The Senate and House of Representatives passed the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864. These laws granted rights of way and use of stone and timber to build the roadbed, a 20-million-acre land grant and government support for loans of 60 million dollars to companies that would build the transcontinental railroad and its feeder lines. Those companies included:
- The Union Pacific Railroad, to be built from the Platte River Valley in Nebraska to the border between Nevada and California
- The Central Pacific Railroad, to be built as a feeder line from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada to meet the Union Pacific eastwards and to San Francisco in the West;
- The Leavenworth, Pawnee & Western, later to be known as the Union Pacific Eastern Division, which was to link the 100th meridian Southeast with Kansas City.
The Central Pacific broke ground in Sacramento, California in January, 1863. The Union Pacific broke ground at the Missouri River bluffs near Omaha, Nebraska in December, 1863. A competition arose between the construction crews of the two railroads, to see who could finish first.
The physical construction of the rail line was a job with an enormous scope, and it was often a painfully slow process. There was also constant pressure to meet time or geographical deadlines. The construction crews had to cut grade, build snow sheds, blast through hard rock and lay track through snow. Deep fills, switchback routes, high trestles, huge rock cuts and 15 tunnels were necessary to make it over the Sierras.
To create this rail line, an enormous amount of tools, materials and supplies were required. Each mile of track required 100 tons of rails, about 2,500 ties and two or three tons of spikes and fish plates (metal pieces that joined the rails and prevented climatic expansion and contraction of the metal). Some of the tools needed included wheelbarrows, horse drawn scrapers, two-wheel dump carts, shovels, axes, crowbars, blasting powder, quarry tools and iron rods. On top of that, locomotives, wheel trucks, switch mechanisms and foundry tools were needed as well.
All supplies for the Central Pacific came from the East, and the Panama Canal shortcut did not exist at that time. All material, rails, rolling stock and machinery was shipped around the southern tip of South America to California. River steamers then took the material upriver to Sacramento, where it was offloaded to platform cars and hauled up into the mountains.
In 1865, the construction company faced a labor shortage and they hired Chinese workers. When the first group proved to be efficient and hardworking, the contractor recruited more from California and China itself. It was the Chinese men and their backbreaking labor that got the railroad through the Sierra Nevada.
While the Central Pacific crews were struggling through the mountains, they heard tales of the speed of the Union Pacific crews. On April 28, 1869, as they grew closer to the meeting point, the Central Pacific crews laid an extraordinary 10 miles of track across the Utah desert between sunrise and sunset. They used 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes and 7,040 fishplates. The crews completed the 10 mile stretch in 12 hours, a feat that has never been duplicated by human beings in railroad construction.
The route for the Union Pacific construction crews, which went largely across flat plains, was comparatively easy — except for the Indians. In Nebraska, the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes continually harassed Union Pacific construction crews. Subsequently, forts were established along the line to protect the railroad. The two companies neared the Promontory Mountains in Utah, and blasting began on both sides to. On both routes, fills and trestles were necessary for crossing deep ravines.
Congress established that they would meet at Promontory Summit, with a May 8 target date. By April 16, 1869 the two crews were just 50 miles apart. On May 7, the two lines were just 2,500 feet apart. Officials from California and Nevada traveled to the site, bringing two golden spikes. The Pacific Union Express Company sent a silver plated sledge for the final blow.
At noon on May 10, 1869 a ceremony began with approximately 600 people in attendance. The two engines, the Central Pacific’s Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s No. 119, stood at each end of the last rail. One official from each railroad lay in the ceremonial last tie using the gold spikes. The silver sledgehammer was used to drive the spikes without damaging them. The real final tie, spike and sledge were ordinary. The two trains were then driven together, and a bottle of champagne was broken over the tie. A telegraph went out across the nation with the simple message: “Done.”
Coast-to-coast travel time was reduced from four to six months to six days. In just seven years, the Union Pacific railroad had built 1,086 miles of railroad lines from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific had built 690 miles from Sacramento, California. Both railroads had crossed a major mountain range, the Rocky Mountains in the East and the Sierra Nevada in the west.
Phil Robertson, Editor