PROMONTORY SUMMIT, Utah — The completion of the transcontinental railroad here 150 years ago made young America modern.
The mammoth project, estimated to take 10 years — took seven— through three mountain ranges and across unknown deserts.
As a result, the Atlantic coast was linked to the Pacific, negating a 15,000-mile sailing trip around the Cape of Good Horn from New York to San Francisco.
The railroad’s most prominent proponent was President Abraham Lincoln, who, as a former river pilot and then an attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad, had the expansionist vision and political authority to initiate it.
Lincoln met with Grenville Dodge in 1859 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, while running for president. Dodge, a railroad engineer, told Lincoln the railroad could be built and the route should parallel the 42nd Parallel, from Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha, to Sacramento. (It is today the route of Interstate 80.)
There was another agenda to Lincoln’s vision: the Civil War, fought over slavery, was inevitable with Lincoln’s election in 1860. Any new states admitted to the Union prior to the war, would be free states if the railroad was built along the northern route.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, the same year the Central Pacific (CP) Railroad Co. was incorporated in San Francisco with Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, as officers. They were all businessmen, mostly interested in the trade possibilities of a railroad. They became known as the Big Four.
The Union Pacific (UP) was incorporated a year later with Doc Durant as president.
The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 pledged the government’s guarantee of bonds the CP and UP were allowed to sell to fund the project. Lincoln knew there was no possible way the railroad could be built without the federal government’s financial participation.
The bonds were issued yielding a 6 percent dividend paid twice a year. The term was 30 years. The railroads were the first big businesses in America.
In addition, the two railroad companies would be granted the lands on either side of the railroads for two miles. When the railroad was completed, the lands neighboring it were much more valuable than the Additionally, Lincoln insisted that everything involved in the railroad construction be American-made; locomotives, rail cars, rails, ties, everything. He also ordered the width of the rails should be standard at four feet, 8.5 inches, the same wheel width of the Roman chariots thousands of years ago.
In 1862, the outcome of Civil War was still in doubt. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that year, freeing the slaves which further galvanized Confederate resistance. Still, the CP and UP began construction organization in earnest.
An added bonus was that the transcontinental telegraph be built simultaneously along the route of the railroads. Both were completed on the same day, May 10, 1869.
The Golden Spike ceremonies on sesquicentennial Friday took place under chamber of commerce clear skies amid a flood of unbridled patriotism. It was a middle-aged Woodstock on the Rails, with more clothes, less hair and lots of good music.
The Chinese contribution to the CP had been slighted in the 1969 centennial celebration. This year’s program began with a festive Dragon Dance, an exuberant orange mosaic of Chinese good luck.
The keynote speaker, Pulitzer Prize winning author Jon Meacham, said Lincoln’s vision in 1862 was that a “nation connected might be a nation united.”
A Shoshone chief, dressed in full war dress, reminded the crowd of “the tragic treatment of the Native Americans,” during and after the railroad’s construction.
A National Park Ranger estimated the crowd at 15,000.
Several significant things occurred in the nation’s early history that prompted curiosity about an east-west route to the Pacific. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of America with the Louisiana Purchase.
In order to learn more about the new acquisition, Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the new territory and the other unknown territories to the Pacific in 1804.
Lewis and Clark finished their expedition in 1806 and reported there were no east-west rivers leading to the Pacific.
In 1848, the United States literally took California from Mexico. A year later, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, not far from Sacramento.
In 1859, silver was discovered in Virginia City, Nev. It was nearly impossible to aid more discovery of minerals or move them out without using the circuitous route around Cape Horn or wagon trains across the precarious plains.
The CP and UP began moving. The CP had the more arduous (and shorter) route but it was through three mountain ranges. The UP had the longer route but they were confronted by the Plains Indians (Sioux and Cheyenne) who knew that the encroaching railroad would bring settlers who would take their lands.
A curious fact of nature that the Indians discovered was that buffalo, their primary source of sustenance, would not cross railroad tracks.
A principal concern of both railroads was labor. The UP was aided by veterans of the Civil War, both Union and Confederates. They were young men, usually single, who had been schooled in military discipline and used to hardship and challenge.
The UP got superb leadership when Dodge took over as chief engineer. He had been charged with rebuilding railroads in the South that had been destroyed by the fleeing Confederates.
Dodge put everything under a military-based organization with himself firmly in charge.
The CP had almost no workforce in the beginning and certainly very few schooled in railroad construction. They were forced to gamble on Chinese emigrants, who had been discriminated against so badly in California that they were almost prohibited from entering the country.
The Chinese became invaluable when the CP got into the mountains. The tunneling, through granite mountains had to be done with black powder and inches at a time.
The result was often death. The Chinese however, who had invented black powder, volunteered for the tunneling work by hanging from reed baskets and detonating — and then retreating — from the explosions.
When the CP moved from black power to nitroglycerin, the tunneling went faster but at a much greater cost and risk.
At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 and when the CP got out of the mountains, Congress turned the construction into a race, with premiums being paid for track laid, inspected and approved.
The key in that desolate country was who could get to Salt Lake City first. The city was the only town between Sacramento and Omaha and the home of Mormons, an industrious populace of hard-working citizens whose crops had all been destroyed by grasshoppers.
Both railroads were aided by Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, who knew how valuable the railroads would be in further enriching the territory of Utah.
Congress designated the finishing point would be Promontory Point, a spot just north of the Great Salt Lake.
The CP got there first, once, on April 10, laying 10-plus miles of track in a day. To put that into perspective, that is almost a mile an hour of track 30 feet long and 560 pounds in weight, all done by hand.
Much has been written about the obscene profits the railroad builders made. But all the railroad bonds were paid off in 30 years: $64,623,512 in bonds was issued; $63,023,512 was paid off in principal in addition to $104,722,978 in interest.
When the Golden Spike was about to be driven by Stanford, a telegraph wire was wired to the spike while the other end was wired to the sledgehammer.
When Stanford struck the spike, the message sent worldwide was: “Dot, dot dot, DONE.”
In seven years, a country only 86 years old had won a war, abolished slavery, preserved the Union and built a railroad across America, the greatest then-engineering feat in the world.