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Hand-Built Railroad Defines, Unites Nation

Mon March 12, 2007 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

(Editor’s Note: This article is the ninth in an occasional series on iconic United States construction projects.)

The Transcontinental Railroad, built almost entirely by hand in the 1860s, and conquering terrible obstacles, including Native American attacks, has often been called the greatest construction achievement in the United States during the 19th century.

The roadbed, hard stone up to 3 ft. (.9 m) deep, was laid across 1,700 mi. (2,736 km) of mountains and desert: 2,500 heavy wooden ties and 400 steel rails to the mi., 10 spikes to the rail, three sledgehammer strokes to the spike. A reporter compared it to “a grand anvil chorus” as four-man crews put four rails per minute into place.

Thus the work crews for the Central Pacific Railroad, building from Sacramento, Calif., in the West, and the Union Pacific Railroad, working from near Omaha, Neb., far to the east, hammered in an estimated 6.8 million spikes holding 680,000 rails to 4.25 million ties. At three strikes per spike, that’s 20.4 million hard hits by trackmen swinging steel sledgehammers over their heads.

No bulldozers, steam drills, trucks, or excavators; mostly just grunting, backbreaking labor by 20,000 Chinese, Irish, German, Czech and other immigrants, plus thousands of Civil War veterans from both the Northern and Southern sides. The workforce included pick-and-shovel crews, tracklayers (dubbed “rusteaters”), carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, mechanics, loggers (cutting as many as 60 railroad ties a day), engine men and others. Laborers were paid approximately $35 a month.

The grueling project took six years, from Jan. 8, 1863 to May 10, 1869, when the “Golden Spike” clamped down the last rail joining the western and eastern stretches of track at Promontory Summit, Utah. Now the “Iron Horse,” belching steam, could whistle from Omaha to Sacramento in six days compared with four to six months in horse-drawn “prairie schooners.”

Grand Dream

America had “railroad fever” in the 19th Century. The idea of a railroad across the nation was proposed as early as 1836, only six years after Peter Cooper’s “Tom Thumb,” the first practical American locomotive, was built for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Railroads ran on 2,818 mi. (4,535 km) of track in the United States by 1840. This increased to 30,626 mi. (49,288 km) by 1860.

Bills proposing lands and funding for a “Pacific Railroad” joining the West with the East were periodically introduced in Congress from the 1840s on.

Railroad fever surged higher after California was admitted to the Union in 1850. Seeking gold, 55,000 people a year had to struggle west by overland routes. Another 25,000 went by sea (usually around Cape Horn). They battled Native Americans on land and big storms around the Horn.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, the future president of the Confederacy, proposed a southern route for a new railroad to California through the new land gained from the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. After southern states left Congress in 1861 as a precursor to secession, Congress in 1862 authorized construction of the Pacific Railroad, based on location surveys by Grenville Dodge.

President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, had long supported the idea of spanning the continent by rail and had won important legal cases for railroads. He also recognized that the railroad would help the Union cause.

Congress named the Central Pacific (CP) and Union Pacific (UP) to perform the construction.

Awesome Challenge

The Central Pacific faced a barrier that many considered impassible: the hard-granite Sierra Nevada Mountains, which included some of the hardest rock in North America. Theodore Judah, a civil engineer from Troy, N.Y., who founded the railroad, had surveyed a route east from Sacramento in 1860 and proposed laying tracks across the 6,000-ft.-high (1,829 m) ridges of this chain. People called him “Crazy Judah.”

Workers would have to blast through, or go over, granite ridges, build wooden trestles over deep ravines, bridge rushing mountain streams, and lay the track in shrieking winds and frequent storms (including blizzards). They would have to endure temperatures that dipped 30 F below zero in winter, with the constant danger of avalanches.

The Union Pacific initially faced a different challenge – west from Omaha across the desolate Nebraska prairie and then the Rocky Mountains. There was nary a home between Omaha and Cheyenne, Wyo., but lots of Sioux, Paiutes, Cheyennes and other Native Americans who would attack work crews invading their territories. Past Cheyenne, the desert temperatures often reached 110 F.

Torturous Progress

The CP began work on Jan. 8, 1863, following the route that Judah had surveyed. First, surveyors went ahead marking the exact route. Then graders prepared the sites for the roadbed, which was often slowly blasted through mountain rock. It was dangerous work. Many men left the High Sierras to search for silver, which was discovered in Nevada in 1865, rather than work on the railroad.

