Guest Essayist: Brian Pawlowski

The stories of our history connect generations across time in remarkable ways. The same giddy fascination Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant held for the potential of the railroad in the nineteenth century is present in countless children today. They tear through books like Locomotive by Brian Floca until the pages are nearly torn from constant re-reading. It is a wonderful book that conveys both the magnitude and the majesty of the transcontinental railroad in an accessible way. A more thorough treatment of the railroad, Nothing in the World Like It: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869, written by historian Stephen Ambrose perhaps summarized it best by noting that, “Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the 19th century.”[1] Making this achievement all the more remarkable is the fact that it was hatched as the Civil War was raging: a project to connect a continent that was at war with itself.

In 1862, only a few months after the Union victory at Shiloh and just a month before the battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act into law. It called for the construction of a railway from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. It appropriated government lands and bonds to corporations that would do the work, the first time government dollars were granted to any entity other than states. The companies, the Union Pacific starting in Omaha, and the Central Pacific begun in Sacramento, were in direct competition to lay as much track as possible and complete the nearly 2,000 miles that would be necessary for the railroad.

Construction technically began in 1863 but the war demanded men and material in such large proportion that no real progress was made until 1865. After the war, the railroads became engines of economic development that attracted union veterans and Irish immigrants in droves to the Union Pacific’s efforts. The Central Pacific sought a similar workforce, but the population of Irish immigrants in California at the time was not a sustainable source of labor. Instead, thousands of Chinese immigrants sought employment with the railroad. Initially there was resistance to Chinese workers. Fears of racial inferiority pervaded much of California at that time and many felt the Chinese were listless and lazy. These fears dissipated quickly, however, as the Chinese worked diligently, with skill and ingenuity that allowed them to push through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Before it was done, nearly 20,000 Chinese laborers took part building the railroad, employing new techniques and utilizing new materials like nitroglycerin to carve a path for the tracks in areas where no one thought it could be done.

In the summer of 1867, the Central Pacific finally made it through the mountains. While the entire effort represented a new level of engineering brilliance and innovation for its time, the Central Pacific’s thrust through the mountains surpassed expectations. To chart a course for rail through granite, an impediment no one in history to that time had crossed on anything other than horse or foot, ushered in a new era of more rapid continental movement. Before the railroad era, it took nearly four or five months to get from the east coast to the west. Upon completion, however, the trip could take as little as three and a half days.[2] Absent the ability to go through the mountains, this would not have been possible.

Throughout 1867 and 1868, both rail companies worked feverishly to lay more track than their counterpart. Government subsidies for the work increased and more track laid meant more money earned. The amounts were different and were measured by the mile, thus reflecting the difficulty the Central Pacific faced in conquering the mountains. By not having mountainous terrain to contend with, the Union Pacific made incredible progress and reached Wyoming by 1867. But the Union Pacific had challenges of a different sort. Rather than conquering nature, they had to conquer humans.

Native American plains tribes, the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, knew the railroad would be a permanent feature on land that was prime hunting ground for the buffalo. They saw the construction as an existential threat. As the railroad continued on into the plains, new settlements sprang up in its shadow, on territory the tribes claimed as their own.[3] There was bound to be a fight. The railway companies called on the government to send the army to pacify the territory and threatened that construction could not continue without this aid. The government complied and as work resumed, army soldiers protected them along the construction route.

As the summer of 1869 approached, a standoff occurred between the companies on the location where they would join the railroad together. Ulysses S. Grant, by then the President, threatened to cut off federal funding until a meeting place was agreed to and ultimately, with the help of a congressional committee and the cold, hard reality of needing cash, they agreed on Promontory Summit, Utah. On May 10, 1869, a 17.6 karat golden spike was hammered home, finishing the railway and connecting the coasts.

The completion of the transcontinental railway brought about an era of unprecedented western expansion, economic development, and population migration. At the same time, it caused more intense conflict between those moving and developing the west and the Native American Indian tribes. Years of conflict would follow, but the settlement of the west continued. And with the new railroad in place, it continued at a rapid pace as more and more people boarded mighty locomotives to head west toward new lands and new lives. As Daniel Webster, a titan of the era remarked nearly twenty years earlier, the railway “towers above all other inventions of this or the preceding age” and it now had continental reach and power.[4] America endured the scourge of Civil War and achieved the most magnificent engineering effort of the era only five years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox.

Brian Pawlowski holds an MA in American History, is a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s state leadership network, and served as an intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps. 

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[1] Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing in the World Like It: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 17.

[2] History.com, Transcontinental Railroad, September 11, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/transcontinental-railroad.

[3] H.W. Brands, Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 295.

[4] Ambrose, 357.

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