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Expanding the Transcontinental Railroad: History and Impact

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  • 0:06 Improving Rail Transportation
  • 1:43 Crossing the Continent by Rail
  • 4:11 Effects of the…
  • 6:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

After decades of wrangling, plans were finalized for construction of a transcontinental railroad during the Civil War. After completion in 1869, the railroad changed many aspects of American life, for better or worse.

Improving Rail Transportation

Imagine a train ride through the American countryside in the 1830s. The idea is to travel quickly from one place to another on board the greatest innovation in transportation the world has ever seen. But if you're imagining a leisurely, safe, and convenient journey, you've got the wrong idea! On early train engines, sparks ignited clothing, brakes failed, boilers exploded, and since each railway company had its own track widths, passengers (and cargo) had to frequently disembark and change trains to continue a journey.

Despite these problems, railroad construction grew, and American farmers, businessmen, and adventurers dreamed of a transcontinental railroad. Even the federal government realized that connecting the continent by rail would help achieve the political goal of manifest destiny, and several different politicians began working towards that goal. They even bought land from Mexico (called the Gadsden Purchase) to lay tracks across the southern United States all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, the Civil War made that passageway unusable.

It wasn't long before enterprising Americans began solving these problems. Spark arrestors solved the fire problem. Railroad executives agreed on a single track width. A businessman identified a more northerly pass through the Rocky Mountains. George Westinghouse invented air brakes that could stop locomotives dependably. The Pullman Company made railroad cars that were actually comfortable, with places to sleep and eat.

Crossing the Continent by Rail

In 1862, during the middle of the Civil War, the federal government of the United States awarded contracts to two companies to begin building a transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad would begin in Sacramento, California, and work its way east. Relying heavily on Chinese immigrant labor, the Central Pacific broke ground in 1863, but the work was largely delayed until the end of the war. The Union Pacific Railroad was to begin laying track in Omaha, Nebraska, and move westward with the help of Irish immigrants.

The costs of the project were monumental. Thousands of workers had to be fed, sheltered, and paid. Tons of materials, like steel and wood, had to be purchased and transported. To finance the project, the federal government gave land to the railroads, which in turn used the land for right of way and then sold the remaining parcels at a profit. In exchange, the companies would give federal agencies fare reductions in the future.

The work was grueling and dangerous. Every inch of prairie cleared and mountain tunnel blasted, every wooden tie and steel rail laid, every spike driven was done by hand. 'Callers' would chant to the workers, who would typically call back; this helped keep the workers focused but more importantly set their timing. The Chinese workers on the Central Pacific used black powder and chisels to crawl through the Sierra Mountains at the tedious pace of just 8 inches a day, while the Irish workers on the Union Pacific sometimes flew across the plains at the rate of 10 miles per day. They faced hunger, disease, accidents, blistering summer heat, freezing winter cold, and attacks by Native Americans who resented the encroachment onto their land. But the work went on, and telegraph wires followed.

On May 10, 1869, the two railroads met at Promontory Summit, in Utah, with much fanfare and celebration. The last spikes that would join the two were made of silver and gold and were driven ceremonially by railroad executives. (No, they weren't left in the ground!) The entire nation celebrated as the message arrived by telegraph: the transcontinental railroad was done. The Liberty Bell rang, a 100-gun salute fired in New York City. Parades and parties erupted across the country.

Effects of the Transcontinental Railroad

For better or worse, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad had dramatic effects on many different aspects of life. Perhaps the most immediate and noticeable effect was the reduction of time that it took to cross the nation. A journey that had taken months now took six days. As the railroad network expanded and other transcontinental routes were finished, travel across America became even easier and less expensive. This fact alone helped increase western settlement.

But the railroads also changed Americans' concept of time and work. Four time zones were established so passengers could plan their trips. The so-called 'white collar' job was essentially created by the railroads, since thousands of people were needed for office and administrative tasks. The postal service was revolutionized. And some of the wealthiest men in American history built their fortunes directly and indirectly from the railroads, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and Andrew Carnegie.

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