Observations Regarding the Transcontinental Railroad Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Congress authorized the building of the first railroad across the western parts of the United States in the summer of 1862 with the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act. The two excerpts included here deal with the building of this railroad, the combined Union Pacific and Central Pacific. The editorial from Harper's Weekly was written almost two years before the railroad was completed, and speculates grandly about the impact that the railroad could be expected to have. It is typical of the kind of enthusiasm many Americans had for the project and the benefits they expected to flow from it. The second excerpt is from the reminiscences of Alexander Toponce, a Western businessman who supplied beef to the railroad's construction crews and was at Promontory Summit when the railroad was completed on May 10, 1869. He describes the celebratory spirit of that occasion, when a special ceremony was held to commemorate the driving of the “last spike.”

Summary Overview

Congress authorized the building of the first railroad across the western parts of the United States in the summer of 1862 with the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act. The two excerpts included here deal with the building of this railroad, the combined Union Pacific and Central Pacific. The editorial from Harper's Weekly was written almost two years before the railroad was completed, and speculates grandly about the impact that the railroad could be expected to have. It is typical of the kind of enthusiasm many Americans had for the project and the benefits they expected to flow from it. The second excerpt is from the reminiscences of Alexander Toponce, a Western businessman who supplied beef to the railroad's construction crews and was at Promontory Summit when the railroad was completed on May 10, 1869. He describes the celebratory spirit of that occasion, when a special ceremony was held to commemorate the driving of the “last spike.”

Defining Moment

In the 1840s, the United States settled the controversy with Great Britain over the Pacific Northwest and also acquired most of the American Southwest as a result of the war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848. Almost immediately, speculation arose about the possibility of building a railroad across the western region. Before the Civil War, however, Congressional debates over the railroad invariably became entangled in the sectional controversy, as Northern and Southern interests each wanted the first line in their region. During the Civil War, when Southern congressmen were not present, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act, which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862. The bill gave a federal business charter to a new railroad corporation, the Union Pacific, to build westward from the Missouri River. It also gave a charter to the Central Pacific Railroad, an existing short line in California, to build eastward from Sacramento, CA. In order to finance this massive construction venture, the government gave generous aid, including massive land grants and cash loans, to the two corporations. The land grants included ten square miles of government land for each mile of track built; this was later increased to twenty square miles per mile of track. The government also agreed to negotiate with the Indians to obtain title to the lands the railroads would cross. The railroads could sell their land to settlers to raise money for construction. However, since the settlers were not likely to come until the railroad was built, in practice the railroads had to borrow money through bond sales, hoping that later shipping revenues and land sales would generate the funds to repay these obligations. Together, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific received about 45,000,000 acres of federal land.

While the gold rush of the late 1840s had brought much settlement and development to California, the first transcontinental railroad was largely built through unsettled land, with few customers needing the transportation services the railroad would provide. In a sense, then, the railroads were built for future needs—creating the railroad would bring the farms, ranches, mines, lumbering companies, and other businesses that would need to ship their products and buy manufactured goods from the East. Economists describe this concept as “building ahead of demand.” Because they had vast lands they needed to sell, all of the western railroads that received land grants were heavily involved in promotion of settlement and townsite development, often sending agents to Europe to attract immigrants to come and buy land from the railroads. Even if settlers bought land from the government, or got land free through homesteading, the railroads stood to benefit from the traffic that their economic activity would stimulate. These two excerpts ably illustrate the sense of expectancy and the hopes for the future that surrounded the building of the first transcontinental railroad.

Author Biography

The 1867 editorial from Harper's Weekly was an unsigned piece by the editorial staff. Harper's Weekly was one of the most prominent American journals of its day. It was founded in 1850 by the book publishers Harper and Brothers. Alexander Toponce (1839–1923), the author of the reminiscence about the “Golden Spike” ceremony, was an emigrant from France who had his hand in several different business ventures on the western frontier. Most of his later life was spent in Idaho, the southern parts of Montana, and northern Utah. He prospected for gold, ran freighting businesses with wagon trains, and when the transcontinental railroad was being built, he contracted with both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific to provide beef for their work camps. His Reminiscences of Alexander Toponce, from which this excerpt is taken, was published by his wife shortly after his death.

Historical Document

[Harper's Weekly editorial on the transcontinental railroad, 1867]

We have … expressed the belief that the constantly changing wants and exigencies of a growing country like ours demand, and will compel, a radical change in our present railway system; that with the completion of the grand arterial road across the continent to the Pacific, all other roads must become tributary and subservient to it—the direction of railway traffic (freights) being traverse to the water communication that cuts the country from north to south. A consolidation of railroad interests will naturally result, as well as a change in the mode of operating and running. The future requirements are already foreseen and felt; the first movement toward the new order of things is the proposed combination of leading railroads to form a great Western route under one management. The parties to the combination are the New York Central, Lake Shore, Cleveland and Toledo, Michigan Southern, and those other roads that constitute the northernmost tier of transverse communication. Another rival organization is promised, to include a more southern route, and will embrace the Pennsylvania Central, Pittsburg, Fort Wayne and Chicago, etc. Their interests will not conflict; on the contrary, the commercial necessities of the country will on the course of time require one or two more routes still further south to convey the produce of the sea-board States to their western destination.

