The Sesquicentennial of the Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, 10 May 1869

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Contemplated for decades, planned starting in the early 1850s, and built during and after the Civil War, the transcontinental railroad, a symbol of connecting the breadth of America from east to west, was completed on this day in 1869 with the symbolic driving of a golden spike at Promontory, Utah, some 65 miles northwest of Salt Lake City.

The railroad didn’t bring the promised economic and communication benefits initially, but it stood as a powerful metaphor and a point of palpable pride for an America that was rapidly expanding in population growth, geographic expansion, and economic development.

Impressive as these were, there were also the terrible divisions and destruction of the war; the horrible treatment of native peoples and other people of color; and the struggles of reconciling everyday action with the ideals and principles of American democracy.  There is no disputing the importance of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, however, during a time of remarkable and often difficult change.

Under the auspices of the Department of War (now the Department of Defense) and its secretary, Jefferson Davis, who later was president of the Confederate States of America, planning began in the early 1850s.  Several routes were contemplated from the furthest southern to the extreme northern portions of the country and teams were sent to survey routes (and, incidentally, provide valuable documentation of plant and animal life, mineral resources, and other information).

This 1869 map from the Homestead’s collection shows railroad lines in most of the United States including the recently completed transcontinental line which was finished ceremonially on this date that year.

Because of the difficulties of traversing mountain ranges like the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, as well as more extreme temperatures in the north, Davis and many others favored a southern route as cheaper and easier to build.  The two most southern routes, along the 32nd and 35th parallels, would bring lines to San Diego and San Pedro (Los Angeles) respectively, and published reports of the survey work provide some fascinating information about greater Los Angeles.  The first published view of Los Angeles also emerged from these studies.

As sectionalism pushed the country closer to civil war during the decade, however, it became clear that choosing a preferred route for the transcontinental line would be fraught with political ramifications that outweighed estimated costs and perceived ease of construction.

The problems were eventually overcome by the outbreak of the Civil War and the federal government’s decision after a railroad act passed Congress in 1862 to pursue a line that went over 1,900 miles along the 42nd parallel from Omaha to Oakland.  Not commonly known is that there were three companies who built portions of the line.

The Western Pacific Railroad Company, the lesser known of the trio, constructed a little over 130 miles from Oakland to Sacramento.  The Central Pacific Railroad Company of California built just under 700 miles from Sacramento to Utah.  The Union Pacific completed not quite 1,100 miles from Omaha to Utah.

There was a great deal of controversy over how Tom Durant, the powerful figure in the Union Pacific, handled the financial arrangements for his portion of the line, as well as much criticism for the fact that construction started in late 1863 but only 40 miles were built by summer 1865.  The Civil War and its limits on supplies and labor, as well as financial scandal plagued the UP, but construction, utilizing many German, Irish and Italian immigrants, moved rapidly afterward once Greenville Dodge took over management of the work.

The complex and intricate web of rail lines in the Midwest and East shows how industrialized and developed these areas were compared to the South and West.

As for the Central Pacific, its founding visionary was Theodore Judah, who talked up the idea of a transcontinental railroad going east from the Bay Area, and then was convinced to join forces with hardware merchants Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford.

Judah later sought to buy out the others by traveling to New York to raise funds, but contracted yellow fever in Panama on the way and died of the disease soon after reaching the east.  Known as the Big Four, Huntington, Crocker, Hopkins, and Stanford made fortunes from the Central Pacific and its better-known subsidiary, the Southern Pacific.

Among the 10,000 workers on the CP side, a large number were Chinese immigrants, many forced out of California’s gold fields, who braved extraordinary dangers in the forbidding Sierra Nevadas and then the daunting deserts of the Great Basin.

Because the two firms were paid by the mile, they pushed construction so rapidly that quality often suffered and finding a meeting point proved difficult because there was no defined terminus in the legislation creating the line nor agreement on how to determine where the companies would come together.

The companies’ respective grading crews met within feet of each other between Ogden and Promontory and bickered on how they would meet up.  Dodge and Huntington met in Washington, D.C., on 9 April 1869 to decide to meet at Promontory Summit and the lines met for the ceremonial driving of the last spike a month later (the original date of 8 May was postponed two days because of rain delaying the UP train.)

The symbolic power of the transcontinental line in linking the Midwest to the Pacific Coast is starkly demonstrated in this detail.

A notable sidenote is that the golden spike (actually a gold nugget atop it) was made by San Francisco businessman David Hewes, who wanted to invest in the CP but didn’t have the funds.  Hewes later became a citrus grower who had a large packing house in what became Orange County (a post on this blog has told this story.)

Another tangent relating to the Homestead is that likely one of the first greater Los Angeles residents to ride on the transcontinental railroad was F.P.F. Temple, who used the route in 1870 when he returned from his home state of Massachusetts on his only visit back after nearly three decades living in California (and during which he enrolled three sons in high school and college in Massachusetts, as well.)

The effect of the transcontinental line on Los Angeles was somewhat minimal, though there was an indirect link made when the Southern Pacific was forced by an act of Congress to build through the city for a line that headed south and then east to the California-Arizona border.

In 1872, Los Angeles County residents voted for a subsidy that gave the SP funds amounting to several hundred thousand dollars and control of the only railroad in the region (the Los Angeles and San Pedro, which went about 25 miles from the city to the rudimentary harbor at the latter.)  Temple was a major negotiator for the city with the Southern Pacific, though he later was a competitor when he was a leader in the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad in 1874-75.

Notably, the “Spanish Trail,” known typically as the “Old Spanish Trail,” is included on the map and was the route taken by the Workman family when they migrated from New Mexico to California almost three decades before the transcontinental railroad line was completed.  One member of the expedition that came with the Workmans later said he would never travel over the difficult route unless by the railroad!

In July 1876, the Southern Pacific line from the north reached Los Angeles, though the city was still reeling from a financial disaster that hit the previous summer and culminated in the failure of the bank of Temple and Workman.  Despite the new railroad, which had branch lines into what became Orange County and east through the San Gabriel Valley and the Rancho La Puente to Colton, the region’s economy and growth languished for almost a decade.

A direct transcontinental line, built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, came to Los Angeles in 1885 and ushered in the famed Boom of the Eighties that set the stage of the city’s incredible growth in subsequent decades (aided by the importation of water through the Los Angeles Aqueduct.)

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a great color map, dating from 1869, showing the transcontinental railroad spanning the continent, as well as other lines through the United States.  It is dramatic to see the intricate web of rail lines in the Midwest and East Coast and compare these to the single line running to the west coast.

Also of interest is that the Old Spanish Trail, known simply as Spanish Trail here, is on the map.  This makes for a notable comparison of travel, given that, not quite thirty years before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the Workman family and others used the Old Spanish Trail to migrate from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles.

Given how much transportation was later revolutionized by the automobile and airplane, we don’t have the same point of reference as Americans did 150 years ago in appreciating the significance of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.  As noted above, it wasn’t that passengers or freight were that heavily utilized initially because of cost and other considerations.   But, the symbolic achievement of the line’s completion in linking “sea to shining sea” is hard to overestimate.


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