Western Life

First Transcontinental Railroad – Central and Union Pacific Meet in the ‘Middle’

Construction of each leg of the railroad began at a different time. The western leg was undertaken by Central Pacific, and Judah’s project became dominated by ‘The Big Four.’ Although well-known businessmen, they had no previous experience constructing railroads and borrowed a great amount of money to finance the project. They also used loopholes to get more capital from the government, which Judah found distasteful. He planned on getting new investors but, unfortunately, contracted yellow fever and died in November 1863.

In the east, Dr. Thomas Durrant was able to illegally gain a controlling interest in Union Pacific Railroad Company, ending up with almost complete control over the project. Although the company was launched in December 1863, it couldn’t do much construction until the end of the Civil War. In May 1866, Union Pacific began to move their construction westward. They suffered major setbacks with attacks from Native American tribes (that feared their ‘iron horse’) but still managed to work at a quicker speed than their western counterparts, who had the harsh terrain of the Sierra to push through.

The backbreaking work of railroad construction made it was difficult to keep labourers. Central Pacific, under the command of Charles Crocker, began hiring Chinese workers. Their work ethic was better than European immigrants, and by 1867 there were 14,000 Chinese immigrants employed to Central Pacific. The terrain of the western leg of the railway continued to pose difficulties, and the company was forced to use gunpowder and nitroglycerine to blast tunnels through the granite.

Most of the Union Pacific workforce was made up of Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans, and by the summer of 1867 they had covered four times as much ground as Central Pacific. After the blasting through the mountains began, the progress of the western leg significantly increased and both companies began racing towards Salt Lake City. In their hurry, they both took shortcuts making poorly constructed areas of the railroad that had to be rebuilt. By early 1869, the companies were working miles away from each other, and the government told them to decide on a meeting point. This became Promontory Summit, which was 690 track miles from Sacramento, where Central Pacific had begun, and 1086 from Omaha, the starting point of Union Pacific.

On May 10, 1869 the labourers, and a small group of onlookers, gathered to observe Leland Stanford drive the final spike, known as The Golden Spike, into the railroad to connect the western and eastern legs of the project. This spike is now on display at The Cantor Arts Centre at Stanford University. As soon as the ceremonial spike was replaced with an ordinary one, the message DONE was transmitted to both the east and west coast. This marked the decrease of a journey across the United States from 6 months to slightly more than a week, and greatly facilitated the physical and economical growth of the entire nation.

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