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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Transcontinental Railroad

John Debo Galloway

New York, 1950

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p136  Chapter 7
Constructing the Central Pacific Railroad

The construction of the Central Pacific Railroad through uninhabited regions involved tremendous problems absent in building roads in more settled parts of the country. However, in the major items, the procedure was much the same.

Financing construction, while a part of general management of a railroad, played an important role in determining the speed at which the work went forward. Once the location surveys had been made, rights of way had to be obtained, and after that final construction surveys were needed. These surveys continued throughout the construction period and required surveying parties at frequent intervals along the line. The roadbed in cuts and on fills passed over uneven ground and through all kinds of earth materials where ditches had to be dug and provisions made for the discharge of storm water. Tunnels in solid rock could be left as excavated, but many other tunnels had to be lined with timber, brick, stone, or concrete. Bridges had to be designed and erected ahead of track laying. Culverts of stone or concrete were built under fills. Snow sheds in the case of the  p137 Central Pacific, and snow fences on the Union Pacific, were essential in keeping the line open in winter.

The track, rails, switches, and other items were transported to the construction depots from distant locations and carried from there to the end of the track. Sidings and station tracks were built along with the main line. Ballast was brought from distant quarries, placed in position, and the track brought to line on an even grade. Station houses with water tanks for the locomotives, eating houses on long lines, and similar structures were also vitally necessary. Machine repair shops and engine houses were located at carefully selected points. Provision had to be made for fuel to be stored in quantity at division points. Rolling stock of locomotives, freight and passenger cars, and construction trains were also an important and costly item in Central Pacific construction. A telegraph line had to be built as an adjunct to the construction forces. In many places a wagon road reaching ahead of the track was required. Then, too, there had to be an organized force of trainmen, graders, bridge builders, teams, earth-moving equipment, and finally the force that maintained and operated the railroad when construction was finished. Over all, there was the company organization, the engineering staff with the chief engineer and his principal assistants, the construction superintendent and assistants, contractors for various kinds of work, and many other groups of skilled men for performing special tasks.

Construction Standards

When the Law of 1862 was passed it contained a clause stating that "the track upon the entire line of railroad and branches shall be of uniform width to be determined by the President of the United States, so that when completed, cars can be run from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast." President Lincoln, harried by the worries of the Civil War, set the gauge at five feet, but an Act of Congress of March 3, 1863, established the gauge as four feet, eight and one half inches, which is the standard gauge today.

 p138  The previously mentioned clause of the law, which stated that standards of the Baltimore and Ohio had to be used, was indefinite, and for this reason Secretary of the Interior James Harlan in 1865 appointed a board made up of government commissioners, government directors of the Union Pacific Railroad, and a number of representatives of the companies constructing the Pacific railroads. A circular was sent out to prominent railroad engineers, among whom were Major General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.M. C. Meigs, John B. Jervis, George Lowe Reid, Ashbel Welch, Benjamin H. Latrobe, G. A. Nicholls, W. W. Evans, Philip S. Justice, J. L. Williams, and Silas Seymour, the last two being government director and consulting engineer of the Union Pacific respectively. The comments of these men constitute an excellent summary of railroad building as it was understood in 1865. The men from the eastern states favored solid, permanent construction, such as stone bridges, but on most of the other items of construction there was a general agreement. It is interesting to note that Silas Seymour, whose name appears elsewhere in this work, advocated a road built on rails resting upon longitudinal timbers instead of crossties, a plan that had been abandoned everywhere long before. He favored Howe truss bridges, built mainly of wood, and said that he had never been in favor of iron bridges for railroads. This was the type of man with whom General Dodge of the Union Pacific had to contend.

The weight of locomotives suggested by the advisers ranged from twenty to forty tons, the weight being limited by the carrying capacity of the fifty- to sixty‑five-pound rails then available. Today steel rails are double these weights, and locomotives weigh ten to fifteen times more than was then deemed safe. It is true that steel rails made by the Bessemer process were then coming into use, and the possibility of using them was discussed, but they were not adopted on the first Pacific Railroad.

The Board brought in recommendations on location, grades and curves, embankments and excavations, mechanical structures, ballasting, crossties, rails, sidings, rolling stock, and buildings.  p139 It properly stated that grades and curves should be adapted to the country, and that while grades of 116 feet to the mile, (2.2 per cent) had been used on the Baltimore and Ohio with curves of a minimum radius of 400 feet, the situation in the Platte and Kansas valleys was such that grades should not exceed thirty feet per mile. The roadbed should not be less than fourteen feet wide at the grade line, excavation in long cuts should be twenty-six feet wide, and in shorter cuts, twenty-four feet wide to allow room for side ditches. Earth slopes should be one and one half base to one of rise. Rock slopes could be steeper. Tunnels in rock should be made for double track, but this provision was never enforced. Culverts were to be of stone or brick, but could be made of wood and replaced later with permanent materials. Bridges were to be built of stone, iron, or wood, at the discretion of the railroad company. Ballast should be of broken stone or gravel, twelve to fourteen inches thick. Crossties should be of oak or other suitable timber; if of soft wood, such as cottonwood, they should be treated by the Burnetizing process. They should be six inches thick, at least six inches on the face and eight feet long, and laid 2,400 to the mile. Rails were to be of American iron and should weigh at least fifty-six pounds to the yard on ordinary track, and sixty pounds per yard in the mountains. Rails should be fastened by fishplates and bolts at the joints and should be spiked to the ties on each side of the rail at each tie. However, wrought-iron chairs could be employed at the joints if the use of fishplates would delay the work. Sidings should be at least 6 per cent as long as the line. Buildings should be of brick or stone.

