area of the land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific was even larger than the area of the state of Texas: federal government land grants totaled about 203,128,500 square miles and state government land grants totaled about 76,565,000 square miles. The race was on to see which railroad company could build the longest section of track and receive the most land and government bonds.

The bonds and land grants have been frequently characterized as a government subsidy. However, historian Stephen Ambrose has argued against this since the companies repaid both the capital and interest. He also argues that although the companies were able to sell the land grants in the Sacramento Valley and Nebraska at "a good price", most of the land in Wyoming, Utah and Nevada was "virtually worthless".

Eastern Developments

Eastern Terminus

Lincoln Memorial where Abraham Lincoln is said to have selected Council Bluffs as the eastern terminus after visiting this site in 1859 under the employ of Thomas C. Durant.

Once it was decided that the railroad would follow the central route rather than the southern route, there was little question that the western terminus would be Sacramento. However, there was considerable intrigue over the eastern terminus.

The three prime candidates for the eastern terminus on 250 miles (400 km) of Missouri River between Kansas City and Omaha were:

  • Council Bluffs/Omaha proposed by Thomas C. Durant via an extension of his proposed Mississippi and Missouri Railroad via the new Union Pacific Railroad.
  • St. Joseph, Missouri via the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad (H&SJ).
  • Kansas City, Kansas/ Leavenworth, Kansas via the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western Railroad (LP&W) (later called the Kansas Pacific) controlled initially by Thomas Ewing, Jr. and later by John C. Fremont.

The principal advantages of Council Bluffs/Omaha were that it was well north of the Civil War fighting taking place in Missouri, was the shortest route to the South Pass break in the Rockies in Wyoming, and would follow a fertile river that would encourage settlement. Missouri's advantages included that it had the only railroad to actually reach the Missouri River on its western border (H&SJ), was more centrally located for lines coming up from Texas and could offer a route servicing Denver, Colorado, the biggest city in the Great American Desert. In 1862 the closest rail lines to Omaha/Council Bluffs were 150 miles (240 km) away and would take five years to reach Omaha.

Thomas C. Durant who was building the cross-Iowa railroad (the M&M) was literally banking that the Omaha route would be chosen and began buying up land in Nebraska.

In 1857, Durant hired private citizen Abraham Lincoln to represent the M&M in litigation brought by steamboat operators to dismantle Government Bridge, the first bridge across the Mississippi River. The bridge prevented steamboats from passing underneath and was an obstruction of a public waterway. In August 1859 Lincoln at the behest of M&M attorney Norman Judd traveled to Council Bluffs to inspect M&M facilities that were to be used to secure a $3,000 loan Lincoln was to hold. On the visit Lincoln rode the SJ&H railroad and visited railroad locations in Missouri and Kansas before going to Council Bluffs. During the visit Lincoln was to spend 2 hours with M&M engineer Grenville M. Dodge at the Pacific House Hotel discussing the merits of starting the railroad in Council Bluffs and was to visit Cemetery Hill there to look over the proposed route.

Lincoln's ties to Council Bluffs were furthered strengthened by the fact that he had won the 1860 Republican nomination on the third ballot when the Iowa delegation switched its vote to him. In contrast, Lincoln was to get only 10 percent of the Missouri vote in the 1860 Presidential Election.

While the Pacific Railroad Act was to award the eastern contract to the newly formed Union Pacific, it was left up to then President Lincoln to formally choose the location for the railroad to start and Lincoln in 1862 was to follow the advice of his former client.

The H&SJ and LP&W were not totally shut out of the contract though. The H&SJ was to be allowed to build a feeder line from Atchison, Kansas, while the LP&W could build a feeder line out of Kansas City, Kansas. The feeder lines were supposed to meet the Union Pacific main line somewhere around the 100th meridian west in central Nebraska and the feeder lines were to get the same land grant incentives as the Union Pacific.

