How the railroads first crossed America, from Atlantic to Pacific

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Trains from the Atlantic to the Pacific: How rails first crossed America (1968)

Excerpted from an article by Paul Ditzel, American Legion magazine (August 1968)

The events that led up to the driving of the Golden Spike that linked rails from the Atlantic to the Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah, May 10, 1869.

Locomotive crew in Utah, 1869

The most dramatic and best-known story of railroading in the United States is the connecting of the Atlantic and the Pacific by rail on Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, with its celebrated driving of a golden spike to mark the tying of the oceans together by rail across the heart of the United States.

What followed was the development of the West, and, nearly 100 years later, the ascendancy of California as the most populous state in the Union, in 1960.

While the golden spike tied the oceans by rail, this last great leap of transcontinental railroading was not from the Atlantic, but from the Missouri at Omaha, Nebraska, just across the river from Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Hannibal and St. Joseph line had crossed to the Missouri River at St. Joseph, Montana, south of Omaha, in 1859.

No road from the East went to Council Bluffs when the Pacific route was started, although the Chicago and Northwestern was headed there and would arrive in 1867, two years before completion of the Pacific link. The span from Omaha to San Francisco was, by a little, more than half the distance across the nation and over the roughest and emptiest part of it.

How rails first crossed America

Unlike earlier growth of the rails — which moved through country with many freight and passenger destinations — once west of Omaha there was no destination worth building a line to, short of the California coastal plain.

Because this great hop of more than 1,700 miles was an all-the-way-or-don’t-bother proposition, it had earlier intrigued the imagination more than the daring of the road-builders.

In 1830, there were less than 40 miles of railroad in the United States. Then track-age proliferated in east-west and north-south webs east of the Mississippi. In 1840, there were 2,769 miles of track. Ten years later, there were 8,683, and by 1860, there were 30,203.

Construction Train near Green River, Dakota Territory - Wyoming
Construction Train near Green River, Dakota Territory – Wyoming (1860s)

No rail crossed the Mississippi until 1852, when the first bridge over the river of any sort was the Rock Island’s, just west of Chicago. When hit by a steamboat the bridge burned, and a lawsuit sought to prevent the Rock Island from rebuilding it. Abe Lincoln defended the railroad and won.

The first locomotive to continue west of the river after crossing it went five miles beyond St. Louis in December 1852. Then, in 1859, the Hannibal and St. Joseph completed the long hop across the width of Missouri to St. Joseph.

On the east bank of the Missouri, the westward march halted until 1862. The only rails west of there were local ones in California.

On July 2, 1862, with the Civil War demanding most of his attention, Lincoln, now President, signed the Pacific Railroad Act authorizing federal aid for the construction of the first transcontinental railroad — a proposition that would link Council Bluffs with San Francisco, after first connecting Omaha with Sacramento and leaving a little to be done on each end.

Chinese workers fill in one of the great Sierra trestles with rock and earth
Chinese workers fill in one of the great Sierra trestles with rock and earth
“Region of savages and wild beasts”

It was an idea that had been thought about and debated, treated by some as a possibility and by others as only a dream, since the ’49ers had weathered Cape Horn, struggled over Panama’s malarial isthmus, or braved the overland plains, mountains and deserts by ox and covered wagon to get to California.

Indeed, proposals to build the line had been talked of even before then. Daniel Webster, one of many opposed to the idea, did not even want the West.

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He asked his fellow Senators in 1840: “What do we want with… this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?

“To what use could we ever put those endless mountain ranges, impenetrable and covered to their very bases with eternal snow? What could we do with the western coastline three thousand miles away, rockbound, cheerless, and uninviting?”

That much had changed in 1848 when Mexico ceded California to the United States, gold was discovered, and the great westward migration became a fact. Now no one debated the desirability of a few days by rail to the Pacific instead of seven months by the Cape or five weeks via Panama.

In 1853, after 16 state legislatures had approved the idea, Congress instructed War Secretary Jefferson Davis (later President of the Confederacy) to send out exploring parties to seek possible routes.

