May 10 marks the 146th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. On that date in 1869, a silver mallet pounded in the last spike for the track laid from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, California, connecting the eastern U.S. to the west.
The rail line's tale reflects the conflicts and drama of its time.
|The three possible railroad routes|
Three possible routes were considered. The northern route, across the northern plains not far from Canada, was dismissed due to difficult terrain and fierce winters.
The southern route had the advantage of avoiding the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but much of this route was in the South and tensions between the industrial northern states and the agricultural southern stats were high.
The central route had to cross the mountains, but by following the Platte River and using a pass in Wyoming, it could avoid the worst of them.Political differences between northern and southern states prevented a decision until 1861, when most of the southern states left the federal Union. Once the North controlled Congress, it approved the central route. The rail would begin at Council Bluffs, Iowa and eventually end at San Francisco, CA. Congress authorized two companies, the Central Pacific Railroad Company and the Union Pacific Railroad Company, to build and operate the service.
Huge fortunes were made in the building of the railroad. During the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), there was little oversight of the work, despite significant federal investment in lands and tariff revenues for the construction. For example, the major shareholder of the Union Pacific, Dr. Thomas Durant, made sure the early building crossed land that he owned around Omaha, NE. The sub-contractor for construction (also controlled by Durant) was paid by the mile, so several oxbows of unnecessary track were built during the railroad's first 2½ years that never went further than 40 miles (64 km) from Omaha.
Nevertheless, eventually (after 1865) the Union Pacific turned west. The Central Pacific, meanwhile, had hired hundreds of Chinese laborers to build its track, which had the lion's share of the difficult CA and NV terrain. The job required 15 tunnels to be carved through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, work that sometimes advanced at a daily average rate of only 1.8 feet (0.55 meter).
The Union Pacific had legitimate construction delays once it got underway, but not caused by terrain--the route ran mostly across the immense grasslands of the American prairie, through what are now WY and NE. Building was fairly easy. But vast herds of American bison migrated across this route. The herds were not only an obstruction for the trains; the plains Indians depended on them for food, shelter and clothing.
The railroad slaughtered them by the hundreds, almost to the point of extinction. Native Americans attacked the construction sites, trying to prevent what they considered a violation of treaty rights and also stop the destruction of their way of life. To no avail. The end of the bison meant the end of Native American plains culture; the tribes were broken. Within thirty years, Native Americans were largely confined to reservations.
While the Central Pacific kept on building rail to connect Sacramento to San Francisco, the Union Pacific was bankrupt three years after the last spike was driven. Its capital was looted by graft and financial manipulation. It rose again from its ruins, with Jay Gould at the help--but that's another story.
Although there's no denying the destruction of cultures and the many ethical problems involved in building the transcontinental railroad, it was a triumph of construction for its day. It also opened a new era for the nation, an era of true national communication.
Ironically, despite all the sweat and blood spent, the heyday of the rails lasted only until the automobile appeared on the scene, a brief 50 years, more or less. Highway Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles was born in 1926, and signaled the death knell for widespread long distance rail use in the United States. In 2013, even with increasing ridership, only 4.8 million passengers (of a total population of 316.5 million) rode the long distance routes.