When the Pacific Railroad is completed in 1870, all these gigantic tributaries will converge toward the main stem, like the fingers of a hand. All the immense and richly productive districts of the Atlantic and the East will contribute to supply the vital fluid that courses through them. Even the vast domain of the “New Dominion” [i.e., Canada] … will be induced to furnish its quota of subsistence. But the seat of the vital principle will be in the city of New York. There will the mighty beat of its palpitation be heard. Already the commercial centre of America, it will then, by its geographical position, become the commercial centre of the world. We do not assume that the Pacific Railway will supersede vessels in the carrying trade, for that would be impossible; a dozen lines of railroad could not furnish the required transportation, even if it could carry as cheaply. But from its closer relations and proximity to other countries, New York could command the commerce. It would be as nearly united to Asia as it has been to Europe. The distance to China, now accomplished in forty-three to forty-five days, will be shortened to thirty days. A letter will reach Hong Kong by way of San Francisco much quicker than when it went by way of Liverpool, just as our enterprise had shortened the time of our communication with Brazil. The London banker would no longer pocket the commissions and the exchange on the immense trade carried on between New York and China, as well as South American and the West Indies; but New York would become, to America at least, what London is not to the rest of the world, namely, the place on which exchange is universally drawn. Millions of dollars would thereby be saved to our merchants annually, to say nothing of the difference of time, which is as precious as money.

We have heretofore spoken of the advantages to be obtained by the operation of the Pacific Railroad in developing the treasures of California and the Rocky Mountain region, and the easy access it afford to Asiatic trade. The gains, to be sure, are for the present purely speculative, but it is easy to conjecture the results from past experience. And we are to obtain all this by an estimated outlay of $45,000,000 currency for a road 1565 miles long … It will take time to overcome the commercial and financial derangement which the late war inflicted upon the court, and to stimulate the productive interests of the several sections to their full capacity; but by the time the Pacific Railroad is completed we hope to lie upon the top wave of prosperity, and to tax our new lines of intercommunication to their utmost limit.

* * *

[Alexander Topance on the Golden Spike ceremonies, Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869]

I saw the Golden Spike driven at Promontory, Utah, on May 10th, 1869. I had a beef contract to furnish meat to the construction camps of Benson and West. This West was my good friend. Bishop Chauncey W. West of Ogden. They had a grading contract with the Central Pacific and their camp was near Blue Creek. I also furnished beef for some of the Union Pacific contractors.

The Golden Spike could have been driven a couple of weeks earlier than it was. But the two companies had settled on Promontory as the meeting place some days prior to the actual meeting.

The Central Pacific had been planning to make the junction at Ogden as to be in touch with Salt Lake City and the settlements in Utah. But the Union Pacific planned to lay their iron as far west as Humboldt Wells, in Nevada, and had most of their grade completed that far west.

If the Union Pacific had crowded their work as hard as the Central Pacific did in the last two weeks the Golden Spike would have been driven a good many miles to the west. The Union Pacific employed white labor, largely Irish, and the Central Pacific had Chinese labor. The Irish and Chinese met on Promontory Hill.

The Union Pacific sold to the Central Pacific fifty-six miles of road, which brought the real junction back to a point five miles north of the Ogden depot, and then leased that five miles to the Central Pacific, making Ogden the junction.

On the last day only about 100 feet were laid and everybody tried to have a hand in the work. I took a shovel from an Irishman and threw a shovel full of dirt on the ties just to tell about it afterward.

A special train from the west brought Governor Leland Stanford of California and C. P. Huntington, Crocker, Hopkins and lots of California wine.

Another special train from the east brought Sidney Dillon, General Dodge, T. C. Durant, John R. Duff, S. A. Seymour, a lot of newspaper men, and plenty of the best brands of champagne.

Another train made up at Ogden carried the band from Fort Douglas, the leading men of Utah Territory, and a small, but efficient supply, of Valley Tan.

It was a very hilarious occasion, everybody had all they wanted to drink all the time. Some of the participants got “sloppy” and these were not all Irish and Chinese, by any means.

California furnished the Golden Spike. Governor Tuttle of Nevada furnished one of silver. General [i.e., Governor] Stanford presented one of gold, silver and iron from Arizona. The last tie was of California laurel.

When they came to drive the last spike. Governor Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, took the sledge and the first time he struck he missed the spike and hit the rail.

