The Transcontinental Railroad

from Aimee Crocker, Queen of Bohemia by Kevin Taylor

Two companies were commissioned to build the track. The central division was given to the Union Pacific Railroad Company, while the construction of the western division was assigned to the Central Pacific Railroad Company led by Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and the Crocker Brothers, Charles and Edwin (Aimee Crocker’s uncle and father). The Railroad Act promised the two companies loans ranging from $16,000 to $48,000 per mile (depending on the terrain traversed) after completion of each 40-mile segment or, in mountainous terrain, after each 20-mile segment. To allow the railroads to raise additional money, Congress provided assistance to the railroad companies in the form of land grants of Federal lands. They were granted a 400-foot-wide right of way through public lands and up to 10 square miles of bonus public land for each mile of track laid.

Charles and Edwin Crocker

Construction of the railroad began on January 8, 1863, when company president and governor, Leland Stanford, removing his gloves and coat, deposited a load of sand and gravel at the foot of K Street in Sacramento. Charles Crocker’s responsibility was overseeing the actual construction of the line, and it was a formidable task, requiring backbreaking labor and unprecedented manpower. Crocker knew the local labor supplies were inadequate to build the railroad and that many workers were unwilling to undertake the most brutal tasks. There were too many other opportunities in the mines of Nevada and on the farms and ranches of California. Few were drawn to the backbreaking labor of railroad construction. For every 1,000 men who signed up, 900 moved on after a week.

Crocker’s Chinese work force

Crocker had his on-site construction boss, James Harvey Strobridge, hire 50 inexpensive consignment laborers from China to lay the track across the mountains and through the desert as an experiment, pointing out that they had built the Great Wall of China. At the time, the California Chinese were despised and had few rights. They couldn’t go to public school, vote, or testify in court. However, the Chinese, many fleeing famine in their homeland, were prepared to work for $31 a month, as compared to $3 a day for the Irish.

Crocker sent recruiters across California and into China. In 1867, a workforce of approximately 12,000 Chinese was in place. By the time the line was finished, their numbers had swollen to 15,000. Fully 98 percent of the workers were Chinese coolies.

Beyond labor issues, problems were many: shortages of iron, delays in receiving supplies, spiraling costs, delays caused by weather and the need to build twenty-three miles of snow sheds to protect the track, controversy and litigation against the company, a sometimes hostile press, and recurring financial quagmires. The biggest obstacle was crossing the mighty Sierras, the highest mountain range ever faced by a railroad. They eventually used nitroglycerin to blast fifteen miles of tunnels through the solid granite. The new explosive liquid was eight times more powerful than gunpowder, but notoriously unstable. The casualties were many.

Union Pacific directors were meanwhile hiring Civil War soldiers from North and South who, a couple of years earlier, were killing each other in battle. Their struggle was with the notoriously unstable workers, who were given to drinking, gambling, whoring, and brawling. It was said that for every worker that died in an accident, four were lost in a shoot-out. They also faced the far rowdier Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, then the most aggressive warrior tribes in North America. Both tribes felt that the “iron horses” threatened their way of life and fought tenaciously and brutally against them coursing through their land. The ruthless Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman, was recruited to launch a war of annihilation that would eventually and permanently drive the Indians out of the path of the railroad.

Camp Victory

Camp Victory

In the arduous race for the control of Mid-West territory, the Union Pacific had laid eight miles of track in one day — a feat, they boasted, that the Central Pacific had not accomplished. Charles Crocker vowed to top this record, but waited until the distance between railheads was so short that the U.P. could not possibly retaliate. He boldly announced that April 28th would be a 10-mile day. At 7:15 am that morning, with ties already distributed along the roadbed ahead and five 16-car trains loaded with supplies waiting in the rear, Crocker’s seasoned army of loaders, rail handlers, spikers, and bolters started their march. San Francisco’s Evening Bulletin described the activity:

The scene is a most animated one. From the first pioneer to the last tamper, perhaps two miles, there is a thin line of 1,000 men advancing a mile an hour; the iron cars, with their living and iron freight, running up and down; mounted men galloping backward and forward. Far in the rear are trains of material, with four or five locomotives, and their water-tanks and cars… Alongside of the moving force are teams hauling tools, and water-wagons, and Chinamen…

By 1:30 they had laid 6 miles of rails, and Charlie Crocker ordered a stop for lunch. He offered to release any track layer that had had enough. Nobody accepted the offer. An hour later they were back to work. At seven o’clock, foreman James Strobridge signaled a victory. In 12 hours, a full working day, they were 56 feet past the 10 mile mark. During that day, the track layers had spiked 3,520 rails to 25,800 ties, and each rail handler had lifted 250,000 pounds of iron. This feat has never been duplicated by human beings in railroad construction since. The site was named Camp Victory.