Five resulted: the Southern Trail from Fulton, Arkansas, to San Diego: the Northern Trail from St. Paul to Vancouver: the Mormon Trail from Council Bluffs to San Francisco: the 35th Parallel Trail from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to San Pedro, California, and the buffalo trail from Kansas City, Missouri, to San Francisco.

Continental map of the Pacific Railroad

When Davis recommended the Southern Trail, he was charged with sectional favoritism. His route was the least expensive of the five to build. It would take an estimated $68,970,000, and it followed more level terrain than the mountain passes of the northern trails where heavy snowfalls created major problems.

But as northerners feared the Southern Trail would weight the West in favor of slavery. and as Southern leaders said any of the northern routes would encourage more free states, the railroad was sidetracked. No decision had been reached when, in April 1861, the Civil War began.

Involving The Big Four

Then, on a day late in the fall of 1861, an intense young engineer and lobbyist, Theodore D. Judah, arrived in Washington from California. He said he represented a syndicate that included Leland Stanford (California’s Governor); two hardware store operators, Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins; and a dry goods merchant, Charles Crocker, all of Sacramento. [The four businessmen were known as “The Big Four.”]

They had formed the Central Pacific Railroad Company at Judah’s urging and had named him chief engineer. Judah was known in Washington, where he had earlier represented Pacific Coast rail interests. As a rail engineer, he was widely respected. Not only had he built a local rail line in the Sacramento Valley, but he had planned and built the Niagara Gorge railroad.

Judah described the railroad he could build, with government aid, from Sacramento, on the coastal plain east of San Francisco, up and over the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Coming from anyone but the Niagara Gorge engineer it might have been unbelievable.

Sign boasts of CP’s one day track laying record, Utah

Sacramento was approximately at sea level. From there to the Donner Summit was a steep climb of more than 7,000 feet in only 100 miles. A pass to the summit, said Judah, had been shown to him by a druggist, Daniel W. Strong, who lived in Dutch Flat, a California mining community in the area.

Much of the roadbed would have to be hacked and tunneled through the mountains. Long trestles would carry trains over the deep gorges. Judah dismissed the snow problem as something he could handle easily with plows.

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Congressmen were so impressed by Judah that they made him Secretary of the House and Senate Select Committees for the Pacific Railroad, with office space in the old Vice President’s room in the Capitol.

Most railroad historians give Judah paramount credit for the terms of the original Pacific Railroad Act that Lincoln signed the following summer.

The war eliminated proponents of the southern route from Congress and greatly simplified Judah’s lobbying. It was, moreover, most important now for the Union to bind itself more closely with California.

How rails first crossed America

The railroad’s profit margin

Exactly what the CP and the UP cost and how much profit was made by their builders will probably never be known. A Senate investigating committee was critical of the haphazard bookkeeping methods of both organizations.

Many believe that the Credit Mobilier combine made perhaps more than $16,500,000 profit. Economist Robert W. Fogel, regarded as one of the foremost authorities on the subject, said $11,100,000 would have been a “reasonable profit.”

On the other hand, a Congressional committee, looking into the value of the land grants, reported in 1945 that “it is probable the railroads have contributed over $900 million in payment of the lands . . . the total value of the lands at the time they were granted was not more than $126 million.”

In 1904, a portion of the track along which the gold spike was laid became a branch line, upon completion of a trestle and fill across Great Salt Lake which shortened the transcontinental line by 45 miles.

On Sept. 8, 1942, the branch line was torn up and scrapped. Only an obelisk monument marks the spot where the gold spike was placed.

The U.S. Interior Department plans to replace the monument and to build a public park and museum along a restored section of the original right-of-way at Promontory. Locomotives representative of the Jupiter and No. 119 may be added to the display which, it is hoped, will be completed in time for 1969’s centennial anniversary of the gold spike ceremony at Promontory.

How the railroads first crossed America (1968)

Great event: Rail road from the Atlantic to the Pacific – May 10, 1869

Handbill - Great event: Rail road from the Atlantic to the Pacific - May 10, 1869

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