Building the transcontinental railroad was an unprecedented feat of engineering, extraordinary vision, and raw courage. The railroad was the hope and dream of Abraham Lincoln, but he would not live to see its completion. Investors risked their businesses and money; a few politicians understood its importance; engineers and surveyors risked and some lost their lives; Irish and Chinese immigrants, many of the defeated Confederate soldiers, and other laborers did the backbreaking and dangerous work of laying track. The transcontinental railroad was a huge expenditure of brainpower, muscle, and sweat. Upon its completion, there was nothing else like it in the world.
Two companies were pitted against one another to create a railroad that is still used routinely today. The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads competed with one another for funding. Speed was tantamount and caution was thrown to the wind. Most of the building of this railroad line was done by hand—from excavating dirt, cutting through ridges, fillings gorges, and blasting tunnels through the mountains.
The workforce approached the size of the Civil War armies at its peak. As many as fifteen thousand workers toiled on each line. For the Union Pacific, most of those workers were Irish. On the Central Pacific, Chinese immigrants filled the ranks.
Work began in 1863 and as the tracks were set, tent cities rose. Some of those “towns” faded into oblivion as the rails continued away across the landscape. Others became cities in their own right—places like Cheyenne, Laramie, Rawlins Springs, Green River…and in 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah, the last spike was driven, completing the ribbons of iron that would join a nation from one coast to another.