The First Transcontinental Railroad

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right).

In 1818, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, then editor of the St. Louis Enquirer, wrote a series of editorials proposing a network of roads and canals to connect the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. This was the first idea of a transcontinental transportation system. Besides the economic benefit to the coast and the states in between, promoters hoped to capture European and Asian trade, especially China and Japan. What the U.S. government was more interested in, however, was final subjugation of the Indians. It figured the railroad would hasten this along. The government also wanted to reduce the cost of sending mail and supplies to the west.

It wasn’t until 1853, that Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, authorized army engineers to explore the five best routes to the Pacific. No one could agree on an eastern terminus because whoever it was would gain such an economic and political advantage. They also couldn’t agree on a route. The Southerners didn’t want the route to go through the north, and vice-versa. All routes were viable, but the southern route on the 32nd parallel would be the cheapest.

Instead the final route was surveyed by Theodore H. Judah, an engineer in the Sacramento Valley. Part of this route was used by the Bidwell-Bartleson party that traveled through Utah and Nevada in 1841. Judah was obsessed with building a transcontinental railroad and convinced merchants Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington, forever known as The Big Four, to invest in a railroad. The Big Four incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, on June 28, 1861.

On July 1, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Railroad Act of 1862, which authorized the Union Pacific to build a railroad from the Missouri River to California, or until it met the Central Pacific. Major General John A. Dix was elected president of the Union Pacific, but he never took office. So Vice President Thomas C. Durant called the shots. The government also authorized the Central Pacific to push beyond the borders of California to meet the Union Pacific. Congress fixed the longitude, and Lincoln picked Omaha as the eastern terminus. Bonds were sold to finance the railroad. Tragically, Judah, who started it all, died in 1863, without seeing his dream come true.

In 1863, the Central Pacific broke ground at Sacramento in January. The Union Pacific broke ground at the Missouri River bluffs near Omaha in December. Both railroads had problems right away. Material costs were high due to war-time shortages. There was also a labor shortage. Investors chose to buy into war industries instead since profit was more immediate. More help from the government was needed.

The Railroad Act of 1864 was signed on July 2, by Lincoln. This act authorized the railroad companies to sell their own bonds. It limited the Central Pacific to building no more than 150 miles past the Nevada border. Crocker supervised the work in the field for the Central Pacific. The construction superintendent was James H. Strobridge. Their chief engineer was Samuel S. Montague. The Union Pacific construction superintendent was Samuel B. Reed. Their chief engineer was Grenville M. Dodge. John S. and Dan T. Casement held the tracklaying and grading contract.

More financial difficulties followed. The government bonds only paid half the bill. No one private would invest because it would take too long for the investment to pay off. Both railroads engaged in some creative financing to cover their costs.

The Central Pacific reached Newcastle on June 4, 1864. But from that point on, it was a long haul up the Sierra. Deep fills, switchback routes, high trestles, huge rock cuts, and 15 tunnels were necessary to make it over the Sierras. They also had to build 37 miles of wooden snow sheds to keep the train going through. The Central Pacific had to ship their supplies and tools around Cape Horn. Each mile of track required 100 tons of rail, about 2,500 ties, and two or three tons of spikes and fish plates (metal pieces that joined the rails and prevented climatic expansion and contraction of the metal). Other tools needed were wheelbarrows, horse drawn scrapers, two-wheel dump carts, shovels, axes, crowbars, blasting powder, quarry tools, and iron rods. Then there were the locomotives, wheel trucks, switch mechanisms, foundry tools needed. The Union Pacific had a little easier because supplies could be sailed up the Missouri or brought in by wagon. When the Chicago & Western railroad to Council Bluffs was completed in November 1867, supplies arrived from that direction. However, it was difficult for the Union Pacific to get railroad ties, since there were few natural trees like there were in the Sierras. They had to import them until the line reached the Black Hills of Wyoming and the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.

In January 1865, Chinese were hired to work on the Central Pacific to replace some strikers. Hiring Chinese crews became even more necessary because white workers kept abandoning the line when news of each new mining boom reached them. At first, construction superintendent J. H. Strobridge resisted hiring them, insisting they were “too puny” for heavy railroad work. Crocker insisted, and the first gang of fifty was hired. The white crews didn’t like it and Chinese crews were immediately segregated.

But they pulled their load. Though they moved smaller amounts of material at a time, they did not take time out for gossip breaks or to smoke. Plus they were experts in the use of gunpowder since it was a Chinese invention. They drank a cup of tea two or three times a day, then went right back to work. At the end of the day, their portion of track was longer and straighter than the white crews. They also worked for less money: They also provided their own cooks and kitchens as long as the railroad would provide the food. When Strobridge saw the results, he hired more of them.

Both companies laid track essentially the same way. They sent crews far ahead to do a preliminary survey, then location surveys. Then the graders would grade 100 miles of track at a time. In the mountains they did as much as 200 to 300 miles at a time since the actual building took so much longer. Bridge, culvert, and trestle crews worked five to 20 miles ahead. Then the tracklayers came in, grabbing rails out of horse-drawn carts. Then came the men to pound in the spikes. At the end of each line was a base camp that supplied material and food to the workers. Every 100 to 200 miles the base camp would move up.

The Central Pacific reached Cisco, only 94 miles from Sacramento on November 9, 1866. Here the Chinese had to blast the Summit Tunnel. The tunnel was 1,659 feet long. They finally finished the tunnel in August 1867. The first nitroglycerin factory was built near Donner Lake, which had become necessary in blasting the tunnel. The tunnel was completed in December.

