Buyenlarge/Getty Images

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.8

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.14, Geo.2, Geo.4, Geo.7, Geo.8, Geo.9, His.1, His.2, His.4, His.5, His.12, His.14, His.15

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Culture; People, places, and environments; Individuals, groups, and institutions


FLASHBACK

The Railroad That Changed America

The completion of the first transcontinental railroad 150 years ago united a nation torn apart by the Civil War. But not all Americans benefited equally. 

As You Read, Think About: What impact do trains have on the U.S.?

It’s May 10, 1869, and a spirited crowd has gathered in isolated Promontory Summit, deep in Utah Territory, to make history. Little more than a collection of tents and makeshift workers’ shacks, it’s an unlikely spot from which to witness the transformation of the United States. Yet thousands of people have gathered here to do just that. 

All eyes are on Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad, as he raises a hammer to tap a golden spike into the track. Clang! Cheers erupt all around and railroad engineers blow their whistles. Men give speeches and pop open bottles of champagne. 

Then a telegraph operator types out a single word: “DONE.” In an instant, people in New York, Chicago, and other cities receive the news and celebrate. Cannons blast, bells ring out. After years of planning and work, America’s first transcontinental railroad is complete. From coast to coast, the entire country is now connected by rail.

It is May 10, 1869. A spirited crowd has gathered in isolated Promontory Summit to make history. The spot is deep in Utah Territory. It is little more than a collection of tents and makeshift workers’ shacks. That makes it an unlikely place from which to witness the transformation of the United States. Yet thousands of people have gathered here to do just that.

All eyes are on Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad. He raises a hammer to tap a golden spike into the track. Clang! Cheers erupt all around and railroad engineers blow their whistles. Men give speeches and pop open bottles of champagne.

Then a telegraph operator types out a single word: “DONE.” In an instant, people in New York, Chicago, and other cities receive the news and celebrate. Cannons blast, bells ring out. After years of planning and work, America’s first transcontinental railroad is complete. From coast to coast, the entire country is now connected by rail.

Why the fuss? In a way, that moment—150 years ago this month—was a new beginning for the U.S. Just a few years after the country had been torn apart by the Civil War (1861-65), the nation was still trying to heal itself. At the same time, Americans had dreamed for years of a system of railroads linking the states in the East to western settlements in California (see map, below). Now the U.S. was joined together, literally and symbolically, by a marvel of engineering and human labor—the transcontinental railroad.

Why the fuss? In a way, it was a new beginning for the U.S. That moment was 150 years ago this month. Just a few years after the country had been torn apart by the Civil War (1861-65), the nation was still trying to heal itself. At the same time, Americans had dreamed for years of a system of railroads linking the states in the East to western settlements in California (see map, below). Now the U.S. was joined together, literally and symbolically, by the transcontinental railroad. It was a marvel of engineering and human labor.

Moving West

In the 1850s, the U.S. government began encouraging Americans to head west to claim some of the country’s vast open areas. Pioneers were lured with the promise of owning their own land. But the trip could take months—if they survived it at all. 

Horse-drawn wagons were constantly at risk of breaking down in parched deserts, on barren plains, or in treacherous mountain passes. “Nothing but actual experience will give one an idea of the . . . exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived,” one pioneer wrote.

Trains could be quicker and safer. At the time, the eastern U.S. was connected by about 9,000 miles of railroad tracks. Trains had transformed the economy there by allowing goods and people to move rapidly. Building a railroad to California could bring the country, and its prosperity, west. 

Congress gave the job to two companies. In 1863, the Central Pacific Railroad began laying tracks in Sacramento, California, working eastward. A year later, the Union Pacific Railroad began in Omaha, Nebraska, and headed west. (Railroad lines already reached Omaha from the East Coast.) By rewarding the companies with money and land for each mile of track, Congress turned the project into a real competition.

In the 1850s, the U.S. government began encouraging Americans to head west. It said they could claim some of the country’s vast open areas. Pioneers were lured with the promise of owning their own land. But the trip could take months—if they survived it.

Horse-drawn wagons were always in danger of breaking down. That could happen in parched deserts, on barren plains, or in treacherous mountain passes. “Nothing but actual experience will give one an idea of the . . . exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived,” one pioneer wrote.

Trains could be quicker and safer. At the time, the eastern U.S. was connected by about 9,000 miles of railroad tracks. Trains had changed the economy there. They allowed goods and people to move quickly. Building a railroad to California could bring the country, and its prosperity, west.

Congress gave the job to two companies. In 1863, the Central Pacific Railroad began laying tracks in Sacramento, California. It worked eastward. A year later, the Union Pacific Railroad began in Omaha, Nebraska. It headed west. (Railroad lines already reached Omaha from the East Coast.) Congress turned the project into a real competition: It rewarded the companies with money and land for each mile of track.

