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Transcontinental Railroad

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Transcontinental Railroad

Imagine it is the year 1830 and you want to travel from a settlement on the Eastern Coast of the United States to the West Coast. You could spend six months trekking across an overland route. You could spend six weeks at sea, traveling around Cape Horn. You could perhaps travel to Central America and across the Isthmus of Panama. Which would you choose?

None of these options are ideal. Based on these limited options, it is easy to see the appeal of the Transcontinental Railroad and its significance to the history of the United States.

Transcontinental railroad-map of the Transcontinental Railroad, history and significance, StudysmarterMap of the Transcontinental Railroad. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Transcontinental Railroad History

Transcontinental Railroad Timeline

Date
Event
1830
Trains begin running along the east coast of the United States.
1840
Railways extend through the east, south, and mid-west parts of the United States.
1845
Asa Whitney appeals to Congress for money and a land grant to begin constructing a railroad.
1848
Gold is found in northern California.
1849
Asa Whitney publishes Project for a Railroad to the Pacific.
1853
Army Topographic Corps was established to find the best route for a railroad to run from the Mississippi to the Pacific.
1860
Theodore Judah named Donner Pass a spot to build the railroad through the Sierra Nevadas.
1862
The Pacific Railroad Act was passed.
1869
The Transcontinental Railroad is completed.

Transcontinental Railroad Inauguration

Americans began playing with the idea of a transcontinental railroad in the 1830s as steam locomotives began crossing the east coast of the United States.

Railroad tracks were laid in the 1840s and 1850s, crossing the land east of the Missouri RivTranscontinental Railroad-Grant Steam Locomotive-StudySmarterGrant Steam Locomotive of the Nineteenth Century. Wikimedia Commons. er.

As the railroad was becoming popular on the east coast, pioneers began traveling west to the other end of the United States. The route west was long, difficult, and dangerous. The sea routes were not much better.

The idea of a railroad that would cross the United States made its way to Congress, championed by a man named Asa Whitney. He lobbied for funding, but sectional politics prevented his dream from becoming reality.

The fascination with the railroad never really went away. In 1960, Theodore Judah decided that the Donner Pass would be an appropriate spot to build the railroad through the Sierra Nevada mountain range. He rallied a group of investors in Sacramento, an enterprise that led to the creation of the Central Pacific Railroad in conjunction with Leland Standford, the governor of California. Particularly proactive, Judah traveled to Washington DC to lobby for the railroad.

The Pacific Railroad Act and Its Significance

Did you know?

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862.

Transcontinental Railroad-Caboose, Union Pacific Railroad-StudySmarter, Caboose, Union Pacific Railroad. Source: Wikimedia Commons. After this, Congress contracted with the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads to begin building a transcontinental railroad. The railroad was supposed to be a connection between the eastern and western parts of the United States. The desire for such increased greatly after multiple discoveries of gold, silver, and copper in the West. There were other reasons for the railroad. These include settling the western frontier and providing better postal service. Eastern railroads had proved successful, which increased the desire for a western railroad.

It took seven years for the railroad to be built. The Union Pacific commenced at one end and the Central Pacific at the other. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies "raced" from Sacramento and Omaha as they build their tracks towards Promontory, Utah. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific train companies met and joined their respective sections of track on May 1st, 1869.

Asa Whitney

In January 1845 Asa Whitney appealed to Congress for help financing the construction of a transcontinental railroad. He suggested recruiting Irish and German immigrants for help and repaying them with land to settle. He suggested several routes across the United States.

His maneuver to begin the railroad was blocked by Senator Benton, of Missouri, who wanted St. Louis to be the starting point of any transcontinental railroad.

While Whitney wasn't successful at the time, the idea stuck around and it eventually came to fruition.

Transcontinental Railroad Facts

Building the Railroad

Building the transcontinental railroad was dangerous work. Workers on the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad lines were attacked by Native American tribes who were threatened by the white workers.

The Union PacificWest Portal of Tunnel 29, Central Pacific Transcontinental Railroad. Source: Wikimedia Commons. started building in Omaha, Nebraska. They were tasked with building the railway westward. The Union Pacific had an easier time building as they were putting the railway along the plains. The men building the railroad traveled with it, living in pop-up towns full of drinking, fighting, and gambling.

