The 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad

On May 10, 1869, a golden spike was ceremoniously driven at Promontory Point in the Utah Territory. The spike joined the rails of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad and created the country’s first transcontinental railroad.  

Before this, a journey to the west could take six months by land; or six weeks by water either by sailing around Cape Horn; or by sailing to Central America and then crossing the Isthmus of Panama by train. It was also expensive, costing more than $1,000. After the completion of the railroad, the same trip took seven days and cost less than $150.

The idea of a transcontinental railroad dated back to the early 1800s. In 1845, New York merchant Asa Whitney asked Congress for a grant to purchase public lands to expand the railroad to the Pacific. Initially, his proposal received a lukewarm welcome. After the US acquired California following the Mexican War in 1848, it started to gain momentum. Whitney did his best to keep the issue at the forefront of public discussion by publishing a pamphlet called “Project for a Railroad to the Mississippi,” where he outlined possible rail routes.

In 1862, Congress passed the Railroad Act granting land and government bonds to the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad. 

The first track for the Central Pacific line was laid in Sacramento in October 1863. Their workers consisted primarily of Chinese laborers who managed to reach the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains by 1867. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific Railroad started building west from Omaha, Nebraska in 1865. Its workforce primarily consisted of soldiers from the recently ended Civil War, many of whom were Irish immigrants. Construction of the rail lines was swift, due in part to the fact that Congress offered bonds valued between $16,000 and $48,000, depending on terrain, for each mile of railroad completed. The enticement of land grants and government bonds led both railroads to work as quickly as possible. The two companies could have joined rails as early as January 1869, but the incentives kept them going and they laid 225 miles of parallel track before agreeing to halt construction.  

Just before noon on May 10, 1869, two trains, one from Central Pacific from the West and a Union Pacific train from the east, moved into position for the formal golden spike ceremony and the joining of the rails. After remarks from dignitaries, officials drove the ceremonial golden spike into in the rail. Telegraph lines carried the sounds of the spike being driven across the nation. The crowds cheered and a band played “Star Spangled Banner.”

Some have characterized the transcontinental railroad as one of the greatest achievements of the 19th century. If you would like to learn more about the transcontinental railroad or the golden spike ceremony, visit our topic page and search today!

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8 thoughts on “The 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad

  1. Even with abusive labor practices, it took a sustained period of both public and private commitment to accomplish massive infrastructure improvements. Same today. Where’s the commitment? Where’s the leadership?

  2. Historically, large countries have tended to fall apart because the extremes and the center are so far apart that they have trouble staying current, and local officials are so far away that they can let out reof control If we had gone 40 or 50 years with the communications at the time of acquisition, the West Coast would likely have formed a separate country. What saved the US was the construction of transcontinental telegraph service, which reduced the lag in information transfer to the time to get the message to the sending telegraph offiice plus the time for a messenger to get the telegram from the receiving office to the addresse. In some cases under an hour.
    The second was the transcontinental railroad which allowed the movement of people and freight across the country. Consider the San Franscisco earthquake and how quickly troops and supplies were fed into the emergency response.

  3. I would imagine my grandmother and family used the Transcontinental Railroad to get from New York to California in the early 1900s. My grandmother, her parents and several siblings left Wales to make the journey to America with their final destination of Brea, California. What an adventure.

    1. Actually, the Morse telegraph used a set of electromagnetic coils to receive a signal, activating an armature, which makes a significant striking sound. During final spike ceremonies, there were two ways to replicate the driving of the spike… one was for the telegraph operator to press the key for each blow… the other was to attach a wire to the spike and another to spike maul… when they made contact the signal would be sent.
      Sometimes the ceremony would be used at other than final spike situations… in 1880 the Utah Northern Railway (narrow gauge financed by the Union Pacific) held a similar ceremony in 1880 when the railroad reached the Montana border, and another when it was completed to Butte-Silverbow.

  4. The last spike was not driven at Promontory Point, but at Promontory Summit. Promontory point is at the tip of the peninsula that projects into the Great Salt Lake, quite some distance from the original transcontinental railroad line.

    A more modern railroad does cross the Great Salt Lake and does pass through Promontory Point, but this was not the same railroad line on which the Golden Spike was driven.

  5. I’m sure native americans have a much different take on the RR and the opening up the west and the ethnic cleansing that followed whites from sea to shining sea.

    1. Give me a break…. do you know what the Indians did to the patriots during the Rev war ( with England’s Blessings as they were working together ? ). Look it up … how they cut up old people into pieces while alive and hung them from trees and burned young children to death while they were alive? Makes me sick!!!! How brutal must people be? I had many ancestors ( women and young girls included) who were scalped and killed. The “ethnic” cleansing (?) Was not one-sided -in fact. It was nothing as brutal as that. Let’s Enjoy the Golden Spike celebration – the past is over –

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