Study Guide

Transcontinental Railroad

Transcontinental Railroad Introduction

As a New Yorker in the mid-1800s, the West was like Narnia: far off and basically mythical.

Getting to the West was possible, yes, but it wasn't exactly easy. The miles of rough terrain and wilderness that separated the East from the West might as well have been a giant fence dividing America into two totally different countries. Only the bravest of the brave would chance a move to the West, right?

Luckily, not only were the 1800s a time of incredible growth for the United States, but they were also a time of incredible technological advancement. The East Coast was already benefitting from these advances in technology and transportation, and it was finally time to spread the wealth. There had been talk of a transcontinental railroad that would run the entire length of the country from Atlantic to Pacific, but exactly what route that railroad would take was hotly debated.

Railroads mean money. They increase trade, they offer reliable transportation, and they encourage the growth of cities and towns. Naturally then, everyone wanted the railroad to run through their backyard. Northerners wanted the railroad to connect their big cities to the West and Southerners wanted to be able to easily and cheaply transport their goods to the West. 

Once the Civil War started and the South no longer had a say in it—to the victor belong the spoils, right?—a plan was introduced to construct a transcontinental railroad connecting existing railway from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. The Union Pacific Railway would work from the East and the Central Pacific Railway from the West. And they'd meet in the middle.

So, on May 10th, 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, and building—and absolutely scamming—on an unprecedented scale.

What is Transcontinental Railroad About and Why Should I Care?

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. Sound exciting? It was.

Railroad building was a defining characteristic of 19th-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.

Transcontinental Railroad Resources

Books

Stephen Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World (2000)
Ambrose gathers the story as presented by many secondary sources and peppers it with great quotes and biographical detail. The upside is that it's a breezy read; the downside is that Ambrose's tendency to cheerlead for the indomitable American spirit leads him to paint nearly everyone involved as a larger-than-life-type character and to come off as rather uncritical of corruption and excess.

David Haward Bain, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (1999)
Bain's book—the product of a 14-year effort—is the authoritative account and will probably remain so for a long time. If you want the whole story, it's here, 700 wonderfully written and meticulously researched pages.

Andrew Russell and Barry Combs, Westward to Promontory (1969)
The building of the transcontinental line across the vast mountains, plains, and deserts of the West was, undoubtedly, a spectacle to behold, and this is the book that puts you there. Russell had been the official photographer of the U.S. Military Railroad during the Civil War, and in 1868, he set out to document the Union Pacific's journey to Utah. Here's the end result.

Richard White, "Information, Markets, and Corruption: Transcontinental Railroads in the Gilded Age," Journal of American History (2003)
If you wanted to wade into the quagmire of corrupt railroad finance—and, admittedly, that's a pretty big 'if'—White's article would be a good place to begin. He details not only the practices involved, but also the historical culture in which they should be understood. If you can get through it, White leaves you with solid idea of how the financiers manipulated information to play investors, inspectors, the media, and even each other—and turned the wild profits that they often did.

Music

Classic Railroad Songs (2006)
Railroads figure heavily in American folk music, and Smithsonian has compiled a great collection of railroad tunes performed by some of the biggest names in folk.

Western Railroad Songs (1994)
This set may be the most comprehensive collection specifically dealing with the transcontinental lines, with songs covering an astounding range of topics and material.

Images

The CP Progenitor
Theodore Judah, engineer, surveyor, and father of the Central Pacific.

Scoundrel of the UP
Thomas "Doc" Durant at the Union Pacific's end of track:

Laying the Track
Construction work along the Union Pacific.

Marketing the Iron Horse
Here's an advertisement for the opening of the line to the Pacific—note the travel time from Omaha to San Francisco.

Promontory Point in Pictures
The Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Museum site maintains a page with several photos from the ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Movies & TV

Hell on Wheels (2011–2016)
This more recent television series dramatizes the Hell on Wheels towns, the story of Thomas Durant scheming his way toward Promontory Point, and focuses on a Confederate soldier turned foreman of the Union Pacific.

Transcontinental Railroad (2003)
This PBS take on the transcontinental railroad brings ample detail and great archival material, along with the commentary of some of our best railroad historians.

The Iron Road (1990)
This is the earlier (and lesser) of two PBS American Experience films on the transcontinental railroad. It's still worth viewing, however, for a general overview of the story in an entertaining package.

How the West Was Won (1962)
Don't look to this one for the real story. The real West was won or lost depending on whom you ask. Like Union Pacific, How the West Was Won is best viewed as something of a cultural artifact, a high-dollar, star-studded romantic epic inspired by a Life magazine series of the same name.

Union Pacific (1939)
This is the Hollywood version: The most famous director of American epics, Cecil B. DeMille, takes on the railroad to the West. The film adopts a popular novel from the 1930s and presents a love triangle on the tracks in 1869. Taken with a dose of reality, though, DeMille's picture is a black and white testament to Hollywood's love of the West and its legends.

Websites

Visualizing the CP
The Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Museum maintains a page with an absolutely mind-boggling amount of information. Sifting through some of their online offerings is well worth the time. There are loads of great photos, links to primary source documents, timelines, and answers to just about any question you could think to ask about the transcontinental line.

Remembering the Old West
The Library of Congress has a very cool—and extensive— railroad maps collection, that helps viewers see the West as the surveyors sketched it and as those who mapped it first.

Corporate History
The Union Pacific's corporate web page has a link to history and photos that hosts information from the UP museum.

Historical Documents

Chronicling the Fateful Connection
Along with several photos of the ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Museum page includes scans of a few contemporary newspaper chronicles of the event.

Recounting the Journey
The University of Michigan now has online a full version of The Pacific Tourist, a classic 1876 account of the transcontinental journey by rail.

Proposing the Project
The Virtual Museum of San Francisco has an online text of Theodore Judah's Pacific railroad proposal of 1857.

An Early Inspiration
The Central Pacific Railroad Museum site has a link to an excerpted version of one of Asa Whitney's Pacific railroad proposals to Congress—this one from 1848.

Protecting the UP
This scan is the text of war department correspondence regarding Gen. William T. Sherman's 1867 order to provide military protection to trains on the UP route.