Railroads may seem like an anachronism to your students, but the construction of a transcontinental network was an incredible achievement that greatly excited and inspired people at the time. One challenge for you, therefore, will be helping your students understand just how ambitious a project the construction of the railroad really was. Part of the achievement lay in the simple construction of the railroad with relatively simple tools and lots of hard labor. The organization of manpower and resources was truly epic. To help your students understand this, we have included a flow-chart exercise that asks your students to diagram the actual track-laying process of the railroad companies.
As part of your exploration of the scale and ambition of this project, you might want to explore the alliance between business and government that brought this epic project to completion. As we emphasize, prior to 1860, this sort of massive internal improvement project and this sort of private-public enterprise were unthinkable. This may enable you to explore with your students whether this model could be applied to other national objectives, or whether the circumstances surrounding this one project were unique.