Desperate, the railroad began recruiting workers from Kwantung Province in China in 1864.

“Well, they built the Chinese Wall, didn’t they?” said Leland Stanford, one of four Sacramento businessmen who provided financing for the venture.

The Chinese workforce grew to 6,000 and then 9,000 men. People called the laborers “Crocker’s Army,” for Charles Crocker, another of the four businessmen, who was in charge of construction.

The Chinese proved to be great workers. Hanging over cliffs in baskets, which they wove themselves, they drilled holes in rock faces, planted black powder explosives, and were pulled up before the charges went off. They also blasted more than a dozen tunnels through the granite. For relaxation, these workers relied on opium or gambling. They drank enormous amounts of boiled tea, cooked their own food in kitchens, which they paid for themselves, and took daily sponge baths when weather permitted.

The Chinese workers, known as “Celestials” (for the Celestial Kingdom, as they called their homeland), wore floppy blue pajama-like outfits and dishpan straw hats. Pigtails dangled from their heads. They were strong but scrawny — usually approximately 110 lbs. — and courageous.

An estimated 2,000 Chinese died, or were seriously injured, in building the Central Pacific leg. Many of them froze to death, or were swept away, 20 or 30 at a time, by avalanches.

The work crews confronted a forbidding 2,000-ft.-high (609 m) shale spur standing, with a 75-degree slope, above the American River, 57 mi. (92 Km) out from Sacramento. Because of its danger, it was called “Cape Horn.” Surveyors had laid out a 3-mi. (4.8 Km) route across a ledge 1,400 ft. (427 m) above the water.

Lowered down the face of the spur in their wicker baskets, the laborers set to work with their sledges, hand-drills, and black powder, blasting a path through Cape Horn in approximately nine months without losing a life.

It took the CP three years to lay the first 40 mi. (64 km) of track, drilling holes every two feet and then blasting out the rock, using approximately 400 kegs of blasting power to move forward one foot. This work was partly financed by bonds from the state of California, which would pay $10,000 per mile after specified amounts of track were completed.

The Central Pacific’s supply line was 15,000 mi. (24,140 km) long, since locomotives, railcars, spikes, and iron bars had to be shipped from the East around Cape Horn. Thousands of small dumpcarts, pulled by horses or oxen, hauled earth and rock to the worksite. Track came by flatcar to within a half mile of the railhead. Then men loaded it on carts that horses pulled to the railhead. Trackmen would then run forward, grab the rails, and quickly drop them into place, to be spiked down.

On Aug. 29, 1867, after working on it for one year, Crocker’s Army completed the 1,659-ft.-long (506 m) Summit Tunnel, which was the longest of its type in the world at a height of 7,042 ft. (2,146 m). This was the last, longest, and highest of the six bores that pierced the Sierra before the line reached the eastern slope of the range.

The Summit Tunnel was CP’s crowning achievement. Workmen hand-blasted a 20-ft.-wide (6 m) bore through solid granite. They worked from both ends and also cut a 73-ft. (22 m) shaft from the top so that workers also could blast out from the middle. Ten yokes of oxen, run by a mule skinner called “Missouri Bill,” dragged a 12-ton locomotive, minus cab, wheels and turning shafts, 50 mi. (80 Km) to the summit. This took six weeks. Placed on a large platform on top of the shaft, the engine hauled up granite and lowered shoring timbers.

When the tunnel was complete, the facing alignment at the two entrances was off by only 2 in., a feat which would be difficult to equal even with today’s technology. This and other alignments were a tribute to the genius of Lewis Clement, who surveyed much of the route.

The CP line was now through the Sierras.

Battled Mountain


The winters were terrible in the High Sierras. Approximately 4,500 men — half CP’s workforce — were occupied in clearing the tracks in the winters of 1866 and 1867. Locomotives pushed plows like battering rams through the deep snow.

Finally, in 1868 and 1869, the railroad built 37 mi. (59.5 Km) of large wooden snowsheds to enclose the trackwork. These sheds used approximately 65 million board-ft. of timber.

At the end of March 1868, after five years of work, the Central Pacific reached 131 mi. (211 km) east of Sacramento. It was laying track in the Nevada desert that year, and cut through Palisade Canyon in eastern Nevada by the end of 1868.

