The Significance of the Transcontinental Railroad

Posted by John Hankey
on Thursday, May 10, 2018

The United States changed on the morning of May 10, 1869.

Officials and workers for the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.

Around noon local time, a few battle-hardened men laid the final few rails to create a physical link between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads at Promontory Summit in Utah. The Transcontinental Railroad was by no means finished—it would take years to make it a fully-functional main line. But the rails had been joined.

This was never a sure thing, any more than the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia almost exactly four years earlier. But it was an epic achievement and erased any doubt that the United States was (or would soon become) a truly continental nation. The entire country waited for the three dots sent by telegraph: the message was “Done.”

The day was the culmination of four decades of work. Visionaries of various sorts had been seeking a railroad route from the Atlantic to the Pacific since the late 1820s—about the same time folks in Maryland and Pennsylvania were roughing out railroad lines over the Alleghany Mountains to the Ohio Valley. The goal then was the Pacific Northwest and the Far East. Gold and California came a bit later.

Andrew Jackson took the first concrete steps by the U.S. Government to create an “Inter-Oceanic Railroad” in the 1830s, but was stymied by the country’s financial situation. Still, the promise of riches to the West proved irresistible. A decade later, a group of railroad promoters raised the first million dollars in New York, and construction began.

After five years of brutally hard work, exhausted construction crews watched by lamplight as the Chief Engineer drove the final spike of a railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Panama Railroad—arguably the first Interoceanic Railroad—was both a reality, and an economic success.

It was 1855, fully 14 years before Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads likewise drove a series of “final spikes.” The Panama Railroad (with associated steamship lines) dramatically cut transit time between New York and San Francisco, and made our present Transcons inevitable.

A 47-mile long jungle railroad angling oddly across the narrow isthmus connecting the North and South American continents wasn’t in the same league as the 1800-mile long road between the Missouri and Sacramento Rivers. Still, the Panama Railroad was ambitious for its day and a challenge to build.

Both railroads reflected mid-19th century trends that were literally reshaping our physical, political, economic, and cultural worlds. They had much in common and similar objectives: To annihilate time and distance, and connect our North American coasts. There was a lot at stake, and the entire world knew it.

Powerful and smart people—with various agendas—were then working on projects of a lifetime. Think of the Suez Canal, the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, and the rapid development of the petroleum industry. The United States literally was reinventing itself, as was the world..

So far, the “Sesquicentennial Season” (stretching from the 150th Anniversary of the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act through the May 10, 2019 celebration in Utah) has been a rather quiet, unfocused affair.

Union Pacific has recognized its role in commemorative activities. Its web site is a splendid presentation of company history, and we all should be grateful for the return to service of Big Boy 4014. As I’ve noted before, it takes courage for a modern corporation to embrace its history and spend anything celebrating its heritage.

The National Park Service at its Golden Spike National Historic Site plans modest programs in 2019. A few railroad heritage institutions are mounting exhibits, and both R&LHS and NRHS are publishing extensive articles. The Center for Railroad Photography and Art is completing a book entitled After Promontory: 150 Years of Transcontinental Railroading.

Major railroad heritage organizations will be meeting in Utah in 2019 to help celebrate the Sesquicentennial. I look forward to being there.

However--there are no major Pacific Railroad history conferences that I am aware of. No one has stepped up to coordinate a more general recognition that the completion of America’s first Transcon was a Big Deal, and fundamentally changed the course of American History. Even the Railroad Heritage community (and certainly the culture at large) seems to regard this as a local, or railroad-specific, event.

 I couldn’t disagree more.

With a bit more vision and conviction (and resources), the Sesquicentennial of the completion of the Pacific Railroad could have been a prominent cultural event celebrated in various ways across the country. Remember Ross Rowland’s audacious 1969 “Golden Spike Centennial Limited”?

It would have been a fine chance for the railroad industry at large to recognize railroading’s heritage, and its central role in creating our modern economy and society—at least one last time. Amtrak seems conspicuously absent. Where is the AAR? For whatever reasons, we have largely let the opportunity go by. My hope is that there is still time to cook up some interesting events.

Still, we care deeply. If you are reading this, you probably have more than a passing interest in railroading’s past and present, and hopefully the patience to roam around a vast, quirky and far ranging project from 150 years ago.

The Pacific Railroad had it all--drama, intrigue, fascinating characters, setbacks and triumphs, and as much tabloid and reality show behavior as we can stand. The TV series “Hell on Wheels” highlighted that. It wasn’t good history, but it captured the essence of a moment in railroading’s—and America’s—past.

The Pacific Railroad deserves a fresh look and our ongoing respect. This may be our last real chance to engage (literally and figuratively) with one of the most significant projects in American history. I doubt that anyone will be celebrating the 175th in 2044, except maybe as a Virtual Reality experience.

Look for a new post every couple of weeks. I have lots of ideas but no agenda, other than to explore interesting aspects of the Journey to Promontory, and what came after. My Wingman and colleague will be Kyle Wyatt, longtime Curator of the Nevada State Railroad Museum and California State Railroad Museum, and one of the most deeply knowledgeable railroad historians I know.

We will be joined by a wide variety of folks with stories, insights, and recollections to share. I think of this as a genuine exchange and look forward to your comments and suggestions.

And perhaps, in a small way, a chance to give the idea of a Pacific Railroad its due, one last time.

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