Thomas Durant and the Union Pacific

Dr. Thomas Clark Durant

In contrast to the relatively straightforward arrangements for the Central Pacific, the Union Pacific which was to ultimately build nearly 2/3 of the track was to be mired in controversy and scandals while its controlling partner Thomas C. Durant got rich as he took advantage of lax or non-existent government oversight during the Civil War.

The enabling legislation for the Union Pacific required that no partner was to own more than 10 percent of the stock. However, the Union Pacific had problems selling its stock. Durant enticed investors with a scheme where he would put up the money for the stock if they would just put their names on it. Then Durant wound up taking the stock from the investors and was to end up controlling about half the stock of the railroad.

The initial construction of railroad went over land that Durant owned around Omaha. Being paid by the mile, the railroad built oxbows of extraneous track never venturing further than 40 miles (64 km) from Omaha in the railroad's first 2½ years.

Durant manipulated market prices on his stocks by spreading rumors about which railroads were to be connected to the Union Pacific. First he ran up the stock of his M&M Railroad while secretly buying stock in the depressed Cedar Rapids and Missouri Railroad (CR&M), then running up CR&M stock with new plans to connect the Union Pacific to it at which point he began buying back the M&M stock at depressed prices. The gambit is estimated to have raised $5 million for his cohorts and him.

Durant was to keep a low public profile in his machinations as he was only a vice president. He was to install a series of respected men such as John Adams Dix as president of the railroad.

On July 4, 1865, the Union Pacific had not gone farther than 40 miles (64 km) from Omaha—even as the Central Pacific had been working away for 2½ years. With the end of the Civil War and increased government supervision in the offing, Durant hired his former M&M engineer Grenville M. Dodge to build the railroad and the Union Pacific began a mad dash.


The Jupiter, which carried Leland Stanford (one of the "Big Four" owners of the Central Pacific) and other railway officials to the Golden Spike Ceremony.

To construct a railroad you need money, engineering expertise and a goal that can be "sold" to other investors. Most of the capital investment needed to build the railroad were got from selling government guaranteed bonds (granted per mile of completed track) to interested investors. The Federal donation of right-of-way saved money and time as it did not have to be purchased from others. The financial incentives and bonds would hopefully cover most of the initial capital investment needed to build the railroad. The bonds would be paid back by the sale of government granted land and prospective passenger and freight income. Most of the engineers and surveyors who figured out how and where to build the railroad on the Union Pacific were usually engineering college trained. Many of Union Pacific engineers and surveyors were Union Army veterans (including two generals) who had learned their railroad trade keeping the trains running and tracks maintained during the U.S. Civil War. After you have the fiances assured and the engineering team selected then the next choice is to hire the hire the key personnel and prospective supervisors. Nearly all key workers and supervisors were hired because of their previous railroad on-the-job training and knew what needed to be done and how to direct workers to get it done. After the key personnel were hired the semi-skilled jobs could be filled if there was available labor. The engineering team's main job was to tell the workers where to go, what to do, how to do it and provide the construction material they would need to get it done.

Survey teams were put out to produce detailed contour maps of the options on the different routes. The engineering team looked at the available surveys and choose what was the "best" route. Survey teams, under the direction of the engineers, closely led the work crews and marked where and how much hills would have to be cut and depressions filled or bridged. Coordinators made sure that construction and other supplies were provided when and where needed and additional supplies were ordered as the railroad consumed the supplies. Specialized, bridging, explosive, tunneling teams were assigned to their specialized jobs. Some jobs like explosive work, tunneling, bridging, heavy cuts or fills were known to take longer than others and the specialized bridging, tunneling, etc. teams were sent out ahead by wagon trains filled with the needed supplies and men to get these jobs started and completed by the time the regular crews arrived. Finance officers made sure the supplies were paid for and men paid for their work. An army of men had to be coordinated and a seemingly never ending chain of supplies had to be provided. The Central Pacific road crew set a track laying record by laying 10 mi (16 km) of track in a single day, commemorating the event with a signpost beside the track for passing trains to see.

