Today in 1869, the final spike was driven into the ground that completed the transcontinental railroad. The railroad was a joint project between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, which were finally joined in Promontory, Utah. Finished were the days when people traveling west would have to undertake a perilous wagon train leg of their journey before boarding another train. And gone was the psychological boundary separating the eastern states from the frontier.
The transcontinental railroad was begun in 1853, when Congress appropriated funds to scout potential routes for it. Physical construction wouldn’t begin for some time, however, as mounting tension between northern and southern states precipitated congressional infighting as to where the railroad would originate.
In the first year of the Civil War, Congress, then controlled by Republicans, passed the Pacific Railroad Act. The Act guaranteed public land grants and loans to Union Pacific and Central Pacific. Construction began in 1866, four years later. The railroad’s eastern point of origin was in Omaha, and the western terminus was Sacramento. At least that was the original plan. The two railroads laid tracks past each other, and a central meeting point had to be agreed upon.
The workforces of the two railroad companies varied in ethnic composition. Union Pacific employed mostly Irish veterans of the Civil War. Central Pacific mostly employed Chinese immigrants, who commonly suffered from racial hatred, significantly reduced wages and obligation to perform the most dangerous and physically grueling tasks. Despite originally believing that the Chinese were too weak to do the job, the Central Pacific was so impressed with their abilities that they went as far as bringing new immigrants over from China to join their workforce. Eventually, the Chinese workers went on strike and received moderately improved wages and work conditions. Laying track through the Sierra Nevada mountains was still inherently dangerous – entire work crews were occasionally killed by avalanches or explosions.
The Union Pacific line was no walk in the park, either. Its laborers were subjected to severe summer heat, Indian raids and the general risk associated with frontier lawlessness.
Through a combination of worker industriousness and harsh managerial compulsion, the transcontinental railroad was finished well ahead of schedule, in 1869. The workers had laid almost two thousand miles of railroad track. The railroad’s completion was celebrated with the famous Golden Spike Ceremony on May 10 of that year, in which Union Pacific president Leland Stanford drove a golden railroad spike into the ground at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.
The railroad changed American life and industry forever. The trip between the coasts now took days, where previously it had taken months of dangerous wagon train travel or weeks of almost-as-dangerous boat travel. America grew rapidly in the years that followed, helped in large part by the railroad.