transcontinental railroad, in U.S. history, rail connection with the Pacific coast. In 1845, Asa Whitney presented to Congress a plan for the federal government to subsidize the building of a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific. The settlement of the Oregon boundary in 1846, the acquisition of western territories from Mexico in 1848, and the discovery of gold in California (1849) increased support for the project; in 1853, Congress appropriated funds to survey various proposed routes. Rivalry over the route was intense, however, and when Senator Stephen Douglas introduced (1854) his Kansas-Nebraska Act, intended to win approval for a line from Chicago, the ensuing sectional controversy between North and South forced a delay in the plans. During the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress enacted legislation (July 1, 1862) providing for construction of a transcontinental line. The law provided that the railroad be built by two companies; each received federal land grants of 10 alternate sections per mile on both sides of the line (the amount was doubled in 1864) and a 30-year government loan for each mile of track constructed. In 1863 the Union Pacific RR began construction from Omaha, Nebr., while the Central Pacific broke ground at Sacramento, Calif. The two lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah, and on May 10, 1869, a golden spike joined the two railways, thus completing the first transcontinental railroad. Others followed. Three additional lines were finished in 1883: the Northern Pacific RR stretched from Lake Superior to Portland, Oreg.; the Santa Fe extended from Atchison, Kans., to Los Angeles; and the Southern Pacific connected Los Angeles with New Orleans. A fifth line, the Great Northern, was completed in 1893. Each of those companies received extensive grants of land, although none obtained government loans. The promise of land often resulted in shoddy construction that only later was repaired, and scandals, such as Crédit Mobilier (see Crédit Mobilier of America), were not infrequent. The transcontinental railroads immeasurably aided the settling of the west and hastened the closing of the frontier. They also brought rapid economic growth as mining, farming, and cattle-raising developed along the main lines and their branches.
See J. Grodinsky, Transcontinental Railway Strategy, 1869–1893 (1962); R. W. Howard, The Great Iron Trail (1962); L. M. Beebe, The Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads (1963); G. Hogg, Union Pacific: The Building of the First Transcontinental Railroad (1967, repr. 1970); C. E. Ames, Pioneering the Union Pacific (1969); J. J. Stewart, The Iron Trail to the Golden Spike (1969); D. H. Bain, Empire Express (1999); S. E. Ambrose, Nothing zLike It in the World (2000).
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. The federal 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.