Transcontinental Railroad in the United States

What was the Transcontinental Railroad?
The transcontinental railroad was a series of railroads built from east of the Mississippi, across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. There were 5 main railroad lines built during the 1800s that are considered transcontinental railroads, but the major line was created by the Central and Union Pacific Railroad Companies and ran between Sacramento, California and Council Bluffs. This line is known as the First Continental Railroad.

How did the transcontinental railroad affect the United States?
The Transcontinental Railroad was instrumental in the development and westward expansion of the United States, both uniting and dividing the country. The transcontinental railroad greatly shaped the nation, from the Native Americans, to wealthy Americans, and poor immigrants.

Why was the transcontinental railroad built?
Not long after the invention of the steam engine in the late 1700s, the United States’ first steam locomotive carried its first passengers and goods Maryland in 1830. The Oregon Trail initiated the westward expansion movement beginning in 1841, demonstrating the need for faster, safer transportation methods.

In 1845, Asa Whitney of New York devised the first concrete plan for funding of the railroad, by government land grants to construction companies willing to lay the tracks. He presented this information to Congress, but the plan was rejected.

The discovery of gold in Oregon Territory followed by the California Gold Rush and the Nevada Silver Rush dramatically increased westward expansion in the 1850s. Years later, after lobbying Congress, the Pacific Railroad Bill was passed in 1862, providing grants to Central Pacific and Union Pacific to begin constructing the transcontinental railroad.

Who were the main figures involved in the creation of the transcontinental railroad?

Theodore Judah: Created a construction plan for the potential railroad’s path through the Sierra Nevada, conducting surveys of the land. He pushed for completion of the project and found investors to support it. After contractual and financial disputes with the investors, Judah left to find new investors, but became sick and died.

Collis P. Huntington: Contacted by Theodore Judah, Huntington agreed to invest in the railroad project, bringing in four more investors, who would become known as the Big Four.

The Big Four:

  • Mark Hopkins
  • James Bailey
  • Charles Crocker
  • Leland Stanford

The Big Four, combined with Huntington and Judah became the Board of Directors for Central Pacific Railroad Company.

Leland Stanford: Shortly after the Pacific Railroad Bill was passed, Stanford became governor of California. Eventually funds Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Charles Crocker: Convinced Central Pacific’s foreman to use Chinese labor to speed up construction.

Thomas C. Durant: Appointed Vice President and general manager of Union Pacific Railroad, after illegally gaining a congrolling interest in the company. Durant bribes Congress for revision of the Pacific Railroad Act in Union Pacific’s favor, granting his company extra resources and funds. Durant formed a company called Credit Mobilier to fraudulently profit from the government’s grants.

Abraham Lincoln: As President, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Bill which allowed Union Pacific and Central Pacific to receive government land and funds in exchange for laying the railroad tracks. Lincoln also brought in Oakes Ames to help manage Union Pacific.

Oakes Ames: Took control of Union Pacific from Durant. During Credit Mobilier’s stock dividend, Ames provides stocks at discount rates to his friends in Congress, which created a scandal when it came out. Ames became the scapegoat for this scandal, and the only one punished when the scandal comes out.

Jay Cooke: Banker and investor in the Northern Pacific Railroad company, until his bank declared bankruptcy in the Panic of 1873, leading to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

What were the main lines of the transcontinental railroads in the United States?
The Central Pacific Railroad traveled from Sacramento California, tunneling through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Promontory, Utah.

The Union Pacific Railroad was constructed from Council Bluffs, Iowa to meet the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah. These two lines are commonly known as the First Transcontinental Railroad.

The Northern Pacific Railroad operated in the far northern United States, from Minnesota to Washington, connecting the Great Lakes to the Puget Sound.

The Southern Pacific Railroad was founded to connect San Francisco to San Diego in California, but was bought by the Big Four, who merged the company into Union Pacific. The Southern line ran from California to Texas.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway traveled across the southwestern United States, from New Mexico to Kansas and then Colorado.

What was the Golden Spike Ceremony?
The Golden Spike Ceremony in Promontory, Utah was the celebration of the joining of the Central Pacific Railroad line with the Union Pacific Railroad’s line in Utah. During the ceremony, Leland Stanford drove the final spike into the ground, signifying the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The spike used for the ceremony was a golden spike. The ceremony may have been the first broadcast media event, as telegraph stations aired each hammer strike.

What were the effects of the transcontinental railroad?
The transcontinental railroad had major effects on America, both good and bad. The railroads helped westward expansion, making travel across the continent safer and quicker. What was once a journey of around six months became a short trip of less than one week. Globalization was one of the main benefits of the transcontinental railroad, resulting in a smaller world that is easier to explore.

The transcontinental railroad employed many immigrants, who performed hard labor for low wages. Though the early laborers were mainly of Irish descent, Chris Crocker decided that hiring Chinese immigrants would help speed up Central Pacific’s process of laying the track. About 6,000 Chinese laborers were hired in 1865, making up about 80% of the laborforce. By 1867, the Chinese workers held a strike for better wages and shorter hours. Central Pacific responded by cutting off food and communication to the Chinese camps. The Chinese laborers returned to work after one week without any change in their conditions.

Though Chinese immigrants were essential to the formation of the country, they faced discrimination even after the completion of the railroad. In 1882, when the United States faced an economic depression, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration, to cut down on competition for jobs. The Act was only meant to last 10 years, but it was extended another 10 years, then made permanent in 1904.

Native Americans:
Native Americans were also negatively affected by the transcontinental railroad. Though native tribes once occupied most of the continent, colonization forced them into less desirable regions of the country. With the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the land once left for Native Americans was taken over. On several occasions, the native tribes that were affected fought back against the railroad companies.

The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 was an attack on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians by the U.S. Military, killing primarily women and children. The following year, the Cheyenne Arapaho, and Sioux retaliated in Julesburg, Colorado.

In 1866, Cheyenne warriors destroy part of the railroad tracks, and after a train derailed on the tracks, the tribe killed all passengers except one.

A Sioux leader, called Red Cloud, fought back and won the Powder River Treaty, which granted the tribe their sacred hunting ground forever. This became known as Red Cloud’s War, one of the only times that a native tribe won against the United States. In 1889, the U.S. Government took the Sioux territory in the Powder River Valley, despite the treaty, to allow for more white settlement.

The Plains Indians were pushed into small pockets of land allotted to them in the form of reservations. Only a fraction of the native buffalo remained.

Government distrust:
The shady deals both Durant and Oakes made during their years of power over the Union Pacific Railroad caused scandals when the truth came out. The lack of government supervision, bribes given by lobbyists for political influence, and the stock deals to Congressmen who were friends of Oakes severely damaged the public perception of their government.

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Last Updated on: September 30th, 2017