In addition to the track laying crews other crews were busy setting up stations with provisions for loading fuel, water and often mail, passengers and freight. Personnel had to be hired to run these stations. Maintenance depots had to be built to keep all of the equipment repaired and operational. Telegraph operators had to be hired to man each station to keep track of where the trains were so that trains could run in each direction on the available single track without interference or accidents. Sidings had to be built to allow trains to pass. Provisions had to be made to store and continually pay for coal or wood needed to run the steam locomotives. Water towers had to be built to refill the water tanks on the engines and provisions made to keep them full.


The majority of the Union Pacific track across the Nebraska and Wyoming territory till it approached Utah territory was built by veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies and many recent immigrants. Brigham Young, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wished to get jobs for his people and see the railroad support the population centers in Ogden and Salt Lake City, Utah. As the track approached Utah Territory, he and his representatives sought and got construction contracts with the Union Pacific to build most of the road through Utah. Union Pacific provided the materials needed or contracted with others to have them supplied. Under these contracts, large work gangs of over 2,000 men, made up almost entirely of Mormons, built much of the Union Pacific track in the Utah territory including the difficult section requiring extensive trestle or bridge building, blasting, cutting, filling and tunneling through the Weber River canyon. Durant was always hard to extract money from for completed work and the final Union Pacific train carrying Durant to the final spike ceremony was held up by an unpaid worker's strike in the railroad town of Piedmont, Wyoming until he paid them for the work they had done. Unfortunately, the Utah workers didn't do the same. Brigham Young's representatives had to go to court to try and extract all the money Durant had promised them.

Chinese railroad workers greet a train on a snowy day.

The manual labor to build the Central Pacific's roadbed, bridges and tunnels was done primarily by many thousands of emigrant workers from China under the direction of skilled non-Chinese supervisors. The Chinese were commonly referred to at the time as " Celestials" and China as the "Celestial Kingdom." At that time the labor saving devices were limited to wheelbarrows and horse or mule pulled carts and a few railroad pulled gondolas so this construction work involved an immense amount of manual labor. Initially the Central Pacific had a hard time hiring and keeping unskilled workers on its line as many would leave at the latest talk of a gold or silver strike somewhere. Even though at first they were thought to be too small at about 58 inches (1.5 m) and 120 pounds (54 kg) and totally unacquainted with railroad work, Charles Crocker, one of the "big four" and a general contractor, decided to try them. After the first few days on which Chinese were working on the line, the decision was made by Crocker to hire as many more as could be hired in California (where most were independent gold miners or in service industries such as laundries and kitchens). Most of the Chinese workers were represented by a Chinese "boss" who translated, collected salaries for his crew, kept discipline and relayed orders from an American general supervisor. Most Chinese workers spoke only rudimentary or no English and the supervisors typically only learned rudimentary Chinese. Many more workers were imported from the poverty and Taiping Rebellion induced strife in Kwangtung Province China. Most workers were planning on returning with their new found "wealth" when the work was completed. Most of the men received between one and three dollars per day, the same as unskilled white workers; but the workers imported directly from China sometimes received less. A diligent worker could save over $20.00/month after paying for food and lodging—a "fortune" by Chinese standards. A snapshot of workers in late 1865 showed about 3,000 Chinese and 1,700 "white" workers employed on the railroad. Nearly all of the "white" workers were in supervisory or skilled craft positions and made more money than the Chinese.