The Great Race

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1864, supported by President Lincoln, amended the earlier 1862 act. It doubled land grants to 20 mi. (32 Km) per mile of track and provided immediate cash, from federal loans, for each completed 20 mi. of roadbed. The CP and UP raced to get the most land. They ended up with a total of 21 million acres (8.5 million ha), more land than Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

Union Pacific Started Slowly

The Union Pacific broke ground at Omaha, Neb., on Dec. 3, 1863. Thomas C. “Doc” Durant, who had a medical degree but was mostly involved in Wall St. land speculation, was one of the investors in the railroad.

The UP’s initial objective was to reach the 100th meridian, 250 mi. (402 Km) west of the starting point, but it laid only 40 mi. of track (to Fremont, Neb.) in the first two years. Durant asked Grenville Dodge, who had explored a railroad route in 1853 and was now a general and Native American fighter, to be chief engineer. Dodge accepted. Under him, the UP laid more than 300 mi. (483 km) of track in 1866.

Durant also put “Jack” Casement, former brigadier General, and his brother Dan, in charge of track laying. UP’s total workforce was approximately 8,000 men, approximately 1,000 of them at or near the end of the track.

Most of the work crews were veterans of the Union Army. Military discipline prevailed. On Oct. 6, 1866, the UP work crews, sometimes laying 2 mi. (3.2 Km) of track a day, reached the 100th meridian. Durant brought 140 political leaders and reporters to the site by Pullman car and treated them to a sumptuous party. He even staged a fake attack and scalpings by shrieking Indians, terrifying many guests.

Native Americans Attacked

The UP’s route sliced right through the Great Plains buffalo herd, the main source of food for the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other Native American tribes. Buffalo would not cross railroad tracks, so the operation disrupted the herd.

Native Americans under Spotted Tail and other leaders attacked surveyors and other advance parties during 1866 and 1867.

Dodge armed all work crews. In August 1867, Native Americans were reported to have thrown a train of cars off the track and killed all on board. Chief Pawnee Killer led 40 Cheyennes that month in bending rails, derailing two trains, and scalping eight people.

Isolated groups of surveyors and tie-cutters were particularly at risk as Native Americans tried to stop the advance of what they called the “Iron Horse.”

By 1868, approximately 5,000 soldiers were patrolling along the line of advance.

Construction Trains

Four large construction trains, with 10 cars each, carried rails, ties, fuels and supplies for workers. It took approximately 40 flatbeds of material to build a mile of track. Another train included sleeping quarters, kitchens, a dining car (one long table), and many racks of rifles. Bunks for sleeping were in three tiers, with each car holding 300 to 400 men.

According to one account, a single steam shovel was the only mechanical power used to move earth. Certainly there weren’t many mechanical devices.

The UP reached Cheyenne in November 1867, and Sherman Summit, which at 8,242 ft. (2,512 m) was the highest point on the transcontinental railroad, in April 1868, after a winter of terrible snowstorms had held up the work.

The crews built wooden bridges, and at least four tunnels hundreds of feet long, as the line went west. Loup Fork Bridge in Nebraska, constructed in 1866, was 1,500 ft. (457 m) long.

The bridge over Dale Creek, 4 mi. (6.4 Km) west of Sherman Summit, was 700 ft. (213 m) long and 126 ft. (38 m) above the streambed. The original bridge was all wood, prefabricated in Chicago, Ill., and shipped to Wyoming. It was so rickety and the site so windy that “engineers used to hold their breath and pray as they crossed it at the prescribed speed of four miles per hour.”

Men cut through hundreds of ridges and filled numerous depressions with rock. The largest fill, between Cheyenne and the summit, was 375 ft. (114 m) long and 50 ft. (15 m) deep.

The new railroad act required that the telegraph keep up with the end of the track. Every 20 mi. (32 Km), both the UP and CP planted a water tower and telegraph station. Special work gangs dug holes, erected poles and strung wires as the track was laid.

The railroad created towns, as it went along. Here, “vice and crime stalk unblushingly in the midday sun,” one rail boss wrote to his wife. Known for “whiskey, women and wagering,” the towns were known as “Hells on wheels.”

Dodge sold land to settlers, who followed the new tracks, for from $25 to $250.

The UP, fighting off Native American attacks with Springfield rifles, went up and over the Black Hills, reached Laramie, Wyo., spanned the North Platte River in Wyoming in the spring of 1868, crossed the barren desert, reached the eastern slope of the Wasatch Range, and, employing Mormons, cut around Echo Canyon, Utah, in late 1868.

