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The Transcontinental Railroad - Link Up
Brian Trumbore

Over the last few weeks we have been covering the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, focusing on the incredibly difficult task of crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

But today we'll wrap it up as the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, which started laying track in Omaha and Sacramento, respectively, finally hook up on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah.

As historian Stephen Ambrose notes, by the end of April 1869, the competition was basically over; but the year before the UP construction boss had made a big deal of his men being able to lay 4 miles of track in a single day. Charles Crocker, the man in charge of the CP labor force, later said, "(the UP's feat) was heralded all over the country as being the biggest day's tracklaying that was ever known." So Croker told James Strobridge, the foreman featured in earlier pieces, that the CP must beat the UP's mark. So the CP laid 6 miles of track. Then, the UP, starting at 3:00 AM and finishing at midnight, upped it to 8 miles.

Well, that gave Crocker an idea as he told Strobridge "we must not beat them until we get so close together that there is not enough room for them to turn around and outdo us." Ten miles was the figure he had in mind.

So the two waited until April 27, when the CP had only 14 miles to go, the UP 9. Crocker had a bet with Thomas Durant of the UP for $10,000 that the CP would lay the ten miles. Ambrose writes:

"What the CP crews did that day should be remembered as long as this Republic lasts. White men born in America were there, along with former slaves whose ancestors came from Africa, plus immigrants from all across Europe, and more than 3,000 Chinese. There were some Mexicans with a touch of Native American blood in them, as well as French Indians and at least a few Native Americans. Everyone was excited, ready to get to work, eager to show what he could do. Even the Chinese, usually methodical and a bit scornful of the American way of doing things, were stirred to a fever pitch. They and all the others. They had come together at this desolate place in the middle of western North America to do what had never been done before.

"The sun rose at 7:15 AM. First the Chinese went to work. According to the San Francisco Bulletin's correspondent, 'In eight minutes, the sixteen cars were cleared, with a noise like the bombardment of an army.'

"The Irishmen laying track came on behind the pioneers. Their names were Michael Shay, Patrick Joyce, Michael Kennedy, Thomas Daley, George Elliott, Michael Sullivan, Edward Killeen, and Fred McNamara. Their foreman was George Coley. The two in front on each 30-foot rail would pick it up with their tongs and run forward. The two in the rear picked it up and carried it forward until all four heard 'Down.' The rails weighed 560 pounds each.

"Next came the men starting the spikes by placing them in position, then the spike drivers, then the bolt threaders, then the straighteners, finally the tampers.

" 'The scene is a most animated one,' wrote one newspaper reporter. 'From the first pioneer to the last tamper, perhaps two miles, there is a thin line of 1,000 men advancing a mile an hour; the iron cars running up and down; mounted men galloping backward and forward. Alongside of the moving force are teams hauling tools, and water-wagons, and Chinamen, with pails strung over their shoulders, moving among the men with water and tea.'

"One of the Army officers, the senior man, grabbed Charlie Crocker's arm and said, 'I never saw such organization as this; it is just like an army marching across over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.'

"When the whistle blew for the noon meal, at 1:30 PM, the CP workers had laid 6 miles of track. Strobridge had a second team of tracklayers in reserve, but the proud men who had put down the first 6 miles insisted on keeping at it throughout the rest of the day. By 7:00 PM, the CP was 10 miles and 56 feet farther east than it had been at dawn. Never before done, never matched.

"To demonstrate how well the track had been laid, the engineer Jim Campbell ran a locomotive over the new track at 40 miles an hour. Jack Casement turned to Strobridge. 'He owned up beaten,' Strobridge later commented. But so far as can be told, Durant never paid Crocker the $10,000 he lost in the bet."

While much of the transcontinental railroad ran through absolutely spectacular scenery, Promontory Point was a most nondescript place. The ceremony was initially slated for May 8, but it took a while to assemble all the dignitaries, thanks in no small part to an accident with the train from Sacramento and weather problems on the UP side.

Finally, all was set for May 10. About 500 people assembled as Leland Stanford of the CP drove the Golden Spike. Immediately, a wire went out, "Done!" Telegrams were exchanged. To President Grant: "Sir: We have the honor to report that the last rail is laid, the last spike is driven, the Pacific Railroad is finished." Signed by Stanford and Durant. The UP's chief engineer, Grenville Dodge, sent the following to Secretary of War John Rawlins: "The great work, commenced during the Administration of Lincoln, in the middle of a great rebellion, is completed under that of Grant, who conquered the peace."

Meanwhile, church bells pealed across the country. In New York City, at Trinity Church near Wall Street, the Reverend Dr. Dix offered up a special prayer.

"O God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, Who upholdest all things by the Word of Thy power, without Whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; we bless and magnify Thy glorious name that by Thy goodness the great work which we commemorate this day has been accomplished, so that the extreme borders of our land have been joined and brought nigh together, and a pathway opened between remote parts of the earth, both for the commerce of the nations and for a highway and a way whereby Thy Gospel may have free course, and Thy holy name may be glorified. We thank Thee that the wilderness and the solitary place are made glad, and that the desert may rejoice and blossom as the rose."

The Reverend Dr. Vinton, also of Trinity, added:

"This is indeed a great event of the world. It is one of the victories of peace - a victory grander than those of war, which leave in their track desolation, devastation, misery and woe. It is a triumph of commerce - a triumph indicating free trade as a future law of the nation." The Pacific railroad was also, he said, "a means, under Divine Providence, for propagating the Church and the Gospel from this, the youngest Christian nation, to the oldest land in the Orient, now sunk in Paganism and idolatry."
[David Haward Bain]

Historian Bain notes, "Upon hearing the news of what the railroads were about to bring forth, merchants and traders flocked into the stock exchange where, in minutes, there was a frenzy of speculation."

Of course there were more than a few practical benefits as a result of the Pacific railroad, principally the savings in cost and time for those traveling across the continent. Stephen Ambrose writes:

"Before, it took months and might cost more than $1,000 to go from New York to San Francisco. But after Promontory, a man or woman could go from New York to San Francisco in a week, and the cost, as listed in the summer of 1869, was $150 for first class, $70 for emigrant.

"Freight rates by train also fell incredibly. Mail that once cost dollars per ounce and took forever now cost pennies and got from Chicago to California in a few days. The telegraph, meanwhile, could move ideas, thoughts, statistics - any words or numbers that could be put on paper - from one place to another, from Europe or England or New York to San Francisco or anywhere else that had a telegraph station, all but instantly."

Finally, Ambrose has these thoughts.

"When the Golden Spike went into the last tie to connect the last rail, it brought together the lines from east and west. Lee's surrender four years earlier had signified the bonding of the Union, North and South. The Golden Spike meant the Union was held together, East and West.

"In the twenty-first century, everything seems to be in flux, and change is so constant as to be taken for granted. This leads to a popular question: What generation lived through the greatest change? The one that lived through the coming of the automobile and the airplane and the beginning of modern medicine? Or the one that was around for the invention and first use of the atomic bomb and the jet airplane? Or the computer? Or the Internet and e-mail? For me, it is the Americans who lived through the second half of the nineteenth century. They saw slavery abolished and electricity put to use, the development of the telephone and the completion of the telegraph, and most of all the railroad. The locomotive was the first great triumph over time and space. After it came, and after it crossed the continent of North America, nothing could ever again be the same. It brought about the greatest change in the shortest period of time."


"The Big Road" / American Heritage, October 2000; Stephen E. Ambrose
"Empire Express," David Haward Bain
"An Empire of Wealth," John Steele Gordon
"America: A Narrative History," George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi

Brian Trumbore

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