Most of the early work on the Central Pacific consisted of constructing the railroad track bed, cutting and/or blasting through or around hills, filling in washes, building bridges or trestles, digging and blasting tunnels and then laying of the rails over the Sierra Nevada (U.S.) mountains. Once the Central Pacific was out of the Sierras the work sped up considerably as the railroad bed could be built over nearly flat ground. The Central Pacific did one section of 10 miles (16 km) of track in one day as a "demonstration" of what they could do on flat ground like most of the Union Pacific had in Wyoming and Nebraska. The track laying was divided up into various parts. In advance of the track layers workers prepared the roadbed, dug or blasted through the hills, filled in the washes, built trestles, bridges or culverts across streams or valleys, made tunnels if needed and laid the ties. Another gang laid rails on the previously laid ties positioned on the roadbed, drove the spikes, and bolted the splice bars; at the same time, another gang distributed telegraph poles and wire along the grade, while the cooks prepared dinner and the clerks busied themselves with accounts, records, using the telegraph line to relay requests for more materials and supplies or communicate with supervisors. Usually the workers lived in camps built near their work site. These camps were moved when the rail head moved and later as the railroad started moving long distances every few days some railroad cars had bunkhouses built in them that moved with the workers. Almost all of the roadbed work was done manually, using shovels, picks, axes, black powder, two-wheeled dump carts, wheelbarrows, ropes, scrapers, mules, and horses.

CPRR Tunnel #3 near Cisco, CA (MP 180.1) opened in 1866 and remains in daily use today.

Tunnels were dug through hard rock by putting hand drilled holes in the rock face, filling it with black powder and blasting the rock. Sometimes cracks were found which could be filled with powder and blasted loose. The loosened rock would be collected and hauled out of the tunnel for use in a fill area, as roadbed or dumped over the side as waste. A foot or so advance on a tunnel face was a typical days work. Some tunnels took almost a year to finish and the Summit Tunnel, the longest, took almost two years to finish. In the final days working in the Sierras nitroglycerin, which had just been invented, was introduced and used on the last tunnels including Summit Tunnel.

Supply trains carried all the necessary material for the construction up to the rail head with mule or horse drawn wagons carrying it the rest of the ways if required. Ties were typically unloaded from horse or mule drawn wagons and then placed on the track ballast and leveled to get ready for the rails. Rails, which weighed the most, were often kicked off the flatcars and carried by gangs of men on each side of the rail to where needed. The rails just behind the car would be placed first, nailed down and then the car pushed by hand to the end of the rail and rail installation repeated. Track ballast was put between the ties as they progressed. Where this was possible the work progressed rapidly. Constantly needed supplies consisted of “food, ties, rails, spikes, fishplates, nuts and bolts, track ballast, telegraph poles, wire, fire wood and water for the steam train locomotives, etc.” The railroad tracks, spikes, telegraph wire, locomotives, railroad cars, supplies etc., were imported from the east on sailing ships that sailed the about 18,000 miles (29,000 km) and about 200 day trip around Cape Horn. Some freight was put on Clipper ships which could do this same trip in about 120 days. Some passengers and high priority freight were shipped over the newly (1855) completed Panama Railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. The trip over the Isthmus of Panama using paddle steamers to and from Panama could be done in as little as about 40 days. Supplies were normally off loaded at the Sacramento, California docks where the railroad started. The railroad ties needed were cut by sawyers from timber the railroad logged by lumberjacks on forested property that was granted to the railroad in alternate sections (640 acres or 259 ha) of land over the Sierras. Some independent loggers cut and delivered ties cut from their own logging sites on separate contracts. Most of the early Central Pacific locomotives used wood cut from these same sites for fuel—look for their cone shaped spark arresting exhaust stacks.

Shipments of the highly explosive nitroglycerin for tunneling were halted after one ship carrying it blew up. They had to learn how to make it much nearer where it was being used. This problem would be largely solved later with the invention (by Alfred Nobel in 1867) of dynamite which used "stabilized" nitroglycerin. Unfortunately, this was invented a few years too late to be used.