Racing to the Finish

The UP and CP, laying rail furiously, approached each other. The CP, using Chinese track gangs and Irish track haulers, set a record of laying 10 mi. (16 km) in 12 hours.

Newspapers in the United States and Europe covered the Great Race as front-page news.

Advancing survey and grading lines, one moving east and the other west, passed, reportedly overlapped for approximately 200 mi. (322 km) — often so close that one crew had to dodge debris from the other’s blasting charges.

Grading camps of tents, wagons and men spread out like a mighty army. In January 1869, the secretary of the interior appointed a commission of eminent civil engineers to go west and decide where the two lines should meet.

The commission chose Promontory Summit, 56 mi. (90 Km) west of Ogden, Utah. May 8 was set as the day the rails would meet.

The CP reached the Promontory site, a flat, circular basin approximately a mile wide and 700 ft. (213 m) above Great Salt Lake, first, but had to fill a gorge approximately 170 ft. (52 m) deep and 500 ft. (152 m) long. CP work crews filled the gorge in three months, using 500 men, 250 teams of horses and many hundreds of carts.

The meeting of the railroads couldn’t take place on May 8 because the UP’s Durant had been kidnapped at Piedmont, Wyo., by tie-cutters demanding back pay. Durant wired for enough money to bail himself out, and the ceremony went ahead on May 10, which turned out to be a beautiful day, with the temperature rising into the 70s.

The Union Pacific locomotive, Engine No. 119, pulled in first over tracks, which had been completed before dawn. The CP locomotive, called Jupiter (Engine No. 60), bearing the last railroad tie, made of laurel, chugged in from the west a little later. As the two engines faced each other, their train-whistles shrieking, onlookers cheered. They included about 600 people – workers, reporters, soldiers, dignitaries and others.

After a minister offered a prayer, the laurel tie was placed. About 12:30 p.m., Leland Stanford, representing the Central Pacific, struck at the final golden spike, which was from California, with a silver spikehammer. He missed, hitting the rail instead.

A wire was attached to the spikehammer so that it would send a signal (three dots) when it hit the spike.

“When Stanford missed, the signalman who was to send the message out couldn’t see what happened and went ahead and sent the three dots,” said John Bromley, director of historical programs at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The three dots meant that the spike driving had begun.

“Doc” Durant, representing the Union Pacific, now swung the hammer. He missed, too.

The two chief engineers, one from each train, then stepped down from their cabs and topped the spike into the tie. The operator sent the planned message to the world: “Done!” Then the partying really began, both at Promontory and elsewhere.

Bells pealed from churches across the country. Thousands of cannons (some said even more than at the Battle of Gettysburg) boomed, and fire whistles shrieked. In Chicago, people cheered in a parade seven miles long.

The engines were unhooked from their trains. They inched forward and touched. Railroad men on each lifted bottles of champagne and smashed them against the engines, as the crowd roared.

Two other spikes also were driven into the tie — a silver one from Nevada and a gold, silver, and iron spike from Arizona. The latter is now displayed at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs.

Transformed America

With the transcontinental railroad completed, a person could now travel from New York City to San Francisco in seven days on a “strong band of iron.” The railroad unleashed a tidal wave of growth. Thousands of new towns sprang up and grew along the tracks. A new agricultural empire began as trains brought machinery to the West and crops to both coasts.

The Union Pacific acquired the Central Pacific, which had become part of Southern Pacific, in 1895, and is now the largest railroad in North America, employing 51,000 people.

“The vast majority of the original transcontinental route is still in use, though Promontory Summit was bypassed and the track torn up for scrap, at the turn of the century,” Bromley said.

Virtually all of the vast land, which the railroads were awarded has been sold for farming, mining and industrial development.

Not all the stopping points that dotted the railroad grew into towns. The ruins of dozens of small towns can be found along the line, along with trestles, culverts, piles of abandoned ties and other mute reminders of one of the nation’s greatest endeavors.

Artifacts from the project, now exhibited at the Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, include survey equipment and reports, early equipment, and an interactive map highlighting the towns that grew along the route.

Information on the transcontinental railroad also appears on and in the book “Nothing Like It In the World” by Stephen E. Ambrose (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

The Web site includes the transcript of The American Experience television special. Go to American Experience, Transcontinental Railroad and click on “The Film and More” for the transcript and other features. CEG

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