Pacific Railroad (Transcontinental Railroad)

With the success of north/south railways, the mid-nineteenth century saw the push for an east/west railroad and communication system. The result would be the first transcontinental railroad, the Pacific Railroad, connecting the eastern portion of the United States with the western portion. The impetuses behind the growing interest in expanding railway travel included the 1848 Mexican cessation, the 1849 California gold rush, and California’s statehood in 1850.

Asa Whitney published a booklet titled A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific in 1849, in the hopes of undertaking the massive endeavor without the assistance of the U.S. government. Whitney did not receive approval for his plan by Congress, but in 1853, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ordered exploration and a survey, under the army appropriation act approved March 31, to determine “the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi river to the Pacific ocean.”

Despite surveys and proposals, a transcontinental railroad fell victim to sectional disputes, and Congress delayed taking any action until July 1, 1862, with the passing of the Pacific Railway Act. The Pacific Railway Act authorized two companies to construct the railroad lines, the Union Pacific Railroad Company and the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California.

The physical act of building the railroad, particularly the western portion, proved dangerous and involved such tasks as blasting rock to create tunnels, constructing trestles over deep chasms, and dumping tons of rocks to even the landscape. Initially, European immigrants composed most of the workers, until 1864 when many left to seek safer employment. A handful of Chinese workers took up the job, transferring from local mining jobs. By late 1865, thousands of Chinese immigrants labored for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. They worked longer hours and were paid less than Europeans, and the president of Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, in a letter to President Andrew Johnson, attributed the successful completion of the railway on schedule solely to Chinese laborers.

The Transcontinental Railroad officially opened on May 10, 1869, creating a new era for the American West.

John R. Coash, “Perceptions of the Early Railroad Surveys in California,” Earth Sciences History 11, No. 1 (1992), 40; Asa Whitney, A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific (New York: George W. Wood, 1849), iv; U.S. House Journal. 1853. 33rd Cong., 2nd sess., 531; "An Act to Supply Deficiencies in the Appropriations for the Service of the Fiscal Year Ending the Thirtieth of June, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty-Four, and for Other Purposes," 31 May 1854, Statutes at Large of the United States 12 (1863):489-98; U.S. House Journal. 1862. 37th Cong., 2nd sess., 957; “An Act to Aid in the Construction of a Railroad and Telegraph Line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, and to Secure to the Government the Use of the Same for Postal, Military, and Other Purposes,” 1 July 1862, Statutes at Large of the United States 12 (1863):489-98; Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds., The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 1-24; The Daily Examiner (San Francisco, CA), 10 May 1869, 2:1.