First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed

The completion of the first railroad to connect the East and West Coasts greatly accelerated the development of the West and signaled a major step in the closing of the western frontier.

Summary of Event

During the 1850’s, the desirability of constructing railroads that would connect the East and West Coasts of the United States was widely recognized. However, many Americans thought that such schemes were merely visionary because of the great distances that would have to be covered, the engineering obstacles to be overcome, and the tremendous outlays of money that would be required. Realistic businessmen knew that government aid would be necessary to complete any such railroad. Both politicians and others concluded that the nation would be fortunate if financial support could be obtained to build even a single line, and therefore determination of which route would be followed became a major sectional consideration. It was believed that this problem could be resolved by the natural topography, and that one route would prove to be superior to all others on the basis of its more desirable terrain and climate. To find such a route, Congress authorized a survey by the U.S. Army Army, U.S.;Topographical Corps Topographical Corps of all the feasible routes to the Pacific Ocean in 1853. Railroads;transcontinental
Transcontinental railroad
California;and railroads[Railroads]
Union Pacific Railroad
Central Pacific Railroad
Frontier, American;and transportation[Transportation]
[kw]First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed (May 10, 1869)
[kw]Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed, First (May 10, 1869)
[kw]Railroad Is Completed, First Transcontinental (May 10, 1869)
[kw]Completed, First Transcontinental Railroad Is (May 10, 1869)
Transcontinental railroad
California;and railroads[Railroads]
Union Pacific Railroad
Central Pacific Railroad
Frontier, American;and transportation[Transportation]
[g]United States;May 10, 1869: First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed[4330]
[c]Transportation;May 10, 1869: First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed[4330]
[c]Economics;May 10, 1869: First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed[4330]
[c]Engineering;May 10, 1869: First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed[4330]
Ames, Oliver, II
Ames, Oakes
Dodge, Grenville M.
Durant, Thomas C.
Judah, Theodore Dehone

Central Pacific Railroad construction workers standing on flatcars near Promontory Point, where the transcontinental railroad would be joined the following year.

(Library of Congress)

The multivolume report of these expeditions revealed that at least four routes seemed to be practical for a transcontinental railroad, and two were particularly noteworthy. One of these would connect either St. Louis St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri];and railroads[Railroads] or Chicago Chicago;and railroads[Railroads] with San Francisco; the other would link New Orleans New Orleans;and railroads[Railroads] with Los Angeles Los Angeles;and railroads[Railroads] . Southerners insisted on the desirability of the latter idea and pointed out that it, unlike the northern route, would not traverse any unorganized territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] , which organized these territories, was meant to answer the southern challenge.

Meanwhile, the question of slavery in the territories, which the Kansas-Nebraska Act aggravated, delayed any decision on a transcontinental railroad route. California residents became impatient with the delay. In order to placate agitation on the Pacific coast, Congress approved the creation of the Pacific Wagon Road Office to improve the transcontinental wagon roads under the Department of the Interior. However, with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, a railroad connection with California became a more urgent necessity. With southern interests out of the federal government, the location of the line was quickly decided.

The Transcontinental Railroad in 1869

On July 1, 1862, Congress stipulated that two companies should build the first transcontinental railroad. One was the Central Pacific Company, organized a year earlier in California to carry out the construction plans of Theodore Dehone Judah Judah, Theodore Dehone to cross the Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;and railroads[Railroads] eastward to tap the rich trade of the Comstock silver mines of Nevada. Nevada;silver mining
Silver;in Nevada[Nevada]
Mining;in Nevada[Nevada] The other was the Union Pacific Railroad, which was to extend westward from the hundredth meridian to meet the Central Pacific at the California-Nevada line. Each company was granted a one-hundred-foot right-of-way along its routes and five alternate sections of land on each side within ten miles of the railroad. All necessary building supplies could be taken from the public domain. The federal government agreed to lend the railroad companies, on a first-mortgage basis, sixteen thousand dollars per mile for construction on level terrain, thirty-two thousand dollars per mile in foothills, and forty-eight thousand dollars per mile in mountains. The completion date was set for 1876.

Construction of the Union Pacific began in Omaha in December, 1863, but only forty miles of line were built in 1864 and 1865. The chief problem was one of finance, because private capitalists thought the project too risky an investment, despite generous government loans and land grants. In 1864, Congress came to the aid of the railroad by doubling the size of the land grants and by agreeing to a second mortgage to secure its loans, thus permitting borrowing elsewhere on a first-mortgage basis. The law required that the Union Pacific sell its bonds at par. To resolve this difficulty, Crédit Mobilier Crédit Mobilier;and railroads[Railroads] of America was organized to handle construction contracts, accepting payment in Union Pacific bonds which it, in turn, placed on the market for whatever they would bring.

Almost all the labor in building the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Central Pacific Railroad was provided by human workers and draft animals. Steam shovels became available only toward the end of construction. Hence, the railroad was built by armies of men creating whole communities as they moved. Added to this was conflict resulting from the presence on the plains of the Sioux, who had no intention of giving up their lands to the settlers and their iron horse.

