Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing rugged mountains and arid desert. The alternatives were to travel by sea around the tip of South America, a distance of 18,000 miles, then travel north by ship to California. Each route took months and was dangerous and expensive.
The transcontinental railroad would make it possible to complete the trip in five days at a cost of $150 for a first-class sleeper.
The first spikes were driven in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. The government gave the companies rights of way of 200 feet on each side of the track and financial aid of $16,000 to $48,000 for each mile of track laid.
The transcontinental railroad was built in six years almost entirely by hand. Workers drove spikes into mountains, filled the holes with black powder, and blasted through the rock inch by inch.
The railroad had profound effects on American life. It led to the division of the nation into four standard time zones. In addition, the railroads founded many of the towns on the Great Plains on land grants they were awarded by the federal government, and then sold the land to settlers.