In addition to track laying over a course laid out by the engineers and surveyors, the operation also required the efforts of hundreds of railroad bed builders, bridge builders, trestle builders, lumberjacks, sawyers, tunnelers, explosive experts, blacksmiths, carpenters, civil engineers, masons, teamsters, telegraphers, and even cooks, to name just a few of the trades and skills involved in construction of the railroad. Depending on the job different mixes of personal were required.

Upon the completion of their work on the CPRR's portion of the Pacific Railroad, many Chinese workers moved on to other railroad construction jobs including with the Central and Southern Pacific. Of those that left the company's employ, some returned with their savings to their families in China while others sent to China for wives and settled in various western communities as miners, laundrymen, and restaurateurs. The majority who remained in the United States, however, returned to and settled in the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento, Marysville and elsewhere along the Pacific coast. Because of the later restrictions on the immigration of Chinese workers many never got married or reunited with their families if they stayed in the U.S.

Central Pacific

On January 8, 1863, Governor Leland Stanford ceremoniously broke ground in Sacramento, California, to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. The Central Pacific made great progress along the Sacramento Valley. However construction was slowed, first by the foothills of the Sierra Nevada (U.S.), then by cutting a railroad bed up the mountains themselves. As they progressed higher in the mountains winter snowstorms and the problem of hiring a reliable work force compounded the problems. Consequently, after a trial crew of Chinese workers was hired and found to work successfully, the Central Pacific expanded its efforts to hire more emigrant laborers—mostly Chinese. Emigrants from poverty stricken and often Taiping Rebellion induced strife in parts of China seemed to be more willing to tolerate the sometimes bad living and working conditions, and progress on the railroad continued. The increasing necessity for tunneling as they proceeded up the mountains then began to slow progress of the line yet again.

Example of hand drilled granite from within Tunnel #6, the "Summit Tunnel".

The route of the railroad was first surveyed and the locations where large excavations, tunnels and bridges would be needed was located. Crews could then start work in advance of the railroad reaching that location. Supplies and workers were brought up to the work location by wagon team and work on several different sections at once proceeded. One advantage of working on tunnels in winter was found that tunnel work could often proceed right on through the winter since the work was nearly all "inside". Unfortunately, living quarters would have to be built outside and getting new supplies was difficult. Working and living in winter in the presence of snow slides and avalanches caused some deaths. To carve a tunnel, one worker holds a rock drill on the granite face, then one to two other workers swing eighteen-pound sledgehammers to sequentially hit the drill which slowly advances into the rock. Once the hole is about 10 inches (25 cm) deep it would be filled with black powder, a fuse set and then ignited from a safe distance. Nitroglycerin, which had just been invented, was only used to help construct the longest tunnel, the Summit Tunnel (a.k.a. Tunnel No. 6), which reached 1,659 feet (506 m).

The Chinese built 15 tunnels for Central Pacific. These tunnels were about 32 feet high, 16 feet wide. When tunnels with vertical shafts were dug and tunneling began in the middle of the tunnel hand powered derricks at first were used to help remove loose rocks up the vertical shafts to increase construction progress. These derricks were replaced with steam hoists as work progressed. By using vertical shafts four faces of the tunnel could be worked at the same time, two in the middle and one at each end. The average daily progress in some tunnels was only 0.85 feet a day per face, which was very slow, or 1.18 feet daily according to historian George Kraus. J. O. Wilder, a Central Pacific-Southern Pacific employee, commented that “The Chinese were as steady, hard-working a set of men as could be found. With the exception of a few whites at the west end of Tunnel No. 6, the laboring force was entirely composed of Chinamen with white foremen and a "boss/translator". A single foreman (often Irish) with a gang of 30 to 40 Chinese men generally constituted the force at work at each end of a tunnel; of these, 12 to 15 men worked on the heading, and the rest on the bottom removing blasted material. When a gang was small or the men needed elsewhere, the bottoms were worked with fewer men or stopped so as to keep the headings going.” The laborers usually worked three shifts of 8 hours each per day, while the foremen worked in two shifts of 12 hours each, managing the laborers. Once out of the Sierras construction was much easier and faster. Horace Hamilton Minkler, track foreman for the Central Pacific, laid the last rail and tie before the Golden Spike was driven.

