The Transcontinental Railroad: Blood, Sweat, Tears and an American Dream

Topics: Union Pacific Railroad, First Transcontinental Railroad, Central Pacific Railroad Pages: 9 (3111 words) Published: November 15, 2006
The late 19th Century was a revolutionizing period in American History evident by the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War. However, it was the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad which profoundly changed the United States. The discovery of gold, the acquisition of Mexican territories and the continued settlement of the West increased the need for a primary railway system connecting the East and the West Coasts. The Transcontinental Continental Railroad aided the settling of the west and closed the last of the remaining frontier, bringing newfound economic growth, such as mining farming and cattle ranching to our burgeoning country. On May 10, 1869, near Promontory Summit, Utah, a boisterous crowd gathered to witness the completion of one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th Century: the first Transcontinental Railroad. The breathtaking moment as the Golden Spike was driven in marked the culmination of six years of grueling work by ingenious entrepreneurs whose unscrupulous financing got the line laid, brilliant engineers who charted the railroad's course and hurdled the geological obstacles in its way, armies of workers who labored relentlessly on the enterprise and the lives of countless Native Americans which were destroyed in its wake. The First Transcontinental Railroad served as a vital link for trade, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of late 19th century America.

The latter half of the 19th century was a time of expansion in America. The discovery of gold near Sutter's mill in California in 1848 resulted in a huge influx of people lured by the promise of "free gold" into California. During 1849, 55,000 people traveled along overland routes and another 25,000 voyaged the sea to California (Howard 65). With large numbers of people heading west, the deficiency of travel and trade across America shifted the focus of Congress. A transcontinental railroad was proposed. The railroad was considered the key to westward expansion and imperative to the economic future of the country. A cross-country route would unlock the west by reducing the time required for the journey and eliminating countless hardships involved with traveling across the vast terrain of America; thus, encouraging further settlement of the west, expanding and developing the interior of the nation and bolstering the economy through increased trade routes.

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862
Congress, throughout the 19th century, faced the question of whether it should assist in constructing a railroad which would cross the entire country. Pacific Railroad bills which proposed the granting of lands, subsidies, and as much as ninety million dollars to the construction of the railroad were introduced in Congress. None of the bills were passed since a route could not be decided on. Congress was split along geographical lines; northerners wanted a northern route and southerners wanted a southern route due to the issue of slavery in the "New West" (Howard 57). Congress was divided as to whether slavery should be permitted in the new states. Northerners pressed for a northern route extending from Chicago and St. Louis to northern California, a free state (Howard 65). Southerners continually advocated a southern route and spurred the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 of 45,535 square miles of land south of the Gila River and east to El Paso del Norte which would enable a southern route to California (Howard 65). In 1853, Congress sent five surveying teams to explore possible railroad routes to California. The surveying results were reviewed by Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, the Secretary of War in the fall of 1854. Davis concluded that the southern route, running through the newly purchased Gadsden lands, would be the most cost effective (Howard 84). Congress, however, remained split on the proposed route for the transcontinental railroad. In 1861, the Southern congressman withdrew from Congress as a precursor to...

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Gordon, Sarah H. Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Inc., 1996.
Horn, Huston. The Old West The Pioneers. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.
Howard, Robert West. The Great Iron Trail -- The Story of the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Bonanza Books, 1962.
Klein, Maury. Union Pacific-The Birth of a Railroad: 1862-1893. New York: Doubleday, 1887.
Merk, Frederick. History of the Westward Movement. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Zwonitzer, Mark. Native Americans. American Experience: The Transcontinental Railroad. PBS Online. 15 July 2006.>
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