Transcontinental Railroad: Construction, History & Impact

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  • 0:01 Impact of the…
  • 0:54 Union Pacific
  • 1:45 Central Pacific
  • 2:32 Workers
  • 3:33 Railroads Meet
  • 4:14 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

In this lesson, we will discuss how the Transcontinental Railroad was built and how it changed the United States. Learn more about the challenges of building the railroad and why it was so important, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad

There are few things in American history that had the impact of the Transcontinental Railroad. Before it was completed, it cost $1,000 to travel between California and New York, and it could take as long as six months to sail around Cape Horn in South America. With the new railroad, the price dropped to $150, and the trip took a week. As Americans moved more freely across the country, they were able to exchange ideas and conduct business with each other. The west became open for settlement. Goods moved faster and cheaper.

Unfortunately, there were some negative results, too. The Native American way of life was severely damaged as the railroad pushed through tribal lands, and many natural resources were destroyed to make way for the tracks and train stations.

The Union Pacific

The Union Pacific Railroad was the eastern half of the Transcontinental Railroad. It linked with existing railroads from the east and with the new Central Pacific Railroad line from California. Construction started in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1864, but there were not many workers available, because so many men were still fighting in the Civil War.

By the end of 1865, the Union Pacific had only 40 miles of track; however, once the war ended, construction took off. Workers laid 1,087 miles of track between Nebraska and Utah, where it met the Central Pacific. It was mostly a straight route, but workers did have to battle the harsh plains weather, as well as the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne Indians, who did not want a railroad going through their land.

The Central Pacific

Construction on the Central Pacific started in Sacramento, California, in 1863. This line had only 690 miles to cover to get to Utah, but the terrain was much more difficult. The Central Pacific had to go through the Sierra Nevada, a rugged mountain range east of Sacramento. Workers had to blast 15 tunnels through the granite to make room for the track. There were days in the Sierra Nevada when workers only made a two- or three-inch dent in the mountain.

Construction moved faster when workers started using nitroglycerin, but it was also much more dangerous. Some workers died from nitroglycerin explosions. The weather could be difficult, too. Snow and wind often slowed construction down.

The Workers

Union Pacific workers at first drew from Omaha's large population of Irish immigrants. After the Civil War ended and construction ramped up in 1866, many of its workers were also Civil War veterans who needed jobs.

After having difficulty retaining workers on the Central Pacific due to the difficulty of blasting through mountains, the railroad eventually hired as many as 14,000 Chinese immigrants. Some of them were peasants who had moved to California in the 1850s looking for a better life in the United States. Others were brought to the country by Chinese companies that paid their travel expenses, but workers had to pay the companies back with the money they made. Since Chinese workers only made $1 a day, which was half as much as the Irish workers, they had about $8 left for themselves every month. For all workers, life was difficult. It was hard labor in challenging conditions for very little pay.

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