When does a singularly brilliant feat of engineering assume even grander proportions? Answer: When that feat of engineering comes to embody, for many, the hopes and ambitions of a nation. Such was the case with the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which grew from a far-off vision shared by a relatively small group of dreamers, railroad enthusiasts, and boosters to a several-hundred-million-dollar iron-and-tie reality that became the media event of the decade and transformed the West. By the mid-1860s, nearly everyone seemed to be behind the idea, and the road couldn't be finished quickly enough. It had become a marker of progress, a sign of both the nation's recovery from the Civil War and its future greatness. In 1866, with the project just three years from completion, the Rocky Mountain News gushed that "the one moral, the one remedy for every evil, social, political, financial, and industrial, the one immediate vital need of the entire Republic, is the Pacific Railroad."6 Such a statement seems wildly over-the-top now but was hardly remarkable then.
But that was 1866, when railroad enthusiasm was reaching a fever pitch. Just a few decades earlier, the project hardly qualified as a pipedream. In the 1840s, a merchant named Asa Whitney was one of the only people advocating for it. Whitney would prove a remarkably far-sighted prophet. He had spent the early part of that decade doing business in China and was convinced that a railroad linking the American coasts would be the key to unlocking trade with Asia. With that conviction, he threw himself entirely into the endeavor of making that railroad a reality. By 1845, his vision had materialized into a plan.
In a proposal submitted to Congress, Whitney imagined a railroad extending West from Lake Michigan, drawing "all our immensely wide-spread population together as one vast city; the moral and social effects of which must harmonize together as one family."7 It was a compelling pitch but one that ultimately went nowhere. Congress was so riven with the sectional rivalries that would propel the country into the Civil War that such an ambitious proposal was doomed to stall. And through the next decade, the political infighting that had snagged Whitney's plan would remain a great obstacle to would-be builders of a Pacific railroad.
Even after southern secession made it possible for President Abraham Lincoln to get support for a transcontinental railroad through Congress, a huge question clouded the project's future: technical feasibility. Neither the state of the art in locomotive design nor in civil engineering suggested that building a railroad over the Sierra Nevada was entirely plausible. Making it over the range when a locomotive could climb a grade of no more than about 115 feet per mile would be difficult to say the least, and tunneling through solid Sierra granite struck most as impossible. One of the few who thought otherwise was the young engineer Theodore Judah, the heir to Whitney's vision and the man who, more than anyone else, took the project from dream to reality.
In the person of Ted Judah, the nation's enthusiasm for a transcontinental railroad was concentrated to the point of obsession. His tireless promotion led to the involvement of the Central Pacific's big four investors (future California governor Leland Stanford and Sacramento merchants Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—the foursome known to history as the Associates) and did much to generate support for the project in Washington. Just as important, it was Judah who found a technologically feasible route through the Sierra: cresting the ridge at Donner Pass.
After years of increasingly strained relations with the Associates—the CP's most important investors—Judah fell ill and died before the transcontinental railroad was completed. Whitney, on the other hand, had retreated from public life in bitter disappointment after the failure of his own proposal for the line. Getting the job done ultimately fell to men who were less idealistic but could command a great deal more money than Whitney and Judah.
Asa Whitney and Ted Judah had vision, but a project of the transcontinental railroad's unprecedented scale took more than that. It took lobbying, fundraising, politicking, and brilliant organization. It took the talents of the new class of capitalists that was emerging in the late nineteenth century, men who are remembered for their questionable ethics as often as they are for their undeniable talents. In the case of the Central Pacific, these men were the Associates, and for the newly incorporated Union Pacific, Thomas C. Durant and the investors who would join him in the Crédit Mobilier corporation. To Durant and the Associates, the transcontinental railroad was first and foremost a business venture. All of them had amassed considerable personal wealth in other enterprises, and they put much of that wealth, along with no small amount of skill in management, planning, and scamming into getting the transcontinental railroad built, built quickly, and built with a handsome return on the investment.
As the building progressed, a funny thing became apparent about the legislation Congress had passed to support the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Oddly, no meeting point for the westbound Union Pacific and the eastbound Central Pacific had been fixed. All that had been specified was the rate at which the government would contribute support in bonds and land grants per approved mile of track. This resulted in the curious yet very appropriately American situation of pitting the two lines against each other in a race to lay more track (needlessly and redundantly, in some cases) and therefore lay claim to a greater share not only of public glory but public funds, as well.
And although the directors of both lines might be faulted for the degree to which self interest influenced construction, they deserve some credit for inspired personnel choices and remarkable organizational abilities. The CP's thousands of Chinese workers, headed by Charles Crocker and one-eyed foreman James Strobridge, laid siege to the Sierras for years, often tunneling in the snow and blasting the mountains from several sides at once. On the UP, the largely Union army veteran workforce under General Grenville Dodge and Dan and Jack Casement brought military management and discipline to a system that often laid several miles of track a day—in spite of the ever-problematic direction of Durant, who was no friend of efficiency and insisted on milking the construction project for personal profit.
And yet, in the spring of 1869, the lines met. The meeting was celebrated 10 May 1869 at Promontory Summit, where a final, golden spike was hammered into the track by directors of both railroads. Telegraph wires transmitted the blows of the hammer across the nation, and at the exact moment, canons were fired in unison on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The newspapers were exultant. America, it seemed, had taken its place on the world stage.
As it turned out, the construction of the railroad was not immediately momentous for the world. It did much more to stimulate internal commerce than trade abroad, but that in itself was a significant accomplishment. Whitney's dream may not have been fully realized, but the completion of the project had great significance for American society. The transcontinental railroad pointed the way to industrial and economic possibility on a new scale. It seemed to make real the idea of Manifest Destiny, to validate America's sense of itself. It testified to the brilliance of American engineering, and despite troubles along the way and still to come, it had become a lasting embodiment of the American notion of progress. To many, the transcontinental railroad had become exactly what one prescient editor had predicted back in the 1830s: "one of those great projects which none but a great nation could effect—but peculiarly adapted to the enterprising character of the United States."8