Transcontinental Railroad - Link Up
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.
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.
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 ½ 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 ½
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
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:
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.
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.'
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
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
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.'
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
Reverend Dr. Vinton, also of Trinity, added:
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
[David Haward Bain]
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."
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:
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.
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."
Ambrose has these thoughts.
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.
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."
Big Road" / American Heritage, October 2000; Stephen
"Empire Express," David Haward Bain
"An Empire of Wealth," John Steele Gordon
"America: A Narrative History," George Brown Tindall
and David E. Shi