Bettmann/Getty Images

RISKY JOBS: Thousands of Chinese workers built the Central Pacific Railroad.

A Backbreaking Job for Workers

Laying nearly 1,900 miles of track across the nation’s frontier was an incredibly difficult job. Workers used picks and shovels to level the land. They chopped down trees. Then they laid out the heavy metal rails and hammered in spikes to hold them in place. 

“Workers were out there from sunrise to sunset,” says Lucas Hugie, a park ranger at Promontory Summit’s Golden Spike National Historical Park. “It was heavy labor all done by hand,” he explains. 

Most of the people working on the Central Pacific line were Chinese. Many of them—or their parents—had arrived during the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848. Victims of racism, the Chinese were banned from almost all jobs. With limited options, up to 20,000 Chinese people agreed to take the grueling, dangerous railroad work that few white Californians would accept. Even so, they were routinely paid less for longer hours than white workers.

As they progressed eastward, these laborers were confronted with an incredible challenge: the Sierra Nevada mountains. The workers had to dig 15 tunnels through the peaks, most at high elevations and almost completely with hand tools. To loosen the rock, they would chisel holes into it, fill the holes with explosive black powder, then light a fuse and rush to take cover.

While blasting was risky work, the Central Pacific crews were in even more danger from avalanches, which could strike in the mountains at any time. When the snow thawed after the especially hard winter of 1867, bodies of workers who’d been swept up in snowslides were found with their tools still in their hands. 

Laying nearly 1,900 miles of track across the nation’s frontier was an incredibly difficult job. Workers used picks and shovels to level the land. They chopped down trees. Then they laid out the heavy metal rails. They hammered in spikes to hold them in place.

“Workers were out there from sunrise to sunset,” says Lucas Hugie. He is a park ranger at Promontory Summit’s Golden Spike National Historical Park. “It was heavy labor all done by hand,” he explains.

Most of the people working on the Central Pacific line were Chinese. Many of them, or their parents, had arrived during the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848. The Chinese were victims of racism. They were banned from almost all jobs. So with limited options, up to 20,000 Chinese people agreed to take the grueling, dangerous railroad work. Few white Californians would take on such work. Even so, the Chinese were routinely paid less for longer hours than white workers.

As they moved eastward, these laborers were confronted with the Sierra Nevada mountains. They posed an incredible challenge. The workers had to dig 15 tunnels through the peaks. Most were at high elevations. The laborers had to do the work almost completely with hand tools. To loosen the rock, they would chisel holes into it. Then they would fill the holes with explosive black powder. They would light a fuse and rush to take cover.

Blasting was risky work. But the Central Pacific crews were in even more danger from avalanches. Those could strike in the mountains at any time. The winter of 1867 was especially hard. When the snow thawed, bodies of workers who had been swept up in snowslides were found with their tools still in their hands.

Destroying a Way of Life

In the East, the workers of the Union Pacific were moving more quickly across the Nebraska plains. They included Civil War veterans, freed slaves, and many immigrants from Ireland, where the Irish potato famine had created millions of refugees. Their task was made harder by raiding parties from the Cheyenne, Sioux, and other Native American nations of the Great Plains, who saw their presence as a threat.

The Native people had good reason to be worried. The railroad cut through land where they’d lived and hunted buffalo for generations. Now, new towns of white settlers sprouted wherever the tracks went, destroying their way of life. 

The U.S. government sent soldiers to fight back against the Native people. In 1867, General William Tecumseh Sherman met with members of the Great Plains nations, warning them of what was to come: “We will build iron roads, and you cannot stop the locomotive any more than you can stop the sun or the moon,” he said.

The tribes continued to resist for a while, but they were eventually overpowered. “The white people have surrounded me and left me nothing but an island,” Sioux leader Red Cloud would later say during a visit to Washington, D.C. “When we first had this land, we were strong. Now we are melting like snow on a hillside.” Like Red Cloud, most Native Americans would soon be forced onto reservations.

In the East, the workers of the Union Pacific were moving more quickly across the Nebraska plains. These workers included Civil War veterans and freed slaves. They also included many immigrants from Ireland, where the Irish potato famine had created millions of refugees. The railroad builders’ task was made harder by raiding parties from the Cheyenne, Sioux, and other Native American nations of the Great Plains. The Native people saw the railroad’s presence as a threat.

They had good reason to be worried. The railroad cut through land where they had lived and hunted buffalo for generations. Now new towns of white settlers sprouted wherever the tracks went. This was destroying the Native Americans’ way of life.

The U.S. government sent soldiers to fight back against the Native people. In 1867, General William Tecumseh Sherman met with members of the Great Plains nations. He warned them of what was to come. “We will build iron roads, and you cannot stop the locomotive any more than you can stop the sun or the moon,” he said.

