Western Life

First Transcontinental Railroad – From East to West and Back Again

Expansion of the western part of the United States was quicker and easier after the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, also known as the Pacific Railroad or The Overland Route. This was the first continuous railroad to stretch coast-to-coast for 1,912 miles, connecting the eastern US Rail Network at Omaha, with the Pacific Coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay.  Its construction took place between 1863 and 1869 and was mainly a collaborative effort between The Central Pacific Railroad Company of California (CPRR) and the Union Pacific.

Settlers had begun moving to the west during the 1830s, and expansion grew significantly after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. The overland route was dangerous as travelers had to maneuver mountains, rivers and deserts. It was also costly, each journey amounting to over $1000. Instead of the overland route, many people chose to take a six-month journey by sea around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, then cross the Isthmus of Panama and travel by ship to San Francisco. Many travelers contracted yellow fever, or other diseases, and died along the way.

The construction of a coast-to-coast railroad was first proposed in 1832, in an article in The New York Courier and Enquirer by Dr. Hartwell Carver. He proposed building it from Lake Michigan to Oregon and submitted a charter for such to the US Congress in 1847. His idea was well received, and Congress had the Pacific Railroad Surveys conducted between 1853 and 1855, as well as exploration of the land to seek out possible routes. The report provided included detailed topography about the landscape to the west, but failed to include possible costs, the feasibility of the venture and the best route.

A young engineer, Theodore Judas, was able to identify the Donner Pass in northern California as an ideal place to construct a railroad to go through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and enlisted investors to form The Central Pacific Railroad Company. Judas shared his plans with Congress and a bill to begin the project was approved. President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 into law on July 1st, which authorized the creation of two companies, Central Pacific and Union Pacific to conduct the building of the railroad.

The Central Pacific leg would begin in San Francisco and move east across the Sierra Nevada, and Union Pacific would build west from the Missouri River, near the border of Iowa and Nebraska. The two lines would meet in the middle, although the bill didn’t specify an exact location. The companies were promised 6400 acres of land (later doubled) and $48,000 in government bonds for each mile that was completed. This was the beginning of the race to see which company could construct a greater part of the First Continental Railroad.

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