Transcontinental Railroad By Riya Mitra and Katie Emmert

For decades, people have been dreaming of an efficient transportation system that would connect the entire country. To travel from coast to coast meant a treacherous six month journey on horse. Especially during the era of the Gold Rush, people needed quick transportation to get to western settlements and boomtowns. America was in desperate need for a Transcontinental Railroad. Transportation before the train was built cost $1,000m but after, the cost decreased to $150.

Theodore Judah, a young civil engineer, proposed the most successful pathway for the Transcontinental Railroad. Judah identified the Donner Pass which was an area in Northern California.

Judah enlisted a group of investors famously known as the Big Four to help form the Central Pacific Railroad company. The men were Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis Huntington.

After achieving congressional approval Judah was able to get President Lincoln to pass the Pacific Railroad act in 1862.

Pacific Railroad Act of 1862

The Pacific Railroad Act was passed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and it provided the terms for the construction of the railroad. It allowed for two railroad companies, The Central Pacific and The Union Pacific. Each company received 6,400 acres of land and $48,000 government bonds were given to the two companies for every mile of track laid.

Central Pacific Subsidies: the company was given $32,000 in government bonds for every mile built in the plateau between the Sierra Nevada mountains and Rocky Mountains. Since blasting through the tunnels was one the most dangerous areas, the government provided $48,000 for every mile through the mountains.

Union Subsidies: For every mile built in 20 mile sections, the company was given $16,000.

The railroad would begin in Sacramento, CA and end in Omaha, NE. The Central Pacific would build east from California and meet with the Union Pacific which would be constructed west from Nebraska. The meeting area would be decided when the two railroads were almost connected.

The Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 after connecting to previous railroad systems spanning across the entire country.

The Central Pacific first broke ground by Leland Stanford on January 8, 1863 to begin its construction. The first spike was laid on October 26, 1863.

The Union Pacific broke ground in Omaha on December 2, 1863. However, the first tracks were laid in July of 1865.

Central Pacific Challenges: The Central Pacific had to pas through the Sierra Nevada mountains while building the track. In order to blast through the mountains and solid granite, workers had to deal with dangerous explosives. The Chinese were lowered in woven baskets to fill holes with explosives. If they were not pulled up in time they would die. They were challenged with creating tunnels that were thousands of feet long. Sometimes they would only blast through one foot a day. They also lived in fear of avalanches and the tunnels collapsing while they slept. Additionally, while working in the mountains the workers faced harsh winter conditions such as blizzards

Union challenges: Although union workers did not have to deal with tunnels, they had to face the Native Americans. Since the Transcontinental used land from the reservations and hunted most of the buffalo, the Natives raided and attacked the workers. They constantly pulled up tracks and derailed trains. Attacks included derailed tracks, scalping, setting workers on fire, and murder.


By 1865, the railroad workforce was decreasing in size and more laborers were needed. The Big Four tried recruiting African Americans, Irish men, and Mexican immigrants however it did not help.

Charles Crocker suggested that they bring Chinese Immigrants to build the railroads. In three years, 80% of the workforce were Chinese Immigrants. They were proved to be more hard working than American laborers. They were vital with creating tunnels through the Sierra Nevada Moutains. The immigrants performed dangerous feats such as lowering themselves down cliffs, filling holes with explosives, and quickly lifting themselves up as fast as possible.

Workers: Mormons worked with both companies. 80% of the Central Pacific railroad consisted of Chinese immigrants. There were Irish Immigrants under the Central company also. Poor northern and southern Americans such as old confederates and people who struck out on the Gold Rush were also workers.

Leland Stanford

Leland Stanford was instrumental in the process of creating The Transcontinental Railroad. As a part of the Big Four, Stanford was the President of the Central Pacific Railroad. After serving one term as the Governor of California, Stanford devoted his focus towards the Central Pacific, making sure it gets access to its funds at all times. He brought political influence toward the project, making it an important historical aspect of America.

Thomas C. Durant,

He was a medical doctor turned businessman. After buying 2 million dollars in government shares he illegally gained control over the Union Pacific company. He created Crédit Moblier of America which was supposed to be on an independent contract but it was investors who took the government money.

Congressional investigations revealed additional entrepreneurs who had profited from te Pacific Acts.

The Golden Spike

The Golden Spike was the final spike of rail the workers had to lay in order for the Central Pacific and Union Pacific to connect. The Central Pacific's president, Leland Stanford, drove the Golden Spike on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory.

The Golden Spike

Effects of the Railroad

Now, people could travel from New York to San Francisco in less than two weeks rather than going on a six month journey. The Railroad connected the entire country and allowed for easy transportation. Soon, the railroad was open to the public and population throughout the western areas increases as people could now travel quicker.

More trading areas were opening throughout the country since the railroad allowed for goods to be shipped across America. Within ten years, the railroad shipping $50 million worth of freight coast to coast every year.

This railroad was the beginning of another technological revolution as more and more technologies were being produced to make the transportation even more efficient. Many other railroads were built off of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1890's.

Example of a Central Pacific Subsidie
Miners tunneling through rock and mountain in order to lay down tracks.
Dale Creek Bridge was the longest bridge built by the Union Pacific company.
Advertisements for the Transcontinental Railroad.

Lifestyle for the workers.

Workers typically had a of beef, black coffee and bread. The Chinese ate vegetables, seafood, and ate pigs and chickens that they raised for evening meals. The Irish ate beef and potatos.

The Irish Immigrants who mainly were apart of the Central Pacific left work due to unequal pay, but company was able to hire the Chinese immigrants who had arrived for the Gold Rush. The average Irish worker received $35 dollars per month with living space while the average chinese worker was payed about $30 and had to live in contracted tunnels.

Men slept together on bunks with the concern of water born illness and fear of Native American night raids and slaughters.


Created with images by ChiefRanger - "Donner Train Tunnels and Snow Sheds"

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