CPRR snow gallery under construction in 1868.

In order to keep the CPRR's Sierra grade open during the winter months, beginning in 1867 some 37 miles of massive wooden snow sheds and galleries were built between Blue Cañon and Truckee covering cuts and other points where there was danger of avalanches. Some 2,500 men and six material trains were employed in this work which was completed the fall of 1869. The sheds were built with two sides and a steep peaked roof mostly of locally cut hewn timber and round logs. Snow galleries had one side and a roof that sloped upward until it met the mountain side thus permitting avalanches to slide over the gallery some of which extended up the mountainside as much as two hundred feet. Masonry walls such as the "Chinese Walls" at Donner Summit were built across cañons to prevent avalanches from striking the side of the vulnerable wooden construction. A few concrete sheds (mostly at crossovers) are still in use today.

Union Pacific

Grenville M. Dodge wearing a major general's uniform

The major investor in the Union Pacific was Thomas Clark Durant, who had made his stake money by smuggling Confederate cotton with the aid of Grenville M. Dodge. Durant chose routes that would favour places where he held land, and he announced connections to other lines at times that suited his share dealings. He paid an associate to submit the construction bid to another company he controlled, Crédit Mobilier, manipulating the finances and government subsidies and making himself another fortune. Durant hired Dodge as chief engineer and Jack Casement as construction boss.

In the East, the progress started in Omaha, Nebraska, by the Union Pacific Railroad proceeded very quickly because of the open terrain of the Great Plains. This changed, however, as the work entered Indian-held lands. The Native Americans saw the addition of the railroad as a violation of their treaties with the United States. War parties began to raid the moving labor camps that followed the progress of the line. Union Pacific responded by increasing security and hiring marksmen to kill American Bison, which were both a physical threat to trains and the primary food source for many of the Plains Indians. The Native Americans then began killing laborers when they realized that the so-called "Iron Horse" threatened their existence. Security measures were further strengthened, and progress on the railroad continued.

The Last Spike

Golden spike that was donated by the governor of Arizona Territory. It is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion (but is not the final golden spike).
The Last Spike by Thomas Hill (1881)

Six years after the groundbreaking, laborers of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was here on May 10, 1869, that Stanford drove The Last Spike (or golden spike) which is now on display at the Cantor Arts Centre at Stanford University, that joined the rails of the transcontinental railroad. (A second "Last" Golden Spike is also on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.) In perhaps the world's first live mass-media event, the hammers and spike were wired to the telegraph line so that each hammer stroke would be heard as a click at telegraph stations nationwide—the hammer strokes were missed, so the clicks were sent by the telegraph operator. As soon as the ceremonial spike had been replaced by an ordinary iron spike, a message was transmitted to both the East Coast and West Coast that simply read, "DONE." The country erupted in celebration upon receipt of this message. Travel from coast to coast was reduced from six months or more to just one week.


Railroad developments

Display ads for the CPRR and UPRR the week the rails were joined on May 10, 1869
UPRR & CPRR "Great American Over-Land Route" Timetable cover 1881

When the golden spike was driven, the rail network was not yet connected to the Atlantic or Pacific, but merely connected Omaha and Sacramento. In November 1869 the Central Pacific finally connected Sacramento to the east side of San Francisco Bay by rail at Oakland, California, where freight and passengers completed their transcontinental link to the city by ferry.

