The First Transcontinental Railroad - A Human and Engineering Triumph

The First Transcontinental Railroad - A Human and Engineering Triumph
By Adam Singleton

Started during the war that divided the United States, the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed after the Civil War and heralded an era of new unity and hope for the United States. But, before the railroad was even started there were many hurdles to overcome, and the fact that it was ever built is a tribute to human resilience and endeavour.

The discovery of gold in California in 1849 suddenly propelled the state from one that attracted little interest as it was considered a barren wasteland into one that people raced to inhabit and exploit. Suddenly, plans for a Transcontinental Railroad that only several years earlier were ridiculed as unworkable and over-ambitious were revived resulting in an 1853 Act of Congress. However, conflicting interests between North and South prevented an agreement being reached on the route. Ironically, it was not until the outbreak of the Civil War that the Transcontinental Railroad became a reality. With Southern opposition removed from positions in federal government as a result of secession, the Senate and House of Representatives passed the Pacific Railroad Acts in 1862 and 1864, which eventually paved the way for the construction of the railroad. Under this legislation the railroads were granted use of building materials and land across 20 million acres and received government support for loans amounting to $60 million.

Groundbreaking took place in January 1863 in Sacramento, California by the Central Pacific Railroad and in December of the same year at Missouri River bluffs near Omaha, Nebraska by the Union Pacific Railroad; sparking a competition between the two companies to see who could finish first.

Both companies had to overcome many problems and challenges, including material and labour shortages, before their momentous task was complete. However, despite all the logistical problems and frequent attacks and disruption from Native Americans, the railroad was completed after six years and is still one of the most momentous engineering projects ever carried out in the continental USA.

At 12:20 p.m. on Monday 10th May, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, the insertion of the final spike marked the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The official ceremony was witnessed by about 600 workers and dignitaries, a bottle of champagne smashed over a special laurel tie to huge applause and a telegraph was sent to the nation containing one word; ‘Done’.

Once complete, the railroad instantly propelled its western coast terminus at Sacramento to prominence. The future Californian capital had acted as the distribution point for the building materials while the railroad was under construction and once completed saw a massive influx of prospectors and settlers from the East. As a result the city underwent a building boom which led to the construction of many homes, civic buildings, shops and hotels in Sacramento, which were vital to temporarily house the rush of settlers before they decided upon their final location within California.

Adam Singleton is an online, freelance journalist and keen amateur photographer from Scotland. His interests include travelling and hiking.

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