128 Transcontinental Railroad


Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing rugged mountains and arid desert. The alternatives were to travel by sea around the tip of South America, a distance of 18,000 miles; or to cross the Isthmus of Panama, then travel north by ship to California. Each route took months and was dangerous and expensive. 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 idea of building such a line was present in America for decades before the construction was authorized by the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864.


American Civil War and the southern Democrats who opposed the idea before were now absent from Congress so the Republicans used the opportunity to vote the construction of the transcontinental railroad without them.

Two Competing Companies: The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad

In 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act chartered the Central Pacific (CP) and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies (UP), with building a transcontinental railroad - linking the United States from east to west. Two companies raced toward each other from Sacramento, California on the one side to Omaha, Nebraska on the other, struggling against great risks before they met at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

Meet in middle.

Payment: 6,400 acres (later doubled to 12,800) and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track built.

Based on competition

CP  “Big Four”–Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins. Ambitious businessmen with no prior experience with railroads, engineering or construction.

Borrowed heavily to finance the project,

exploited legal loopholes for gov funds.

Omaha, Dr. Thomas Durant had illegally achieved a controlling interest in the Union Pacific, giving him authority over the project.

UP launched in early December 1863 - not much progress until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Danger Ahead: Building the Transcontinental Railroad

General Grenville Dodge, Union Army hero chief engineer, the UP made progress west in May 1866.

            - Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne attacked

            - the UP moved relatively quickly across the plains, CP struggled across mountains.

Settlements popped up along railroad: hotbeds of drinking, gambling, prostitution & violence Created “Wild West”

Hired Chinese –

1865, labor problems, Charles Crocker of CP hired Chinese laborers.

50,000 Chinese immigrants on the West Coast (arrived during the Gold Rush.)

Very controversial due to racism.  

Hired 14,000.

Proved to be tireless workers in difficult conditions in the Sierra Nevada

Blast thru granite mountains with huge wooden trestles, gunpowder and Union Pacific hired Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans.

Driving Toward The Last Spike

The golden spike: 17.6-karat gold. Driven May 10, 1869. at 12:47 p.m

Later Spike replaced with traditional iron spikes.

Impact on The United States

Reduced travel time from months to one week

Increased Exports from west, and Products from East  

Facilitated westward expansion, escalating conflicts between Native American tribes and settlers who now had easier access to new territories.

Changed image of U.S.

Holy Crap Thinking:

Significant Need of time and cost

Take advantage of the opportunity – Civil War

Use competition

Holy Crap Quote:

“Of all the things done by the first transcontinental railroad, nothing exceeded the cuts in time and cost. . . . less than a week after pounding the Golden Spike, a man or woman could go from New York to San Fran in 7 days, including stops.”

Holy Crap Challenge:

Think Bigger: Tackle the significant problem. What do you consider “impossible?”

Reach Higher: How can you convince others that it needs to be done?

Do the Impossible: Persist until it is complete.

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