Friday, April 26, 2019

Transcontinental Railroad Sesquicentennial by Zina Abbott

May 10th of next month marks the sesquicentennial of the joining of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point, often known as the Golden Spike ceremony. Over the course of several blog posts, I hope to share bits and pieces of this endeavor. I do have a vested interest in the topic for several reasons. For one, my great-grandfather worked for the Union Pacific Railroad as it cut its way through Echo Canyon in Utah. Also, the history of the Central Pacific Railroad plays a big role in the early history of California, my adopted state.

The First Transcontinental Railroad, known originally as the "Pacific Railroad" and later as the “Overland Route," was a 1,912-mile (3,077 km) continuous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869 that connected the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Omaha, Nebraska/Council Bluffs, Iowa with the Pacific coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay. The rail line was built by three private companies over public lands provided by extensive US land grants. Construction was financed by both state and US government subsidy bonds as well as by company issued mortgage bonds. The Western Pacific Railroad Company built 132 mi (212 km) of track from Oakland/Alameda to Sacramento, California. The Central Pacific Railroad Company of California (CPRR) constructed 690 mi (1,110 km) eastward from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. The Union Pacific built 1,085 mi (1,746 km) from the road's eastern terminus at Council Bluffs near Omaha, Nebraska westward to Promontory Summit.

The railroad opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869 when CPRR President Leland Stanford ceremonially drove the gold "Last Spike. " which was later often called the "Golden Spike," with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit.

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote, “Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century….”1

The completion of this railroad proved to be a monumental feat that revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West. Where before, my pioneer ancestors traveled for months across the plains to reach their destination, the trip on the railroad from New York to San Francisco could be made in seven days. It used to cost about $1,000 (value of that time) to travel by wagon and ox team from New York to San Francisco. Once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the cost of a rail ticket was $150.00 for first class and $70 for third, or emigrant, class (hard, narrow benches set close together). Freight rates by railroad were far less than for oxen- or horse-driven wagons, sailboats or steamships. Cross country mail that once cost dollars per ounce and took months to reach its destination now cost pennies and was delivered in a matter of days.

I will end with this quote printed in the Deseret News, the primary newspaper of Salt Lake City, the largest and only city of any size between the Missouri and California:

         “The last tie has been laid, the last rail is placed in position, and the last spike is driven, which binds the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with an iron band. The electric flash has borne the tidings to the world, and it now devolves upon us, the favored eye-witnesses of the monumental feat, to enter our record of the facts…. Never before has this continent disclosed anything bearing comparison with it. The massive oaken-hued trains of the Central Pacific lie upon their iron path, confronted by the elegant coaches of the Union pacific.
         “Thousands of throbbing hearts impulsively beat to the motion of the trains at the front locomotives of each company led on majestically up to the very verge of the narrow break between the lines where, in a few moments, was to be consummated the nuptial rites uniting the gorgeous East and the imperial West with the indissoluble seal of inter-oceanic commerce.”2

Golden Spike Ceremony Recreation - Ctsy Hyrum K. Wright

My most recent book, Virginia’s Vocation, is now available on Amazon. In 1859, when Virginia, escorted by her older brother, Jefferson, travel from Missouri to Ohio, the train that had almost reached St. Joseph, Missouri was the most westerly point served by a railroad east of the Missouri River. This was a mere decade before the east and west were joined by the Transcontinental Railroad. To read the book description and access the purchase link, please CLICK HERE.

1. Taken from the Stephen B. Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 369-70. Reprinted in Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009), pg. 393-95.

2. Taken from the Deseret News, May 19, 1869, 169; Kate B. Carter, Our Pioneer Heritage (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1969), 12:285. Reprinted in Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009), pg. 393.


Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009)


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