The First Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was built in the 1860s, linking the well developed railway network of the Eastern coast with rapidly growing California. The main line was officially completed on May 10, 1869. The vast number of people who traveled the line, and the network that followed, set the USA on the path to economic abundance. It also ended the centuries old way of life of the Native Americans and greatly altered the environment.
The rail line was an important goal of President Abraham Lincoln, fostered during the early portion of his term and completed four years after his death. The building of the railroad was motivated in part to bind California to the Union during the American Civil War. The railroad is considered by some to be the greatest technological feat of the 19th century. The transcontinental railroad replaced the slower and more dangerous wagon trains, Pony Express and stagecoach lines that crossed the country by land and the equally difficult sea journey around the southern tip of South America.
The route followed the well established Oregon, Mormon and California Trails. The new line began in Omaha, Nebraska, followed the Platte River, crossed the Rocky Mountains at South Pass in Wyoming and then through northern Utah and Nevada before crossing the Sierras to Sacramento, California. Additional track was laid to connect Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah and other cities not directly on the route.
The Central Pacific laid 690 miles (1,110 km) of track, starting in Sacramento, and the Union Pacific laid 1,087 miles (1,749 km) of track, starting in Omaha. The two lines connected at Promontory Summit, Utah.
Talk of a transcontinental railroad started in 1830, shortly after railroads began large scale operation in the United States. At about the same time English-speaking settlers began settling in Mexican controlled California.
Much of the early debate was not so much over whether it would be built, but what route it should follow: a "central" route, via the Platte River in Nebraska and the South Pass in Wyoming, or a "southern" route, avoiding the Rockies by going through Texas to Los Angeles. (A "northern" option generally following the route explored by Lewis and Clark through Montana and Oregon was considered impractical because of snow.)
In June 1845 Asa Whitney led a team along the proposed central route to assess its capabilities. Whitney travelled widely to solicit support for the rail line, printed maps and pamphlets, and submitted several proposals to Congress. Legislation to begin construction of the Pacific Railroad via the central route was introduced in Congress but not acted on.
The Southern Route and the Gadsden Purchase
California became a U.S. territory in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War. The very same year saw the beginnings of the California Gold Rush (better known in 1849) which brought great numbers of people west, many of whom stayed. California became increasingly an important part of the United States and the idea of a rail connection to it gained support.
Concerns lingered that snow would make the central route impractical. A survey indicated that the best southern path ran through territory still held by Mexico. Therefore in 1853, only five years after taking California by force, the United States made the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico, acquiring the southern portions of what is now New Mexico and Arizona. This placed the southern transcontinental route entirely within the U.S. However, despite approving the Purchase, Congress did not fund construction of a rail line at that time. The southern route was completed in 1881, giving it the dubious distinction of being America's second transcontinental railroad. The route is generally followed by Interstate 10 today.
The Central Route
In early 1861, Theodore Judah, a rail construction engineer and...
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