What a howl went up! Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, and everybody yelled with delight. Everybody slapped everybody else on the back and yelled “He missed it. Yee.” The engineers blew the whistles and rang their bells. Then Stanford tried it again and tapped the spike and the telegraph operators had fixed their instruments so that the tap was reported in all the offices, east and west, and set bells to tapping in hundreds of towns and cities. W. N. Shilling was one of the telegraph operators.

Then Vice President T. C. Durant of the Union Pacific took up the sledge and he missed the spike the first time. Then everybody slapped everybody else again and yelled, “He missed it, [too], yow!”

It was a great occasion, everyone carried off souvenirs and there are enough splinters of the last tie in museums to make a good bonfire. When the connection was finally made the U. P. and the C. P. engineers ran their engines up until their pilots touched. Then the engineers shook hands and had their pictures taken and each broke a bottle of champagne on the pilot of the other's engine and had their pictures taken again.

The [C. P.] engine, the “Jupiter,” was driven by my good friend, George Lashus, who still lives in Ogden.

Both before and after the spike driving ceremony there were speeches, which were cheered heartily. I do not remember what any of the speakers said now, but I do remember that there was a great abundance of champagne.

Document Analysis

These two excerpts clearly illustrate the excitement that surrounded the subject of the first railroad across the American West. Great things were expected to result from the completion of the first line, the combined Union Pacific and Central Pacific route from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. The editorial in Harper's Weekly, written nearly two years before the line was completed, envisioned that all eastern railroads would become “tributary and subservient to it.” The editors also predicted a merger or “combination” of all the leading roads in the East to form one “Western route under one management.” While there have been many mergers in the history of American railroading, this prediction did not become true. Instead, the different railroads continued to operate independently, but interchanged traffic to create a national transportation network. The prediction that when the Pacific Railroad was completed, these tributary railroads “will converge toward the main stem, like the fingers of a hand,” did come to pass in a sense. Eventually, five major railroad lines were built across the American West, and each of these companies built branches that reached north and south off of their trunk lines, and smaller regional railroads also interconnected with the transcontinental lines. Likewise, the prediction that New York would become a major world trade center was also fulfilled.

The second excerpt is from Alexander Toponce's memoirs of his days on the western frontier. Toponce had contracted with the railroads to provide beef for the camps of the construction crews. The Central Pacific Railroad had built 881 miles eastward from Sacramento, CA, and the Union Pacific had built 1,032 miles westward from Omaha, NE. Since the two companies received generous land grants and loans from the government for each mile of track built, they competed to build the most track and refused to coordinate a meeting place until Congress dictated that the two lines would meet at Promontory, near Ogden in the Utah Territory. As Toponce notes, much of the Central Pacific's work force was immigrant Chinese labor, while the Union Pacific employed many Irish laborers. African Americans workers, many of them former slaves, also worked on the Union Pacific construction crews.

With his frequent references to the quantities and varieties of alcoholic beverages consumed, Toponce captures the celebratory mood of the day when the railroad was completed. Commemorative spikes of precious metals were temporarily installed, but the final spike was an iron one attached to telegraph lines. When Leland Stanford, former governor of California and president of the Central Pacific, hammered in the last spike, the message was to be instantly telegraphed across the nation. Stanford missed when he swung at the spike, but the telegraphers sent the message anyway. Nearly six years after Congress had authorized its construction, the Pacific Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869.

Essential Themes

These excerpts illustrate the sense of expectancy and promise that accompanied the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Although the railroad was built through regions that had very few non-Indian inhabitants, many political leaders, businessmen, editors and journalists believed the railroad would lead to widespread settlement and development throughout the region. Many of these predictions came true; farming and ranching in the Great Plains region, for example, boomed in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Little of this development would have been possible without the railroad to bring people and supplies to the frontier and to ship the commodities produced there to market. The railroad companies were heavily involved in “boosterism,” extolling the virtues of the land they owned in the West in order to attract settlers. People who settled these lands sometimes charged that they were misled about the quality of the land and the climate. Eventually, four transcontinental lines were completed across the West, which all received government land grants. Besides the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, these included the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe; the Southern Pacific; and the Northern Pacific—the latter three all being finished in 1883. A fifth transcontinental, the Great Northern, was completed in 1895, but did not receive a land grant from the federal government.

In time, the enthusiasm for the western railroads cooled. Farmers and businessmen who settled in the West realized the railroad made their commerce possible, but they also realized that, with few viable alternative forms of transportation, they were captive to the railroads' interests. The building of the transcontinental railroads also involved considerable mismanagement, waste, and outright fraud. When scandals such as the Crédit Mobilier affair became widely known, public opinion began to turn against the railroad companies. In the late nineteenth century, agrarian protest movements, such as the Grangers and the Populists, attacked the railroads and called for government ownership, or failing that, strict government regulation of railroad business practices. Many laws regulating the railroads were enacted during the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.
  • Bain, David Hayward. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.
  • White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. Print.
  • Williams, John Hoyt. A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railway. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. Print.
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