After California became a state in 1850, America wanted to find a way to link the East with the West. At the time, travelers only had three life-threatening choices in order to travel from East to West or vice versa, which included riding on horseback for a month through the malaria-infested jungles of the Panama Isthmus, a four-month sea voyage around Cape Horn, or several months crossing the American frontier by wagon, horse, or foot. First being used in the Pennsylvania fields, the steam engine was invented in 1825 in England and was imported to America a year later, it became known as the iron monster. By the 1850s the railroads annihilated distances at twenty-five miles per hour throughout the East and all the way to the Mississippi River. By 1853 10,000 miles and tracks linked cities on the East side of the river, but the steam engine was dangerous and often failed. The technology of steam was not trustworthy and caused explosions, breakdowns, and fires. Some people were convinced that the railroad was the key to Westward expansionism, even though a transcontinental railroad seemed impossible.
Theodore Judah and Grenville Dodge, both civil engineers, became obsessed with the possibility of building a transcontinental railroad, even though they never physically met. Before Judah was 28 he had already engineered the Niagara Gorge Railroad in New York. The biggest obstacle was finding a route through the difficult Sierra Nevada mountain range. Judah became so obsessed with convincing people it was possible, that he became known as the crazy Judah. He set out to the Sierra on horseback with a notebook to record a path across the mountains, but months after he ran to a dead end. Judah received a letter from Daniel Strong saying that there was a natural inclined plain which would allow Judah to connect his surveyed route with one that would carry him over the mountains at Donner Lake. The following summer Judah returned to the Sierra and located a series of ridges that could carry a rail line through the Sierra and then down to Nevada. Another visionary, Grenville Dodge, risked his life and secretly ventured into Indian territory to survey a rail line. Judah persuaded four merchants, known as the big four, Charles Crocker, Charles P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Leilan Stanford, into financing the railroad he envisioned. In 1862 Judah helped Congress draft the Pacific Railroad Act that established two companies, Central Pacific to build East from Sacramento, California and the Union Pacific to build West from Omaha, Nebraska. With the outbreak of the Civil War, congressmen were anxious to have the railroad built. The government loaned companies up to $48,000 per mile of track built and turned over land grants running alongside the railroad route. For each mile of rail completed the companies were awarded 20 square miles of land. No meeting point was determined for the two competing railroads. The big four wanted to build the railroad as quickly and cheaply as possible, while Judah fought for quality. Judah headed East hoping to find new financial support to buy his partners out, but the yellow fever he got while taking a short cut through the Isthmus of Panama, ended his life. Now Judah’s vision was being controlled by the big four.
In 1863, the construction of the railroad track began. Wooden ties were bought in local sawmills, but everything else had to be imported from the East Coast, it would take from five to eight months to be shipped by sea to San Francisco and then ferry to Sacramento. The first challenge they encountered in the Sierra was to build a 400-foot wooden trestle across a steep ravine. Labor shortage was becoming more critical as labor got harder, the only available men were the Chinese. From 1863 to 1866 the Central Pacific only advanced 40 miles, but the Union Pacific was not doing much better. Grenville Dodge was hired to be Chief engineer with a salary of $10,000 a year. The Casement brothers were hired to run the Union Pacific track gangs, they revolutionized railroad building. The Warp train was created to build and supply a single track pushing out across hundreds of miles of the Western Plains under threats of Indian attacks. It was a city on wheels that functioned as the nerve center of the whole operation, it had dormitories, a kitchen, etc. The wood came from the forests of Minnesota and traveled hundreds of miles by river and by wagon. Accidents happened all the time resulting in deaths. The biggest challenge the Union Pacific faced were the Indians attacks. Sharpshooters were hired to kill buffaloes on the Great Plains to make way for the train. By the end of 1867, the Union Pacific had laid over 300 miles of track, while the Central Pacific had only advanced 80 miles.
The workers in the Central Pacific were trying to find a way to build a rail line through solid granite. They needed to get through over 15 mountains, first, there had to be a drill hole for blasting, each hole had to be twelve inches deep and drills had to be reshaped and sharpened by a blacksmith every few hours. The depth of the hole was critical, if it was too shallow the explosion would blow backwards. The greatest engineering challenge was the Summit Tunnel, it had to penetrate the pinnacle of the Sierra Nevada. They had to build a tunnel measuring twenty feet high that would run over sixteen hundred feet through granite, the work would take three years to complete with an army of 6,000 Chinese men. Drilling and blasting were difficult even in good weather, the winter of 1867-1868 brought work to a standstill due to 44 snow storms. The Central Pacific build its first snow plow that measured 30 feet, 12 locomotives were needed to move the snow. Some locomotives derailed form the massive impact of the snow, resulting in deaths. In the worst storms food and supplies would not reach the summit, the workers suffered from malnutrition, pneumonia, and frostbite. Avalanches would crash down and bury people alive. 500 kegs of black powder were consumed daily inside the tunnel. The black powder did not seem to work because the granite was too hard, instead, they started experimenting with nitroglycerin. Since the compound was so volatile, the Central Pacific hired a chemist to mix a fresh batch every morning. With nitroglycerin, the work moved twice as fast. The Summit Tunnel was finished ahead of schedule on August 29, 1867, one year after it began. It was the longest tunnel in the world at the time, three months’ later supply trains were running through it towards Nevada.
Meanwhile, as the Union Pacific stretched West into the territory of Wyoming, the railroad created makeshift towns called “hell on wheels”. The company did this to keep the men happy. On Dale Creek in Eastern Wyoming bridge builders built a temporary framework in 30 days of timbers 650 feet long and 130 feet high, it was extremely fragile and dangerous. Inspectors refused to sign off on it until it was replaced with an iron structure a year later. The Central Pacific continued facing problems with the winter, causing a huge delay. By February 1869 the Union Pacific was approaching Salt Lake City, while the Central Pacific had raced halfway across Nevada and was moving toward Utah. The race was heating up and the connecting points were still not determined. Railroad owners wanted to build as many miles of track possible to collect as many governments land grants and loans as they could. The two competing companies grated road beds past each other for over 250 miles, each laying claim to the right of way. The government ordered the companies to fix a meeting point, or they would do it.
Grenville Dodge and Callus Huntington met in Washington and made an agreement. Both companies would profit from the Salt Lake City traffic. The tracks would join the following month at Promontory Summit Utah, the race was officially over. As the tracks drew closer together, the workers began feeling like they were part of a national work. Charlie Crocker told Thomas Durand (the head of the Union Pacific) that his men could lay ten miles of track in a single day. Durand bet $10,000 that it was impossible. Crocker chose April 28 to be ten-mile day and handpicked his team. It was the ultimate test of endurance. The day began and they worked without a break, they even refused to eat lunch. The track moved forward at a rate of a mile an hour and in twelve hours the Central Pacific workers had covered 10 miles and 56 feet of track, they lifted over two million pounds of iron rail, a record that still stands today. They were given four days’ pay.
The moment that the nation had been waiting for had finally arrived. On May 10, 1869, at 11:15 am the Central’s Pacific’s Jupiter pulled forward to the Union’s Pacific number 119, each crowded with exhausted workers. The ceremony called for Thomas Durand and Leilan Stanford to drive four spikes, two gold, one silver, and a mixture of gold, silver, and iron. Stanford stepped up, made one huge swing and missed the spike and missed the tie. He had a hangover. After six years, the first transcontinental railroad was finished. To this day, it is unclear how many men sacrificed their lives. The two railroad companies were awarded a total of twenty-one million acres. Six years later, a painting of the ceremony at Promontory included Theodore Judah in tribute. This was the beginning of a new period that would transform the world they lived in.
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