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“I hear the Iron Horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke through his nostrils.” -Henry David Thoreau
The Transcontinental Railroad is one of the greatest American inventions of all time. From its ambitious origins to the seemingly impossible task of building it, America truly wouldn’t be the same without the Railroad. But what made it so crucial to the industrialization of America? The answer to that question starts where all the best stories do: the beginning.
Building the Transcontinental Railroad was no easy task, and the challenge began before the first track was even placed. In the 1830s, trains used to carry people were put into use, and “Railroad Fever” overtook America. In 1835, there were almost one thousand miles of railroad track in America. By 1854, there was more than fifteen times that amount. Despite this, if you wanted to get to the west at the time, you’d have to ride in a carriage or walk. Asa Whitney had plans to change that and proposed a coast to coast railroad to the U.S congress. After years of debate and convincing from Whitney and Theodore Judah, another advocate for the Transcontinental Railroad, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. This act assigned two companies with the task of building the Transcontinental Railroad, with Union Pacific Railroad building tracks west from Omaha, Nebraska, and with Central Pacific Railroad building tracks east from Sacramento, California. Both companies wanted to beat the other to Utah, as getting there first would give their company access to trade with places such as Salt Lake City. After the First Transcontinental Railroad was planned out, the real challenge began: building it.
The Transcontinental Railroad is one of the most difficult construction products in American history, as the process was more complex than one might think. First, the railroad workers marked the route the tracks would be on. Following that, others would flatten the ground, making it possible for tracks to be made there. Finally, they’d lay the track and secure it in the ground with rails. The first of the many challenges the railroad would face was getting workers. Central Pacific railroad solved this problem by hiring Chinese immigrants to work for them. This was so effective that 80% of their workforce ended up being Chinese. Union Pacific was facing the same problem, and found their solution by hiring Civil War veterans, European immigrants, and former slaves. These workers were paid two dollars a day, which is equivalent to 35 dollars per day today. The next big challenge for the Central Pacific railroad was crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They got around this problem by drilling holes in steep mountains, putting dynamite in the holes, and exploding the dynamite, making a tunnel through the mountain. Over in the Midwest, the Union Pacific railroad was passing through Native American territory, which angered the residents of that area. Occasionally, railroad workers would be attacked by Sioux or Cheyenne war parties. Despite all these problems, both railroads met at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10th, 1869, and had a celebration. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad was a very difficult job, but it’s effects on America made all the hard work worth it.
Once the Transcontinental Railroad was operational, its effects on America were felt almost instantly. With the railroad, trips that used to take almost six months now took a mere ten days, making it easier for people to travel across the country. The railroad was cheaper too, costing only 150 dollars compared to the thousands of dollars that it used to cost. This also affected business in the U.S., as now supplies could travel much faster than they used to. This led to faster and more efficient trade routes, which meant that cities with a surplus of one material could distribute that material to the rest of the U.S. This was massive for the economy, and America skyrocketed commercially because of it. Additionally, it was instrumental to the colonization of western and midwestern America. Dozens of towns sprouted up along the Railroad’s route, and due to their access to trade with other towns via the Railroad, those towns grew quickly. Because of the Transcontinental Railroad, the west was the “American Frontier” no longer, and America became considerably more advanced as a country.
In summary, the Transcontinental Railroad was crucial to America’s industrialization. It started as an idea, but with detailed planning and tireless effort, it changed our country forever. As railroad workers worked, they thought they were just laying down train tracks. Little did they know, they were making history.