The original route from the Central Valley to the Bay skirted the Delta by heading south out of Sacramento through Stockton and crossing the San Joaquin River at Mossdale, then climbed over the Altamont Pass and reached the East Bay through Niles Canyon, then instead of completing the rail connection via Santa Clara up the Peninsula to San Francisco itself, the rights-of-way to which were already owned by competing interests, entered Alameda and Oakland from the south (roughly paralleling what would later become US Highway 50 and later still Interstates 5, 205, and 580). A more direct route eventually replaced this, crossing the Sacramento River and proceeding southwest through Davis to Benicia, where it crossed the Carquinez Strait by means of an enormous train ferry, then followed the shores of the San Pablo and San Francisco bays to Richmond and Oakland (paralleling US Highway 40 which ultimately became Interstate 80). In 1930 a rail bridge across the Carquinez replaced the Benicia ferries.

Very early on the Central Pacific learned that it would have trouble maintaining an open track in winter across the Sierras. At first they tried plowing the road with special snowplows mounted on their steam engines. When this was only partially successful, an extensive process of building snow sheds over some of the track to protect it from deep snows and avalanches was instituted. These eventually succeeded at keeping the tracks clear for all but a few days of the year.

Both railroads soon instituted extensive upgrade projects to build better bridges, viaducts, dugways, heavier duty rails, stronger ties, better road beds etc. The original track had often been laid as fast as possible with only secondary attention to maintenance and longevity. Getting the subsidies was initially the primary incentive; upgrades of all kinds were routinely required in the coming years.

The Union Pacific would not connect Omaha to Council Bluffs until completing the Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge in 1873.

With the end of the Civil War, the competing railroads coming from Missouri took advantage of their initial strategic advantage for a building boom. The H&SJ finished the Hannibal Bridge which was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River in July 1869 in Kansas City. This in turn connected to Kansas Pacific trains going from Kansas City to Denver which had built the Denver Pacific Railway connecting to the Union Pacific. In August 1870 the Kansas Pacific laid the last spike connecting to the Denver Pacific line at Strasburg, Colorado and the first true Atlantic to Pacific United States railroad was completed.

Kansas City's head start in connecting to a true transcontinental railroad was to contribute to it rather than Omaha being the dominant rail centre west of Chicago.

The Kansas Pacific became part of the Union Pacific in 1880.

On June 4, 1876, an express train called the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco via the First Transcontinental Railroad only 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left from New York City. Only ten years before the same journey would have taken months over land or weeks on ship.

The Central Pacific was absorbed by the Southern Pacific in 1885. The Union Pacific initially took over the Southern Pacific in 1901 but was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to divest it because of monopoly concerns. The Union Pacific completed the take-over of the Southern Pacific in 1996.

Having been bypassed with the completion of the Lucin Cutoff in 1904, the Promontory Summit rails were pulled up in 1942 to be recycled for the World War II effort. This process began with a ceremonial "undriving" at the golden spike location. In 1957, Congress authorized the Golden Spike National Historic Site. On May 10, 2006, on the anniversary of the driving of the spike, Utah announced that its state quarter design would be a representation of the driving of the spike.

Crédit Mobilier

Oakes Ames

Despite the transcontinental success and millions in government subsidies, the Union Pacific faced bankruptcy less than three years after the golden spike as details surfaced about overcharges Crédit Mobilier had billed Union Pacific for the formal building of the railroad. The scandal hit epic proportions in the United States presidential election, 1872 which saw the re-election of Ulysses S. Grant and became the biggest scandal of the Gilded Age. It would not be resolved until the death of the congressman who was supposed to have reined in its excesses but instead wound up profiting from it.

Durant had initially come up with the scheme to have Crédit Mobilier subcontract to do the actual track work. Durant gained control of the company after buying out employee Herbert Hoxie for $10,000. Under Durant's guidance the company was charging Union Pacific often twice or more the customary cost for track work (thus in effect paying himself to build the railroad). The process was to mire down Union Pacific work.

Lincoln asked Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames, who was on the railroad committee, to clean things up and get the railroad moving. Ames got his brother Oliver Ames, Jr. named president of the Union Pacific and Ames himself became president of Crédit Mobiler.

