Building the Transcontinental Railroad

Construction of a transcontinental railroad was one of the United States' greatest technological achievements. Railroad track had to be laid over 2,000 miles of rugged terrain, including mountains of solid granite.

Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing mountains and desert. The alternative was to travel by sea. The transcontinental railroad would make it possible to complete the trip in five days at a cost of $150 for a first-class sleeper.

The transcontinental railroad was built in six years almost entirely by hand. Workers drove spikes into mountains, filled the holes with black powder, and blasted through the rock inch by inch. Bridges, including one 700 feet long and 126 feet in the air, had to be constructed. Thousands of workers, including Irish and German immigrants, former soldiers, freed slaves, and especially Chinese immigrants played a part in the construction. At one point, 8,000 of the 10,000 men toiling for the Central Pacific were Chinese. Chinese workers were lowered in baskets to drill blasting holes in the rock. They placed explosives in each hole, lit the fuses, and were pulled up before the powder was detonated. Explosions, freezing temperatures, and avalanches killed hundreds. When Chinese workers struck for higher pay, a Central Pacific executive withheld their food supplies until they agreed to go back to work.

Construction of the railroad provided many opportunities for corruption. The greatest financial scandal of the 19th century grew out of the railroad's construction. The president of the Union Pacific helped found a construction company, which allowed investors, including several members of Congress, to grant lucrative construction contracts to themselves, while nearly bankrupting the railroad.

The railroad had profound effects on American life. It also led to the division of the nation into four standard time zones.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad changed the nation. Western agricultural products, coal, and minerals could move freely to the east coast. Just as the Civil War united North and South, the transcontinental railroad united East and West. The 1890 Census would declare that the American frontier had disappeared. The railroad was a major cause.

Source: Building the Transcontinental Railroad
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