On May 10, 1869, the last tracks of the United States' first cross-country railroad were laid, making North America the first continent to be spanned from coast to coast by a rail line. The event was the fulfillment of a great national dream to knit the vast country closer together. Short-run rail lines had been in use since the 1840s, but the nation lacked a quick and reliable method for transporting people, raw materials, and finished goods between distant regions.
In the early 1860s, the U.S. Congress decided in favor of extending the railroad across the country. Thefederal government granted land and extended millions of dollars in loans to two companies to complete the project. After a long debate that had become increasingly sectional, Congress determined the railroad should run roughly along the 42nd parallel—from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. This route was chosen for its physical properties: the topography of the landscape would best allow the ambitious project. The Union Pacific Railroad was to begin work in Omaha and lay tracks westward; the Central Pacific Railroad was to begin in Sacramento and lay tracks eastward, crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Work began in 1863, and six years later the two projects met at Promontory in north-central Utah, northwest of Ogden. By the end of the 1800s, fifteen rail lines crossed the nation.
trans·con·ti·nen·tal / ˌtranskäntəˈnentl; ˌtranz-/ • adj. (esp. of a railroad line) crossing a continent. ∎ extending across or relating to two or more continents: a transcontinental radio audience.• n. Can. a transcontinental railroad or train.DERIVATIVES: trans·con·ti·nen·tal·ly adv.