It was on this day in 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in Promontory, Utah, to drive a ceremonial “last spike” into a rail line that connected their two railroads. This made transcontinental railroad travel possible for the first time in U.S. history. No longer would western-bound travelers need to take the long and dangerous journey by wagon train, and the West would surely lose some of its wild charm with the new connection to the civilized East.
It was not until 1853, though, that Congress appropriated funds to survey several routes for the transcontinental railroad. The actual building of the railroad would have to wait even longer, as North-South tensions prevented Congress from reaching an agreement on where the line would begin.
Today many historians argue the railroad is the single most important tool that allowed the United States to become the greatest economy in the world! It wasn’t so much the transportation of people but the transportation and free movement of commodities and goods across such vast land that enabled explosive growth! Below are some interesting thoughts and facts:
Extreme Loss of Labor: Harsh winters, staggering summer heat, Indian raids and the lawless, rough-and-tumble conditions of newly settled western towns made conditions for the Union Pacific laborers–mainly Civil War veterans of Irish descent–miserable. The overwhelmingly immigrant Chinese workforce of the Central Pacific also had its fair share of problems, including brutal 12-hour work days laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On more than one occasion, whole crews would be lost to avalanches, or mishaps with explosives would leave several dead.
Important Technological Changes: Several innovations helped foster the growth of railroads. These included T-shaped rails that distributed the weight of trains evenly and hook-headed spikes that grabbed the rail, thus attaching it securely to the crossties. Swiveling trucks under railroad cars created greater stability, allowing trains to travel over rough roadbed and high terrain. The development of truss and cantilever bridges provided a way to get railroads over water ways and other obstructions. Keep in mind, early tracks were constructed of wood, which was not strong enough to support ever-heavier locomotives. Iron rails were developed that could carry the weight of large, steam-powered locomotives. These rails were originally laid on cross ties made of blocks of stone, which were not only expensive, but also could not support the weight of locomotives. They were replaced by wooden crossties similar to those used today.
Forever Changed America: For all the adversity they suffered, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific workers were able to finish the railroad–laying nearly 2,000 miles of track–by 1869, ahead of schedule and under budget. Journeys that had taken months by wagon train or weeks by boat now took only days. Their work had an immediate impact: The years following the construction of the railway were years of rapid growth and expansion for the United States, due in large part to the speed and ease of travel that the railroad provided. Keep in mind, railroads began in the East, but quickly moved west, spider-webbing across the country. Wherever railroads went, people followed and towns grew. Previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited areas of the country became towns almost overnight when the railroad came through. One striking example is the case of Terminus, Georgia. The small town of about thirty was chosen as the terminus for the Western & Atlantic Railroad. In 1845, it was renamed Atlanta and went on to become one of the most important cities in the South. Towns in the center of the country became boom-towns, acting as railroad transshipment points for goods. Perhaps the best examples of this are the Kansas towns like Abilene and the infamous Dodge City. From the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, Texas cowboys drove herds of longhorn cattle to these towns where they were loaded onto trains for shipment to stockyards and slaughterhouses in cities like Chicago.
The First Locomotive: The first locomotive for use on railways was imported from England in 1829. The English had been experimenting with steam-powered locomotives since the late eighteenth century and had developed a prototype by 1828. Horatio Allen, working for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, purchased four of these early steam locomotives and brought them to the United States. One, Stourbridge Lion, was tested on 8 August 1829, but proved to be too heavy for the tracks that had been constructed and was subsequently retired.E. L. Miller was then commissioned by South Carolina to construct what would be the first locomotive built in America for use on the railroad. He named the locomotive The Best Friend of Charleston. Tested in October of 1830, the engine performed admirably.
Today’s Importance: About 700 railroads operate common carrier freight service in the United States. There are about 150,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, nearly all standard gauge. Remember, early tracks were constructed of wood, which was not strong enough to support ever-heavier locomotives.