Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Transcontinental Railroad

The last spike (Golden Spike) hammered into the Transcontinental Railroad.
The world's First Transcontinental Railroad was built between 1863 and 1869 to join the eastern and western halves of the United States. Begun just preceding the American Civil War, its construction was considered to be one of the greatest American technological feats of the 19th century. Known as the "Pacific Railroad" when it opened, this served as a vital link for trade, commerce, and travel and opened up vast regions of the North American heartland for settlement. Shipping and commerce could thrive away from navigable watercourses for the first time since the beginning of the nation. Much of this line is currently used by the California Zephyr, although some parts were rerouted or abandoned.
The coming of the railroad resulted in the end of most of the far slower and more hazardous stagecoach lines and wagon trains, and it led to a great decline of traffic on the Oregon and California Trail, which had helped populate much of the West. The transcontinental railroad provided much faster, safer, and cheaper transportation (one week from Omaha to San Francisco via emigrant sleeping car at a fare of about $65 for an adult) for people and goods across the western two-thirds of the continent. The sale of the railroad land grant lands and the transport provided for timber and crops led to the rapid settling of the "Great American Desert". Among the main workers on the Union Pacific were many Army veterans and Irish emigrants while most of the engineers were ex-Army men who had learned their trade keeping the trains running during the American Civil War. The Central Pacific Railroad, facing a labor shortage in the more sparsely-settled West, relied on Chinese laborers who did prodigious work building the line over and through the Sierra Nevada mountains and then across Nevada to their meeting in northern Utah.
  • A motive for the Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico in 1853 was to provide suitable terrain for a southern transcontinental railroad, since the topography of the southern portion of the existing Mexican Cession land was too mountainous. The Southern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1881.
  • The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 (based on an earlier bill in 1856) authorized land grants for new lines that would "aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific ocean".
  • The rails of the "First Transcontinental Railroad" were joined on May 10, 1869, with the ceremonial driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah, after track was laid over a 1,756-mile (2,826 km) gap between Sacramento and Omaha, Nebraska/Council Bluffs, Iowa  in six years by the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad. Although through train service was in operation as of that date, the road was not deemed to have been officially "completed" until November 6, 1869. (A physical connection between Omaha, Nebraska and the statutory Eastern terminus of the Pacific road at Council Bluffs, Iowa located immediately across the Missouri River was also not finally established until the opening of UPRR railroad bridge across the river on March 25, 1873, prior to which transfers were made by ferry operated by the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company.)
  • In 1882 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway connected Atchison, Kansas with the Southern Pacific Railroad at Deming, New Mexico, thus completing a second link to Los Angeles.
  • The Southern Pacific Railroad linked New Orleans with Los Angeles in 1883, linking the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean.
  • The Northern Pacific Railway, also completed in 1883, linked Chicago with Seattle.
  • The Great Northern Railway was built, without federal aid, by James J. Hill in 1893; it stretched from St. Paul to Seattle.
  • In 1909 the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (or Milwaukee Road) completed a privately built Pacific extension to Seattle. On completion the line was renamed the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific. Although the Pacific Extension was privately funded, predecessor roads did benefit from the federal land grant act, so it can not be said to have been built without federal aid.
  • John D. Spreckels completed his privately funded San Diego and Arizona Railway in 1919, thereby creating a direct link (via connection with the Southern Pacific lines) between San Diego, California and the Eastern United States. The railroad stretched 148 miles (238 km) from San Diego to Calexico, California.
  • In 1993 Amtrak's Sunset Limited daily railroad train was extended eastward to the Atlantic Ocean, making it the first transcontinental passenger train route in the United States to be operated by a single company. Hurricane Katrina cut this rail route in Louisiana in 2005. The train now runs Los Angeles to New Orleans.
George J. Gould attempted to assemble a truly transcontinental system in the 1900s. The line from San Francisco, California, to Toledo, Ohio, was completed in 1909, consisting of the Western Pacific Railway, Denver and Rio GrandeKanawha Railroad, West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway, Western Maryland Railroad and Philadelphia and Western Railway, but the Panic of 1907 strangled the plans before the Little Kanawha section in West Virginia could be finished. The Alphabet Route was completed in 1931, providing the portion of this line east of the Mississippi River. With the merging of the railroads, only the Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railway remain to carry the entire route.

“Plowed on the corn stubble all day.  Holmes three horse team plowed for me this afternoon.  Pleasant day.”

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