On 10 May 1869, a final golden spike was hammered into the first American transcontinental railroad, a project that had cost hundreds of millions of dollars and required years of labor from tens of thousands of men. Connecting the Union Pacific (UP) with the Central Pacific (CP) was the single greatest feat of engineering in U.S. history, the culmination of dreaming, planning, building, and scamming on an unprecedented scale. The men who built the railroad lived one of the biggest stories of the nineteenth century, and their work would remake the American West, bind the country together economically and culturally, and redefine for many the very scope of human enterprise.
The transcontinental railroad was a powerful symbol of American ambition and ability, and in a story that runs from the highs of the West's great mountain ranges to the lows of the century's biggest financial scandal, we can learn a lot about the nature of American progress and where that progress was leading the country.
How's this for an American epic recipe? Take a couple hundred million dollars, at least ten thousand Chinese workers, hordes of demobilized Civil War veterans, a few crooked financiers, one possibly delusional engineer, an assassinated president, a bunch of increasingly desperate Plains Indian tribes, and some Mormons. Mix with ample amounts of blasting powder, nitroglycerine, and whiskey and spread it all across the iconic landscape of the American West. Maybe throw in a couple of hookers, gamblers, and gunslingers for a little spice. Sounds exciting? It was.
Railroad building was a defining characteristic of nineteenth-century America; nowhere in history was this process quite so dramatic as it was in the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was the physical, material process of a young nation growing into its own vast territory and grand sense of destiny, and the building of that railroad encompassed many of the great issues of the day: westward expansion, immigrant labor, the rise of big business, national unity and disunity, political corruption, the subjugation of the Plains Indians, and more. This is the story of how the whole crazy thing came together.