Transcontinental Railroad

I just finished reading Nothing Like It in the World, a book about the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860’s. There were two companies involved, the Central Pacific coming from California (CP) and the Union Pacific coming from Omaha (UP) (there was no railroad bridge across the Missouri River in Omaha until after the railroad was finished).

It took a long time to get through the book even though it isn’t that long. It just isn’t that exciting, even for an engineer. But there are a few highlights. Both companies were trying to go as fast as possible and quality didn’t matter to them that much. One reason was it was very expensive to move materials, because there wasn’t a railroad yet. The company in California got its rails, spikes, and railroad cars from the eastern part of the US via ship going around South America (there wasn’t a Panama Canal until much later, though there was a very short transcontinental railroad across the isthmus, built in 1855). So most of the bridges were built out of wood, knowing they would need to be replaced with something more substantial later.

The UP coming from Omaha had a much easier job, able to build across the Great Plains. They were able to achieve a record by laying 2 miles of tracks in one day. A rail car would be pushed to the front of the line with rails and ties, which would be unloaded and laid out in front of the car. But soon the car was empty and in the way of the next car behind it. Since there was only one track they just pushed the car over on its side so the next car could be pushed forward. Once the train was past, they would push the overturned cars back over and onto the track and bring them back empty. Eventually they were able to get 4 miles in one day.

Meanwhile the CP was immediately stuck with getting over mountains in California and had a hard time getting labor, partly because gold had just been discovered in California and everybody left to go try to get rich. They wound up hiring Chinese and then bringing more and more Chinese over once they realized how hard the Chinese would work without grumbling, getting drunk, or killing each other (like the Irish).

Once the CP got into Nevada and Utah, they hit some flat land and could really make a lot of progress. Soon they broke the UP’s record by laying six miles of track in a day. Not much later, the UP got the record back with 8 miles in a day. That record stood for a long time but the UP was soon bogged down working their way up Promontory Summit, just a few miles from where the two lines would meet. Meanwhile the CP was still on flat land as they worked their way East. Knowing the the UP only had 6 miles to go, the CP, with 16 miles to go, made their move and was able to knock out 10 miles in one day, laying 6 miles of track before lunch break. There were 8 big Irish guys that would put the rails in place. They were only supposed to work until lunch and then be relieved, but they wanted to keep going, so those 8 guys carried all 10 miles of rail that day. Really 20 miles of rail since there are two rails on the track. The UP, with only 8 miles to go, had no chance of breaking the record. In fact, the book says the record has never been broken. A few days after that, 101 years before Grant’s birthday, they drove the golden spike. They took the golden spike back out immediately because it really was made of gold and they knew some of the now unemployed workers would take it. In fact, people carved off pieces of the last railroad tie to keep as a souvenir. So many people did it that six railroad ties wound up missing.

5 thoughts on “Transcontinental Railroad

  1. re: “how hard the Chinese would work without grumbling, getting drunk, or killing each other (like the Irish).”

    So the Irish started playing football about that time.

  2. I think we always assume that a lot of Chinese came over and stayed, but a lot of them made their money here and went back home. They kept very few records of the Chinese laborers and don’t even know how many died building the railroad. It was probably a lot because they got the worst assignments, including working with explosives for blasting out tunnels.

  3. Sadly, the book I read did not focus on bridges. There were a couple of pictures of bridges: They were timber trestles (maybe some stone ones since there weren’t trees available in a lot of places out west), but looked pretty lightweight by today’s standards and they were replaced quickly. They were building the bridges way in advance of the tracks so the bridge would be complete by the time the tracks got there (and they’re building a couple of miles of track a day, so they didn’t want to wait months for a bridge to be put in place). For the bridges everything had to be available on site or brought in by horse. Once they got the rail line in place, it would be cheap to bring in tons of materials and build a new bridge the right way without time constraints. Plus once the line was open they would have revenue instead of borrowing money like they had to do at first.

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