The tribes continued to resist for a while. But they were eventually overpowered. “The white people have surrounded me and left me nothing but an island,” Sioux leader Red Cloud would later say during a visit to Washington, D.C. “When we first had this land, we were strong. Now we are melting like snow on a hillside.” Like Red Cloud, most Native Americans would soon be forced onto reservations.

You Might Need to Know . . . 

THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH
In 1848, gold was discovered in California, bringing a flood of fortune seekers. Thousands were Chinese. Many of them—or their sons—would work on the Central Pacific Railroad.

THE IRISH POTATO FAMINE
Ireland’s potato crop was destroyed by a disease in the 1840s, causing a great famine. Millions of Irish fled to the U.S. They became the backbone of the Union Pacific workforce. 

THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH
In 1848, gold was discovered in California, bringing a flood of fortune seekers. Thousands were Chinese. Many of them—or their sons—would work on the Central Pacific Railroad.

THE IRISH POTATO FAMINE
Ireland’s potato crop was destroyed by a disease in the 1840s, causing a great famine. Millions of Irish fled to the U.S. They became the backbone of the Union Pacific workforce. 

A Nation Transformed

By early 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were only miles apart in Utah Territory. Finally, the companies settled on a location where their two lines would meet. Now the teams were in a race to reach Promontory Summit. 

In April, the Central Pacific construction chief bet a Union Pacific official that his men could lay 10 miles of track in a day. They did it, putting down 3,520 rails and 55,000 spikes in 12 hours!

But few of those workers were at the celebration at Promontory Summit on May 10. By then, most of the people who had actually built the transcontinental railroad had been let go. History notes very little about them. None of the Chinese workers’ names were recorded by the Central Pacific—including those of the small crew left behind to join the last rail. “No white journalist at the ceremony was interested in reporting on their work,” says historian Richard Cheu, an adviser to the Museum of Chinese in America.

Still, their efforts had a huge impact on the nation. Passengers could now travel from coast to coast in about a week. Immigration to the West surged. The railroad also boosted the nation’s economy. Trains began transporting raw materials such as timber and silver from the West to factories in the East. The U.S. became richer, more powerful, and more united. 

Not all Americans benefited equally from the railroad, however. Native Americans in particular were pushed aside while a growing nation swallowed their lands. For better or worse, “the railroad transformed every part of the country that it touched,” park ranger Hugie says.

By early 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were only miles apart in Utah Territory. Finally, the companies settled on a location where their two lines would meet. Now the teams were in a race to reach Promontory Summit.

In April, the Central Pacific construction chief bet a Union Pacific official that his men could lay 10 miles of track in a day. They did it. They put down 3,520 rails and 55,000 spikes in 12 hours!

But few of those workers were at the celebration at Promontory Summit on May 10. By then, most of the people who had actually built the transcontinental railroad had been let go. History notes very little about them. None of the Chinese workers’ names were recorded by the Central Pacific—not even those of the small crew left behind to join the last rail. “No white journalist at the ceremony was interested in reporting on their work,” says historian Richard Cheu. He is an adviser to the Museum of Chinese in America.

Still, the workers’ efforts had a huge impact on the nation. Passengers could now travel from coast to coast in about a week. Immigration to the West surged. The railroad also boosted the nation’s economy. Trains began carrying raw materials such as timber and silver from the West to factories in the East. The U.S. became richer, more powerful, and more united.

But not all Americans benefited equally from the railroad. Native Americans in particular were pushed aside. A growing nation swallowed their lands. For better or worse, “the railroad transformed every part of the country that it touched,” park ranger Hugie says.

Write About It! How did the transcontinental railroad transform the nation? Why might “not all Americans have benefited equally”? Write two paragraphs explaining your answer, using evidence from the text.

The Transcontinental Railroad

Finished in 1869, it linked the eastern states* to newer settlements in the West.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

*In 1869, the U.S. was composed of 37 states and 10 territories that had not yet become states.

MAP SKILLS

1. Promontory Summit was in which territory? 

2. That spot sits near what body of water? 

3. From which cities did the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines begin? 

4. Through which mountains did the workers of the Central Pacific have to build? 

5. Which city lay along the route of the Union Pacific line in Wyoming Territory? 

6. Which mountains did the Union Pacific cross? 

7. Which three states existed west of Promontory Summit in 1869? 

8. Which territory in 1869 had not yet been divided into two present-day states? 

9. Which state was directly south of Indian Territory? 

10. How many miles separate Denver and Chicago? 

Interactive Quiz for this article

Click the Google Classroom button below to share the Know the News quiz with your class.

Download .PDF
Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Quizzes (1)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)
Leveled Articles (1)
Quizzes (1)