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Transcontinental Railroad, Building of


TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD, BUILDING OF. The Transcontinental Railroad was the result of the U.S. commitment to Manifest Destiny and its burgeoning industrial might. Long distances and slow transportation hampered contact between eastern and western commercial centers. Both the United States government and entrepreneurs sought faster transportation to link the two sections. For a decade after 1850, Congress studied possible transcontinental routes, but arguments over sectionalism and slavery blocked all plans. Not until after the South seceded and the Civil War had begun could Congress pass an effective transcontinental plan, the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. It called for two railroad companies to complete the transcontinental line. The railroad would be a "land-grant railroad," meaning that the government would give each company 6,400 acres of land and up to $48,000 for every mile of track it built. The money capitalized the project, and the railroads could use the land to entice settlers to the West, who in turn would need the railroads to haul freight. But Congress, afraid to fund a project that would never be completed, wrote a caveat into the act: the railroads had to complete the project by July 1,1876, or they would forfeit the land, money, and all of the constructed track.

The Union Pacific Railroad, a corporation formed for the venture, would build the eastern half of the line starting in Nebraska. The Central Pacific Railroad, owned by a group of California entrepreneurs including Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford, would build the western half.

Preliminary work began, even as the nation still fought the Civil War. Surveyors and engineers had to scout and map workable routes. After the war, several army generals served as engineers on the project. They included Grenville Dodge, a favorite general of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, who became the Union Pacific's chief engineer.

Work progressed rapidly after the Civil War. The project attracted many former soldiers, both Union and Confederate, as well as Irish and Chinese immigrants. The Central Pacific quickly had to tackle the rugged Sierras in California. Rather than go over or around them, engineers chose to go through them. But such a plan required tons of dynamite and someone to set the charges. The Chinese were often willing to do the hazardous work for less pay than other Americans, and they became a backbone of the Central Pacific work crew. Men working on both lines braved the extremes of heat and cold, hostile Native Americans, and disease as they advanced.

The two railroads reached northern Utah at about the same time, and the work crews passed by each other, for no one had decided where the rails were to join. Government engineers stepped in and selected Promontory Point, Utah, for the connection. In a ceremony that included the driving of a symbolic golden railroad spike, the two lines linked on May 10,1869, seven years ahead of schedule.


Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

R. Steven Jones

See also Central PacificUnion Pacific Race ; Land Grants for Railways .

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