The Union Pacific had it easy at first. The Central Pacific had only gone 189 miles while the Union Pacific had gone 537 miles. It went largely through flat plains. The route followed the Oregon Trail through the Platte Valley, then crossed the continental divide through the Wyoming Black Hills. One problem the Union Pacific had that didn’t bother their rivals, was Indians. In Nebraska, the Sioux and Cheyenne continually harassed the Union Pacific. Forts were established along the line to protect the railroad. A small skirmish between the Sioux and a survey party took place in the Wyoming Basin, in which assistant engineer Percy T. Browne was killed. In August 1867, at Plum Creek, Nebraska, Cheyennes pried up some rails, resulting in derailment of a freight train. The train crashed and the Indians looted the cars.

On May 4, 1868, the tracks reached Lake’s Crossing just inside Nevada. The town was renamed Reno by Crocker. Jesse Lee Reno was a general killed in the Civil War. From there on it was fairly easy going. The Railroad Act of 1866, had given the Central Pacific back the right to build to meet the Union Pacific, rather than just being restricted to only 150 miles into Nevada. Survey crews worked ahead to lay out the route. Grading camps were built at the south end of Pyramid Lake. By Christmas, the crews had built tracks all the way to Elko, Nevada.

During the winter of 1868-69, the Union Pacific reached the Wasatch Mountains. The railroad had already decided to go north of the great Salt Lake to avoid the salt flats west of the lake. Brigham Young, president of the Mormon Church, was very angry about this and threatened to withhold the Mormon laborers he had promised. But when he realized the Central Pacific was going north too, he gave his support to both sides. Then he built his own railroad to connect up with the Union Pacific at Ogden. The firm of Benson, Farr, and West worked for the Central Pacific, grading track from Humboldt Wells to Ogden. The Union Pacific hired a firm called Sharp & Young to grade from Echo Summit, north of Ogden, to Promontory Summit. This resulted in an overlap of track that was never used and cost $1 million to build. The Union Pacific could not pay its total bill to the Mormons, which is how Brigham Young came to acquire $600,000 worth of rolling stock for his own railroad.

As the two companies approached the Promontory Mountains, it was clear there was only one route through. Blasting began on both sides to lay track. The east slope was more difficult as the grade was steeper. On both sides fills and trestles were necessary for crossing deep ravines. Finally on April 9, the Union Pacific, and on April 11, the Central Pacific, stopped trying to lay tracks ahead. Congress established that they would meet at Promontory Summit. The race for mileage was over. Now it was just a race to the meeting point.

By April 16, the two crews were only 50 miles apart. The Union Pacific was delayed because it ran out of ties. It also had to build three more trestles to make the summit.

At one time the Union Pacific had built eight miles of track in one day. Crocker figured he could beat that, but he waited until the two railroads were too close together for his rival to try to beat him. So on April 28, 1869, when the crews were only 23 miles apart, Central Pacific work gangs broke a record and laid ten miles of track in one day. They used 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes, and 7,040 fishplates. For once, Irish and Chinese crews worked together and completed over ten miles in 12 hours. They were now four miles from the top.

May 8 was the target date for union of the railroads. On May 7, the two lines were just 2,500 feet apart. Stanford arrived on a special train filled with California and Nevada officials. He brought two golden spikes with him. One gold spike was made by David Hewes, one of the largest supply contractors of the Central Pacific. The spike had the names of the Central Pacific directors engraved on it. The San Francisco “News Letter”, ordered a second gold spike. A silver spike was sent from Virginia City, Nevada. Governor Safford of Arizona sent a spike made of iron, gold, and silver. West Evans, the contractor who supplied most of the Central Pacific ties, hand polished and waxed a special last tie out of laurelwood. The Pacific Union Express Company sent a silver plated sledge for the final blow.

The Union Pacific wasn’t ready for May 8. The train carrying the eastern dignitaries got caught in the weather at Weber Canyon. The train carrying Durant was delayed at Piedmont, Wyoming, when workers demanded their back pay. They uncoupled Durant’s car and chained it to the rails until he paid. He wired to Boston for the money, so was able to make it to Promontory by the 10th.

On May 9, the Union Pacific laid the final 2,500 feet of track, leaving one length of rail separation. The two trains from the east arrived the morning of the 10th. There were about 600 at the ceremony, which began at noon. Reverend Dr. John Todd opened the ceremony with a two-minute prayer. The two engines, the Central Pacific’s Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s No. 119, stood cowcatcher to cowcatcher at each end of the last rail.

At 12:20, Strobridge and Reed laid in the ceremonial last tie. Durant inserted the two gold spikes in the tie. Stanford inserted the Nevada and Arizona spikes into the tie. The silver sledge was used to “drive” the spikes, but not enough to damage them.

The real final tie, spike, and sledge were ordinary. The only thing different was the spike was designed to send a telegraphic message that the railroad was finished. Stanford and Durant both missed when trying to drive in the final spike. But W.N. Shilling, the telegraph operator, sent the message anyway. Strobridge and Reed actually drove the final spike.

Then the two trains were driven together. A bottle of champagne was broken over the laurel tie. The Central Pacific engine backed up enough to allow the Union Pacific to cross the junction. Then the Union Pacific did the same. The point was 1,086 miles from the Missouri River and 690 miles from Sacramento.

Promontory was temporarily the terminus for both railroads. The terminus was moved to Ogden in early 1870, and Promontory died. However, railroad facilities were kept there for awhile. Extra locomotives there were used to help pull extra heavy loads up the eastern slope.

The Southern Pacific later decided to shorten the route by building a line across the Great Salt Lake. This was finished in 1904. The old route was used when bad weather cut off the new route. But in 1942, the Southern Pacific tore up the rails and gave them for the war effort.