Back in the 1800s, people were trying to figure out how to get stuff from the Far East to Europe. At the time, the only path was through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) and up to the Mediterranean. That’s a long haul for anyone.
So they figured, well, we already got this whole east coast U.S. to Europe thing figured out. So let’s just go from the Far East to the west coast of the U.S. and bring it across that little country and ship out of, say, Boston.
The only problem was: America was a freakin’ big place. And, there wasn’t a whole lot of folks anywhere between California and the first sign of people in the eastern U.S. At the time, it was taking pioneers 7 months to haul their stuff by ox cart across the Oregon Trail and the Indians weren’t making things any easier.
Many surveys were commissioned for the laying of a transcontinental train line but actual construction kept being held up by lack of money and that pesky Civil War everyone was talking about. Defying all obstacles (usually by way of bribery), the head of the Central Pacific Railroad (Leland Stanford) and the head of the Union Pacific Railroad (Thomas Durant) solidified plans to complete the railroad – from Sacramento, California to Omaha, Nebraska and meet somewhere in the middle. That somewhere turned out to be Promontory, Utah.
I know Utah isn’t the middle of the U.S., but the Central Pacific’s progress was soon bogged down when they hit the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Union Pacific had the relatively easy path across flatlands in Nebraska and Wyoming, but they had a big helping of Indian trouble slowing them down.
Back to the Central Pacific’s headaches: there wasn’t much in the way of materials for building their railroad on the west coast. Their materials had to come by boat 15,000 miles around Cape Horn in South America (no Panama Canal yet). And, each mile of track required eight railcar loads of materials. The supply line difficulties were incredible.
Another serious issue was: Where will all the manpower come from? On the west coast, the Gold Rush was dying out and many miners were willing to join the railroad along with thousands of Chinese settlers. The Union Pacific used a mix of massive numbers of unemployed immigrants (Irish, Italian, German) along with Civil War veterans, ex-slaves, and even some American Indians. With that mix (and a little alcohol thrown in regularly), I’m sure there were some people getting some really bad reviews on their personnel records from time to time.
The government was rewarding the railroads with a land subsidy for each mile of track they laid so it fueled a race to the undetermined meeting point. We’re not talking peanuts here – $16,000 – $48,000 per mile of track laid (depending on difficulty of the terrain) PLUS extra land given to the railroad for every mile completed. That was a lot of juice in those days.
Normally, well-disciplined crews could lay 2 – 3 miles of track in a day. This was not easy when you figure that they had limited tools at their disposal:
At one point, the Pacific Central laid 8.5 miles of track in a day and issued a $10,000 challenge to the Union Pacific to beat it:
When the two groups finally met at Promontory, they used a ceremonial gold spike to symbolize the accomplishment. The head of each group, following long and windy speeches, lightly tapped the gold spike, then had a real iron spike put in place. Wielding iron mallets that were connected to telegraph wires (so the nation could ‘hear’ the sound of the spikes being driven), they made ready to whack it into place.
Leland Stanford took the first swing and missed the spike, hitting the tie instead. Durant went next, and he missed both the spike AND the tie. Finally, a regular rail worker stepped up and drove the final spike in – which set off a nationwide celebration.
By the time the railroad was completed, though, the Suez Canal had been built providing a better route for Far Eastern goods to reach Europe and making the railroad unnecessary. However, the rapidly expanding American west proved to be a sufficiently hungry customer as those seven month wagon rides were now reduced to a mere five or six days.
Final tally: Central Pacific Railroad – 690 miles, Union Pacific – 1086 miles.
Hell of an accomplishment, boys.