Although the Central Pacific Railroad was dreamed up, planned out, and financed by a small group of wealthy, white men whose names are well known to history, it was built by the Chinese.
The actual physical tracks—mile after mile of them—were laid by thousands of Chinese workers whose individual backgrounds and experiences are among the great untold stories of the American West. Few of their letters or journals survive to help us learn about the men themselves, but considering the experience of the group as a whole can give us some important insights into race and labor in the late-19th century.
Much like California's white population, Chinese immigrants had come to the territory in the 1850s hoping to find fortune in the gold and silver mines. What they found instead was legal and extralegal discrimination that made it almost impossible for them to make a decent living. They couldn't vote, couldn't go to public schools, couldn't become citizens, and couldn't testify in court. Yet they paid a foreign miner's "permission tax," a water tax, a hospital tax, a school tax, and a property tax. They often found work as domestics and, by nearly all accounts, performed admirably in most any capacity.
But as a group, the Chinese remained a target of unrelenting discrimination among the general population of California and received particular scorn from the state's politicians. The Central Pacific's Leland Stanford campaigned successfully for governor, in part because of his vehement hatred for the Chinese, whom he famously dubbed "the dregs of Asia."blank">Manifest Destiny. But if the railroad lent itself to the territorial and cultural unity of white America, it must be remembered that such unity came at the price of the culture that had preceded it. The men who built the Union Pacific reached into the American West and remade it. In the process, they consigned the old West, the West of the Cheyenne and Sioux, to history, memory, and the bleakness of the reservation system.
The American West was never wilder than in the days when the Union Pacific was pushing through it. As the end of the line made its daily advance toward the Pacific, along with it came a mobile scene of whiskey-fueled debauchery that would rival anything in Hollywood's westerns. Here, history and myth converged in a spectacle of vice, violence, and of course, entertainment widely known as "Hell on Wheels."
The first Hell on Wheels town was North Platte, Nebraska, where the Union Pacific had stopped for the 1866 to 1867 winter. Practically overnight, the little town ballooned to a settlement of about 5,000 souls, a great many of whom were young, male, and ready to burn through any money they'd saved working on the rail in the warmer months. Entrepreneurial hustlers of all stripes—mostly from booming Chicago—descended on North Platte to help them do just that.
The spirit of the place was well captured by the journalist Henry Stanley. "Every gambler in the Union seems to have steered his course here, where every known game under the sun is played," he wrote. "Every house is a saloon, and every saloon is a gambling den."
The historically specific culture of several thousand railroad workers—and the men and women who entertained and swindled them—became part of the popular culture shared by millions of Americans.
One reason it took as long as it did for anyone to get around to building the transcontinental railroad was that, for the longest time, no one was sure how to pay for it, or even who would bear the financial burden.
Consider these figures: the entire antebellum canal system of the United States had cost a grand total of $2 million. The railroad system as it was in 1859 had been built for about $1 billion. Completing the national rail network would run up another $10 billion.
Question: 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."
In the 1850s, the greatest obstacle facing anyone who hoped to build a railroad to the Pacific wasn't the Sierra Nevada, nor was it the Rockies. It was sectionalism in American politics: the delicate balance between North and South in Congress.
The greatest barrier to getting a transcontinental railroad built in mid-century America was, in a word, slavery.
The father of the Central Pacific, Theodore Judah, wrote in 1857 that "the proposition [to build the transcontinental railroad] carries the elements of destruction with it; it cannot be done until the route is defined; and if defined, the opposing interest is powerful enough to defeat it."
At the time of Judah's writing, no one doubted the need for a railroad to the Pacific, least of all men in government. The boost in commerce alone seemed to justify the project, even before gold had been discovered in California in the late 1840s. There was also the issue of territorial integrity. Although U.S. authority ostensibly spanned all the way to the Pacific coast, the reality of the situation was somewhat different. Before the transcontinental railroad, it took months overland or by sea to reach California from the eastern U.S. To mid-century legislators, the situation no doubt seemed a little like that of imperial Britain trying to control its colonies across the Atlantic a hundred years earlier. A transcontinental railroad was undoubtedly needed, but the route that it would take was far from decided.
