June 1, 2023

A look back on the 1st transcontinental railroad


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The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was enacted by President Abraham Lincoln to garner federal support for construction of the transcontinental railroad.

While B&O Railroad was the first commercial transportation by rail in 1827, connecting Chicago to the East Coast, there still was not a direct connection completely west. 

The goal was to spread geographically throughout the United States and help move goods and people faster and more safely. The desire to expand the country west became more important after the discovery of gold in California. 

According to the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Central Pacific Railroad in Sacramento, California, and Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, Nebraska, began the project, laying tracks under a federal government contract, supported by government land grants and bonds. To push productivity, the companies were also compensated $16,000 for each mile of track in the Sierra Nevadas and east of the Rockies. 

The extra compensation began a race that lasted seven years between the two companies, each hoping to lay the most track.

The DPLA shared an exhibition of some of the photographs taken and illustrations created at that time to show the rush toward California. Here is a gallery of some of the most interesting photos from the collection. 

A map of the Union Pacific Railroad route in 1868. (Photo: Cornell University)
Union Pacific Railroad construction employees gather for a photo. Thomas Durant was went as so far to change the original route plans to add more miles for a better profit. He often withheld pay from the workers, which led to labor strikes. (Photo: Utah State Historical Society)
Railroad workers standing near the construction of a line change in Utah. (Photo: University of Utah J. Willard Library)
Native Americans signed away rights to most of their land through treaties with the Federal Government, but the railroad drastically altered the landscape making it impossible to hunt. This Native American family walks by one of these trains in the 1890s. (Photo: University of Montana Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library)
The railroad caused significant deforestation in the West. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
The start of the Summit Tunnel on Donner Pass for Central Pacific. (Photo: Denver Public Library)
The railroads started the end of the untamed West in the U.S. This is a Mormon family settled in Salt Lake Valley, Utah in 1869 (Photo: The New York Public Library)

Click here to see the entire collection.

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!

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