Today In History: The Transcontinental Railroad Is Finished
On May 10, 1869, the final spike of the transcontinental railroad was driven into the ground, completing the country’s first railroad that spanned both shores. It was a joint project between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, which joined in Promontory, Utah. Previously, people who wanted to travel from coast to coast would have to spend an interstitial leg of their train journey in wagons. The project’s completion was also an important step in the industrial and cultural development of the country.
The railroad was begin in 1853, when Congress appropriated funds to scout potential routes. Physical construction was delayed, though, as mounting tension between northern and southern states led to infighting in Congress regarding where the railroad would begin.
Construction on the railroad started four years later, in 1866. Its point of eastern origin was set to be Omaha, Nebraska, and the western terminus was Sacramento, California. However, both railroads laid tracks past each other, and a central meeting point had to be negotiated.
The two railroad companies had worker bases that were starkly racially divided. Union Pacific mostly hired Irish Civil War veterans and Central Pacific employed primarily Chinese immigrants. The Chinese workers were subjected to extreme race hate, cut wages and physically dangerous assignments. The company later recruited new immigrants directly from China. The Chinese workers finally went on strike and subsequently won moderately improved wages and working conditions. Nevertheless, the project was extremely perilous, and entire work crews were occasionally killed by avalanches or explosions.
By the end, almost two thousand miles of track had been laid. The completion of the railroad was celebrated with a Golden Spike Ceremony, during which Union Pacific president Leland Stanford drove a golden railroad spike into the ground at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.
The trip from coast to coast 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.