Efforts had been made, though. In 1853, Congress had ordered a survey of potential routes, and Secretary of War and future Confederate leader Jefferson Davis had sent four teams across the country to identify the best one. They didn't identify one, but instead reported that several routes seemed practical (all of which eventually became railroads). Even if a single best route had been identified, nothing would have come of it. Slave state politicians would have blocked any route that seemed to favor free states and vice versa, creating a political stalemate that lasted right up to the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, of course, is remembered as the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation and the savior of the Union. He's less known as a great friend of the transcontinental railroad, but his role in the story is similarly important. Part of Lincoln's reputation as a lawyer rested on his early work promoting the growth of the railroads, and as chief executive, Lincoln proved to be a railroad man with a truly national vision. He supported Judah's land grant proposal (giving the railroads alternating parcels of land along the transcontinental route), and he established a universal rail size, known as standard gauge, that enabled the nation's many smaller rail networks to begin to forge a greater network that was truly national.
Lincoln's early support for the transcontinental lines was crucial, and it points to the importance politics and politicians held for the project as a whole. Just as slavery—a political issue—proved more than sufficient to hamstring the efforts of Pacific rail promoters for decades, once construction was underway, favorable legislation and support in Washington remained a decisive factor. Both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific depended on government loans, guarantees, and funding to get underway, and they lobbied constantly to keep the good will flowing.
The CP's Collis Huntington and the UP's "Doc" Durant became veritable fixtures in Washington, currying favor, greasing the wheels, and at least in Durant's case, directing large amounts of stock and money toward people with positions of influence. Whereas the dominant political wisdom of the early-19th century had insisted on keeping the federal government at a distance from business and the creation of infrastructure, in the time of the transcontinental railroad, it became clear that the two spheres couldn't be completely divorced.
Much has been made of the role the transcontinental railroad played in tying the Union together by uniting the proverbial "house divided." Yet the relationship between politics and private investment on the railroads in the 1860s hints that another gap was bridged, as well: the separation of government and business that had been staunchly defended just a few decades earlier.
The transcontinental railroad remade the American West.
Consider first that the railroad, any railroad, was by nature a form of transportation significantly more independent of geography than anything that had preceded it. It wasn't tied to preexisting waterways like the steamboat, and given its relative speed, it could cross great waterless stretches of plain or desert with ease compared to man or pack animal. As the technology improved (which it did continuously throughout the mid-1800s), railroads developed the capacity to span rivers and gorges, climb hills, and tunnel through mountains. Where they couldn't surmount the natural terrain, they changed it; the route of the transcontinental railroad was a wonder of cuts, fills, tunnels, and bridges.
It was—and remains—a marvel of planning and construction. When the highway route across the West was built decades later, it followed the path broken by the rail.
Of course, breaking that path and laying the track required tremendous resources. In the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, the federal government not only granted huge amounts of land to the railroad companies (in alternating sections along the track), but it also ceded the resources on the route. As with the land, trackside timber, water, and minerals could be extracted, processed, or sold as the railroads saw fit. This had huge environmental consequences. By the late 1860s, the California State Board of Agriculture estimated that one-third of the state's forests had already disappeared, and much of that had gone to the railroads (the rest went largely to mining).blank">Dust Bowl—the 20th-century ecological disaster in which much of the Plains topsoil blew away in a prolonged drought—were being sown.
Told this way, the transcontinental railroad seems like nothing so much as a harbinger of environmental decline.
While this may be true in part, there's another way of looking at the story, particularly in light of America's 20th-century transportation history. Consider the environmental legacy of the railroad as it compares with the impact of its successor, the automobile, and consider the physical presence of the tracks themselves. Railroads carve a comparatively narrow path through the land and have stops spaced in a way that suggests discreet settlement rather than sprawl.
And the railroad is a form of mass transit, of course, which one might argue not only uses resources more efficiently but also creates a different experience of overland travel.
Such was the case with the transcontinental railroad, particularly the portion laid by the Central Pacific. The mountain journey through the Sierra Nevada was a singular experience for riders. They marveled at the land and at the ingenuity of the men who had managed to lay track across it. The railroad companies were quick to pick up on the fact that spectacular sights and destinations on the rail were good for business. Not only did they begin to actively pitch the Pacific railroad as a great way to see and experience the grandeur of the West, but they also understood that the preservation of that grandeur was in their best interest.
So, the railroads following the first transcontinental line would become supporters of the fledging national park system and enthusiastic operators of some of the most scenic trips in the country.
Now that we're decades into the reign of the American automobile, the ecological footprint of the railroad—while certainly significant—appears quaint by comparison. And given that the environmental impact of the automotive age continues to grow, the turn away from trains as a dominant mode of passenger transportation will surely loom far larger as a decisive moment in environmental history than the construction of the entire rail system.