On May 10, 1869, the last spike was driven in the Utah desert at Promontory Summit. In just seven years, the Union Pacific railroad had built 1,086 miles of railroad lines from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific had built 690 miles from Sacramento, California. The two engines, the Central Pacific’s Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s No. 119, finally stood cowcatcher to cowcatcher at each end of the last rail. A somewhat boozy array of dignitaries and several hundred rowdy laborers attended the ceremonial driving of the last spike. One side of the Golden Spike, now on display at Stanford University, reads, “May God continue the unity of our Country, as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.” The Crocker brothers’ names are on another side as officials. Edwin Crocker’s name is engraved on a third side as one of the directors.

The ceremony at Promontory Summit

The two trains were then driven together, and a bottle of champagne was broken over the laurel railroad tie. A telegraph went out across the nation with the simple message: “Done.” The long-dreamed-of Transcontinental Railroad, which had been planned for completion during the nation’s centennial celebration of 1876, was finished seven years ahead of schedule. People in the East and many in the West, pointing at the engineering difficulties to be encountered, ridiculed the idea that a work of such magnitude could be accomplished by men whom they were pleased to call “country store-keepers.”

It was the greatest transportation line the world had ever built, the world’s first transcontinental railroad. It would climb vast mountain ranges, cross hundreds of miles of desert and prairies, bridge canyons a mile wide and chasms 1,000 feet deep. Central Pacific engineers built wooden trestles hundreds of feet tall, the largest wooden structures ever built. The enterprise would claim the lives of 2,000 men.

While the Transcontinental Railroad was initiated in the beginning of a war that divided America, its completion, one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in American history, marked a muscular new unity that further defined the United States as a single nation of people that could dream big, inspire one another, and work together. A journey that once took up to six months by wagon train and cost the lives of tens of thousands of earlier pioneers who attempted to cross the vast untamed wilderness could be completed in just seven days.

News spread across the nation and around the world. The West was opened to further settlement, commerce, industry, agriculture. The future had arrived. America would assume a leading role on the world’s stage.

The entire country celebrated. People rejoiced with fireworks, brass bands, parades, steam whistles. In Chicago, an impromptu parade seven miles long jammed the streets. In New York, a hundred cannons rattled all the windows in lower Manhattan, and Wall Street suspended business for the day. In Philadelphia, the ringing of bells on Independence Hall began a chain reaction of church bells spreading music all across the city.

Walt Whitman

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was the major inspiration for French writer Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days, which was published in the year 1873. Walt Whitman was greatly impressed by the engineering achievement of the Brothers Crocker and the Associates. This grand feat of creating a road between Europe and Asia as well as the opening of the Suez Canal that same year inspired Whitman’s masterpiece, “A Passage to India.”

Whitman saw the completion of the physical route to India, the “cradle of mankind,” as a prelude to a spiritual pathway to the mysteries of the East, and, ultimately, to God. Whitman endeavored, “to celebrate in my own way, the modern engineering masterpieces, the Pacific Railroad & the Suez Canal… and then make of them as heights and apices whereby to reach freest, widest, loftiest spiritual fields.”

from A Passage to India

...I see over my own continent the Pacific Railroad, surmounting every barrier, 
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte, carrying freight and passengers,    
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,   
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world,   
I cross the Laramie plains, I note the rocks in grotesque shapes, the buttes,    
I see the plentiful larkspur and wild onions, the barren, colorless, sage-deserts, 
I see in glimpses afar or towering immediately above me the great mountains, 
I see the Wind River and the Wahsatch mountains,    
I see the Monument mountain and the Eagle’s Nest, I pass the Promontory, I ascend the Nevadas,   
I scan the noble Elk mountain and wind around its base,    
I see the Humboldt range, I thread the valley and cross the river,   
I see the clear waters of Lake Tahoe, I see forests of majestic pines,
Or crossing the great desert, the alkaline plains, 
I behold enchanting mirages of waters and meadows,    
Marking through these and after all, in duplicate slender lines,   
Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel,   
Tying the Eastern to the Western sea,   
The road between Europe and Asia.

The completion of the railroad was, for many an American patriot, a feat that transcended in magnitude anything attempted by Man up to that time in history — a feat that wouldn’t be surpassed until Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon almost exactly 100 years later. The builders of the railroad are, to many, national heroes in the same league as Armstrong.