Central Pacific Railroad

views updated


The Central Pacific Railroad was conceived by engineer Theodore Dehone Judah, whose idea won the financial backing of four California merchants: Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. These men envisioned an immensely profitable railway that would connect the western frontier to eastern trade; they founded the Central Pacific Railroad Company in 1861. They were engaged in a contest to lay the most track in national railway history, and a rivalry arose between Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Company. Their systems would link populations and commodities of Missouri with those of Sacramento, California.

The conflict between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific companies was not the only one surrounding the transcontinental railways' beginnings. Before the American Civil War (18611865), U.S. Congressmen fought over whether the tracks should be laid on Northern or Southern soil. The project's approval was subsequently delayed in Congress until President Abraham Lincoln (18611865) signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862.

The Railway Act sought to establish support for the project and resolve the conflicts in Congress and between the rival companies. This legislation was an important boost to the railways, and it dramatically shaped the future of the frontier. The Act authorized specific routes for the rival Central Pacific and Union Pacific companies and resolved that the tracks of the two railways would eventually meet and connect. The right of way through large tracts of public land200 feet on each side of the entire railroadwas granted to the companies for passage, any buildings necessary to the railroad's operation, and materials such as timber and stone. Additionally, in alternate sections of public land along the railroad, the land allotment extended from 200 feet to 10 miles. To further expand the amount of public land available to the railway companies, the legislation also sanctioned the United States to renege on government treaties it had signed with Native Americans. The legislation proclaimed: "The United States shall extinguish as rapidly as may be the Indian titles to all lands falling under the operation of this act."

With nearly limitless support of the government, track was laid eastward from Sacramento in 1863. Chinese laborers faced mountain winters and desert heat, and the obstacle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where nine tunnels had to be blasted through. On May 10, 1869, 1,800 miles (2,900 km) of new tracks had been laid, and the rail lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah. A luxurious celebration was planned during which two locomotives coming from either end of the railroad would touch noses and wealthy friends of the railroads' founders would be the first passengers. The plan faced some near disasters, including a mid-track labor uprising for the Union Pacific car, which delayed its arrival to the celebration by two days.

Political and economic opportunism of the government and founding business partners triumphed in opening up U.S. trade by rail. The new railroad could move cargo more quickly than wagons or boats. The railroad also opened territory for settlers seeking to become large-scale landowners.

The railroad expanded by acquiring additional lines and through mergers and leasing relationships with other companies. Soon after the completion of the main railroad, the company began building new lines, and also procured existing lines in California. Some of these additional lines were established under the umbrella of the Southern Pacific Company of California. Later, the railroad acquired existing tracks along southern routes to Texas and New Orleans. The Central Pacific Railroad Company was leased to a new holding company, the Southern Pacific (incorporated in 1884). The two companies merged in 1959.

The founders of the Central Pacific Railroad Company became fabulously wealthy. They obtained enormous financial and political support from the U.S. government even as the Union was warring with itself. They would be remembered for their contributions to the nation's first transcontinental railway and for having further secured the nation's movement and settlement westward. But this was not progress for everyone affected by the railroad. Government and owner policies toward immigrant workers cost many lives as the railroad was constructed. The seizure of lands by breaking U.S. governmental treaties with the Native Americans, and the slaughter of buffalo herds to open up land and expand industry, further circumscribed American existence and permanently scarred the relationship between indigenous peoples living under U.S. government authority.

See also: Union Pacific Railroad


Athey, Jean. "Transcontinental Train Wreck." Boy's Life, June, 1998.

Blumberg, Rhoda. Full Steam Ahead: The Race to Build a Transcontinental Railroad. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1996.

Laughlin, Rosemary. The Great Iron Link: The Building of the Central Pacific Railroad. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds, 1996.

"The Pacific Railway Act" [cited April 6,1999] available on the World Wide Web @ www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/wpages/wpgs650/railact.htm/.

About this article

Central Pacific Railroad

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Central Pacific Railroad