The work was tougher for those working on the Central Pacific rail lines. Working through the Sierra Nevadas was difficult and dangerous. Charles Crocker, the head of construction for the Central Pacific, had difficulty keeping workers. He began hiring Chinese immigrants to work for the Central Pacific Railroad. Many immigrants arrived in northern California during the Gold Rush but were unsuccessful in finding gold. The Chinese laborers faced brutal and dangerous conditions. They did a tremendous amount of work to build the railway, often segregated and in poorer conditions.

Railroad Race

As part of the Pacific Railroad Act, both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific were promised money and land for every mile of track that they built. This pitted them against one another as they raced to lay more track than their competitor. Some of it was poorly constructed and had to be rebuilt later on.

In the early part of 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific companies picked a meeting point for their competing railroads. They decided they would meet in Promontory Point, Utah. This agreement came under duress and President Grant had to threaten to withhold their money until they agreed on a meeting point.

The Golden Spike

The Golden Spike, also called the Last Spike, was driven by Leland Standford into the railroad at Promontory Point on May 10th, 1869. It signaled that the Transcontinental Railroad was complete. The Golden Spike weighed almost a pound and was made from actual gold!

Transcontinental railroad, Golden spike, StudySmarterGolden Spike National Historic Site. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Leland Standford

Leland Stanford was born on March 9th, 1824 in New York. He came to California in 1852, to join his brothers' mercantile businesses.

In 1861, he became the president and co-founder of the Central Pacific Railroad. Standford was elected Governor of California that same year.

Stanford left office in 1863, returning to his position in the Central Pacific Railroad. He resumed his role as president of the Central Pacific and also the Southern Pacific Railroads.

Stanford became a state senator in 1885. He held the position until he died in 1893.

Have you heard of Standford University? It was named after Leland Stanford's son, who died as a teenager.

Transcontinental Railroad Significance

Importance of the Railroad

The transcontinental railroad was important because it connected the eastern and western coasts of the United States. What was once a six-month journey became a week-long trip.

This was not just significant for people, it was also important for the goods they wanted to move across the country.

The Railroad also had a negative impact: native tribes took the brunt of it. Hunting grounds were destroyed. Native Americans were forced onto reservations.

The human cost of the Transcontinental Railroad is estimated to be around 1,200 people dead. However, the real number is unknown. To this, it must be added the bitter labor conditions the workers had to endure –with the Chinese workers taking the worst part of this.

The creation of the transcontinental railroad helped travelers and goods across the country in a faster and safer way. However, it significantly impacted native tribes as their land was taken over and destroyed.

Transcontinental railroad - Key takeaways

  • Steam locomotives began crossing the eastern part of the United States in the 1830s. As they began becoming more common in the 1840s and 1850s, people began thinking that a transcontinental railroad would help those traveling across the United States in search of gold and build settlements.
  • The United States Congress was lobbied in the 1840s, and in the 1850s began researching potential routes for the railroad.
  • In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. Two railway companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific began laying railroad tracks.
  • The two tracks met in Utah in 1869. The transcontinental railroad was complete.
  • People and goods began crossing the United States via train as it was faster and safer.

Frequently Asked Questions about Transcontinental Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad met at Promontory Point, Utah. 

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. 

The Transcontinental Railroad allowed for people and goods to move quickly. It took land from Native Americans and forced them to reservations. 

The Transcontinental Railroad made it easier for people to settle in the west. 

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific built the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Final Transcontinental Railroad Quiz

Question

Who began to lobby for a railroad in the 1830s?

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Answer

Theodore Judah

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Question

Who decided that Donner Pass would be a good spot for a railroad crossing? 

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Answer

Abraham Lincoln

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Question

Who was the former governor of California and president of the Central Pacific? 

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Answer

Leland Stanford

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Question

Leland Stanford and Theodore Judah founded the 

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Answer

Central Pacific Railroad 

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Question

When was the Pacific Railroad Act signed? 

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Answer

1862

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Question

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads were hired to 

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Answer

cover the Oregon Trail with track

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Question

How long did it take for the track to be built?

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Answer

5 years

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Question

What year did the two railroad companies meet? 

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Answer

1869

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Question

Where did the tow sets of tracks meet? 

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Answer

Sutters Fort, California

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Question

The Transcontinental Railroad was significant because 

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Answer

it helped travelers cross the country

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