The Central Pacific also began construction in 1863, with the aid of the Pacific Railroad Fund raised by a special property tax in California. The state agreed to pay the interest for the following twenty years on the first $1.5 million worth of bonds issued by the company, a total of $2.1 million. Subsidies also were provided by the counties through which the line ran. President Abraham Lincoln decreed that because the Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;and railroads[Railroads] extended westward into the Sacramento Valley, the railroad promoters could borrow the maximum of forty-eight thousand dollars per mile from the federal government.

Construction moved slowly between 1863 and 1867, and the difficult terrain was overcome only by employing seven thousand Chinese immigrants Chinese immigrants;and railroads[Railroads] , who labored patiently on salaries of only thirty to thirty-five dollars per month, with a minimum of equipment. About nine-tenths of the workforce was Chinese. Many of these laborers had come to California California;Chinese immigrants in the wake of the gold rush of 1849, but after they proved to be exceptional workers, the railroad sent agents to China to recruit more of them.

By the summer of 1867, the crest of the Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;and railroads[Railroads] was reached and easier downgrades lay ahead. Anticipating this situation, the Central Pacific had obtained from Congress the right to continue building through Nevada to meet and connect with the Union Pacific. A race then ensued between the two companies, each trying to obtain as much land and government loans as it could as it raced to lay more track than its rival.

By 1866, the Union Pacific reached Fort Kearney, Nebraska. Nebraska;and railroads[Railroads] The pace of construction increased the following summer, after a struggle for control of the railroad was resolved between Thomas C. Durant Durant, Thomas C. , the organizer of the Crédit Mobilier Crédit Mobilier;and railroads[Railroads] of America, and the Boston financiers Oliver Ames II Ames, Oakes
Ames, Oliver, II and Oakes Ames. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad by then had reached Council Bluffs, ending the expensive transportation of rails and supplies up the Missouri River Missouri River;and railroads[Railroads] by steamboat.

Meanwhile, Civil War veterans and Irish immigrants;and railroads[Railroads] Irish immigrants were moving west and seeking work as construction crews. They were described as first-rate but were a constant source of trouble in their free time. There was a great contrast between these uproarious army veterans and the sober, industrious Chinese workers on the Central Pacific. Grenville M. Dodge Dodge, Grenville M. , an army officer with an aptitude for handling men, assumed responsibility for construction and, when necessary, armed his war veterans to fight off those interfering with construction.

In the spring of 1869, Union Pacific and Central Pacific construction crews finally came in sight of each other. When the two roads’ surveys began to parallel each other, they started building two roadbeds side by side in the hope of obtaining more government aid. However, Congress intervened and selected Promontory Point in Utah Utah;railroads
Promontory Point , northwest of Ogden, as the junction of the two lines. There a ceremony celebrating the connection of the rails took place on May 10, 1869, in the presence of railroad officials and distinguished guests. At least one dozen spikes of gold and silver were driven into a polished laurel tie by various speakers, and then the engines came together nose to nose as their whistles blew, bells rang, and the crowd cheered. A war-weary nation had cause to celebrate. Split by secession less than a decade before, the nation now celebrated a new joining.


Completion of the first transcontinental railroad introduced a new era in the settlement of the West. Rapid, comfortable, and comparatively safe transportation across the continent freed prospective settlers and traders from having to reach the frontier in slow, arduous, and often dangerous crossings by wagon train and stagecoach. The railroad also made possible shipment of goods from coast to coast that was faster and cheaper than shipping around Cape Horn Cape Horn . By the end of the nineteenth century, a vast network of railroads crisscrossed the continent and the era of the frontier was over.

Further Reading

  • Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. History of the transcontinental railroad that offers considerable information about the financiers and engineers responsible for its construction.
  • Douglas, George H. All Aboard! The Railroad in American Life. New York: Paragon House, 1992. Lively social history of railroads in the United States.
  • Griswold, Wesley S. A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962. Appreciative history of the transcontinental railroad that concentrates on the actual building of the railroad. Rich in colorful detail and anecdote.
  • McCague, James. Moguls and Iron Men: The Story of the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Discusses the plans and work that were involved in building the first transcontinental railroad.
  • Mayer, Lynn Rhodes, and Ken Vose. Makin’ Tracks: The Saga of the Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995. Tells the story of the transcontinental railroad through illustrations and words of contemporary diaries, newspaper accounts, speeches, handbills, reports, and gossip.
  • Ogburn, Charlton. Railroaders: The Great American Adventure. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1977. Discusses U.S. railroads and the people who built them, ran them, and made their fortunes by owning them.
  • Robertson, Donald B. Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Books, 1986. Includes facts on the rise and decline of the railroad in the West, from the earliest times.
  • Strom, Claire. Profiting from the Plains: The Great Northern Railway and Corporate Development of the American West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. Detailed scholarly study of the forces behind the construction of the northern transcontinental railroad route.
  • Williams, John H. A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Times Books, 1988. Provides a dramatic history of the building of railroads across the United States and discusses what it meant to the states they crossed.

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