Ames in turn gave stock options to other politicians while at the same time continuing the lucrative overcharges. The scandal was to implicate Vice President Schuyler Colfax (who was cleared) and future President James Garfield among others.

The scandal broke in 1872 when the New York Sun published correspondence between Henry S. McComb and Ames detailing the scheme. In the ensuing Congressional investigation, it was recommended that Ames be expelled from Congress but this was reduced to a censure and Ames died within three months.

Durant was to leave the Union Pacific and a new rail baron Jay Gould was to become the dominant stockholder. As a result of the Panic of 1873 Jay Gould was able to pick up bargains, among them the control of the Union Pacific Railroad and Western Union also fell under his control.

Visible remains

Visible remains of the historic line are still easily located—hundreds of miles are still in service today, especially through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and canyons in Utah and Wyoming. While the original rail has long since been replaced because of age and wear, and the roadbed upgraded and repaired, the lines generally run on top of the original, handmade grade. Vista points on Interstate 80 through California's Truckee Canyon provide a panoramic view of many miles of the original Central Pacific line and of the snow sheds which make winter train travel safe and practical.

In areas where the original line has been bypassed and abandoned, primarily in Utah, the road grade is still obvious, as are numerous cuts and fills, especially the Big Fill a few miles east of Promontory. The sweeping curve which connected to the east end of the Big Fill now passes a Thiokol rocket research and development facility.

Current passenger service

Amtrak's California Zephyr, a daily passenger service from Emeryville, California ( San Francisco Bay Area) to Chicago, uses the First Transcontinental Railroad from Sacramento to central Nevada. Because this rail line currently operates in a directional running setup across most of Nevada, the California Zephyr will switch to the Central Corridor at either Winnemucca or Wells.

Popular culture

The joining together of the Union Pacific line with the Central Pacific line in May 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, was one of the major inspirations for French writer Jules Verne's book entitled Around the World in Eighty Days, which was published in the year 1873.

The feat is depicted in various movies, including the 1939 film Union Pacific, starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, which depicts the fictional Central Pacific investor Asa Barrows obstructing attempts by the Union Pacific from reaching Ogden, Utah.

While not exactly accurate, John Ford's 1924 silent movie The Iron Horse captures the fervent nationalism that drove public support for the project. Among the cooks serving the film's cast and crew between shots were some of the Chinese laborers who actually worked on the Central Pacific section of the railroad.

The 1962 film How the West Was Won has a whole segment devoted to the construction; one of the movie's most famous scenes, filmed in Cinerama, is of a buffalo stampede over the railroad.

Kristiana Gregory's book The Great Railroad Race (part of the "Dear America" series) is written as a diary by Libby West, who chronicles the end of the building of the railroad and the excitement which engulfed the country at the time.

Graham Masterton's 1981 novel A Man of Destiny (published in the UK as Railroad) is a fictionalised account of the line's construction.

In the 1999 Will Smith film, Wild Wild West, the joining ceremony is the setting of an assassination attempt on then U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant by the film's antagonist Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless.

The building of the railway is covered by the 2004 BBC documentary series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World in episode 6, "The Line".

The series American Experience also documents the railway in the episode titled "Transcontinental Railroad".

The main character in The Claim (2000) is a surveyor for the Central Pacific Railroad, and the film is partially about the effort of a frontier mayor to have the railroad routed through his town.

The popular British Television show Doctor Who featured the Transcontinental Railroad in a BBC audio book entitled The Runaway Train, read by Matt Smith and written for audio by Oli Smith.

The children's book Ten Mile Day by Mary Ann Fraser tells the story of the final, record setting push by the Central Pacific in which they set a record by laying 10 miles (16 km) of track in a single day on April 28, 1869 to settle a $10,000 bet.

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad provides the setting for the AMC television series Hell on Wheels. Thomas Durant is a regular character in the series and is portrayed by actor Colm Meaney.

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