The specifications were liberal and allowed for plenty of leeway in construction, depending upon the country. Much was left to the judgment of the railroad officials, and of the directors and commissioners who had charge of the work for the government. In accordance with the standards, a first-class road was constructed.

At Sacramento, the starting point of the line, the railroad was  p140 located on an embankment, which formed a levee that protected the city of Sacramento from the flood water of the American River, one of the broadest streams flowing from the Sierra Nevada. About three and a half miles from the initial point, the river, flowing nearly due westward, was crossed by the largest bridge on the entire Central Pacific line. At the crossing point the American River is about 700 feet wide, and on both sides there are wide bottom lands, flooded in times of high water.

Geologically, the mountains begin at Arcade Creek. In the vicinity of Rocklin, granite is encountered, but the road for seventy miles up the mountains to a point near Cisco runs mostly in gravels, sedimentary rocks, slates, cemented gravels, and volcanic rocks of various types. From Cisco to the summit and down the eastern slope of the mountains, the rock is a hard granodiorite. In the vicinity of Truckee there are glacial deposits, but between Truckee and Verdi a canyon is encountered where the river runs through a lava flow for about ten miles. Through Reno and the Truckee Meadows the construction was easy, but when passing over the Virginia Range the road had to follow an open canyon to Wadsworth, at the Big Bend of the Truckee. From Wadsworth to Ogden the railroad was built over the desert, which at places borders the Humboldt River, and across the mountains that were not difficult to surmount. In this distance of 550 miles, there were a few stretches of difficult construction, the most troublesome being at Palisade Canyon, where for some twelve miles the line was built beside the river between basalt cliffs. In the sections across Nevada and Utah, the country was similar to the terrain where the Union Pacific crossed the Wyoming Basin. It was here that great progress was made during the last year of building.


As the Central Pacific began at Sacramento and built eastward, all supplies other than those obtained from California or from along the road had to be brought from the eastern states.  p141 The usual route from Atlantic ports was around Cape Horn, a distance of 18,000 miles, which took a sailing ship some four months in passage. Some freight, mainly locomotives and rail, was sent across the Isthmus of Panama, but this route, while shorter in distance and time, was extremely costly, owing to high freight rates.

Mr. Clement stated that shipping rail by way of the Isthmus in 1868 cost $51.97 per ton, making the cost of rail delivered at Sacramento $143.67, which did not include transfer charges to lighters at San Francisco or transportation up the Sacramento River. The corresponding Isthmus freight on one locomotive was $8,100, and the average freight cost for eighteen locomotives was $4,692.50 each. Freight charges on the first locomotive sent by way of Cape Horn was $2,282.25. Much of the high freight cost was due to high war-risk insurance during the period of the Civil War.

When material reached San Francisco, it was loaded on river steamers or barges and carried up San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River, 130 miles to Sacramento. In flood seasons the river furnished a reliable means of transportation, but at low water, even with the help of the tides, the passage was difficult. Thus all equipment for building and operating the Central Pacific had to be shipped from eastern mills to Atlantic ports, loaded on vessels, taken on a long sea voyage by way of Cape Horn, or across the Isthmus, to San Francisco, there to be transferred again to river craft and by way of the bay and river carried to its destination. There it was again loaded on cars and forwarded to the place of use at the end of track.


Iron for the track, in accordance with the Law of 1862, was manufactured in American mills in the East. The rail varied from fifty-six to sixty-six pounds per yard, the heavier rail being used on the mountains where the height of the rail section was raised in order that the head would be above snow. Wrought- p142 iron chairs to connect the ends of two rails were used on 115 miles of road, but the remaining length of the line was laid with fishplate joints, which were much superior.

Ties and bridge timbers were cut from California forests. Redwood ties from the Coast Mountains were brought by steamer to San Francisco and were used from Sacramento to the summit. From there on, the never lumber, sawed in mills at Verdi and elsewhere on the eastern side of the mountains, was used. All of this timber was of a quality that made special treatment unnecessary. The number of ties varied from 2,260 to 2,640 per mile, depending upon alignment and grade. The forests also provided wood for bridges and trestles, some timber being hewn but most of it being sawed. From the forests, too, came fuel, since wood-burning locomotives were used during the entire construction. In this respect, the Central Pacific had a great advantage over the Union Pacific, but the Union Pacific had a similar advantage later when coal deposits were discovered along its line in Wyoming.

Stone of good quality for culverts, bridge piers, and building foundations was found along the Central Pacific line through the mountains; and for the long stretch across Nevada and Utah, stone for replacement of temporary structures could be brought from quarries along the part of the line that had already been built.

Ballast, also, was usually obtained from pits along the line. Up the Sierra Nevada and down the Truckee River there was an ample supply. Across the deserts, where the railroad was kept away from the Humboldt River in order to avoid the sediments of the former Lake Lahontan, material from the excavations was used as ballast. It generally consisted of coarse sands and gravels washed down from the near-by mountains.


On the open plains east of the Sacramento Valley and from Reno eastward to Promontory, no clearing or grubbing was  p143 necessary. On the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, especially in the center portion, the line passed through dense forests where trees 10 to 150 feet in height were common. Brush was also abundant. In some sections the cost of cutting trees and brush and grubbing out stumps was an item of considerable expense.


For eighteen miles eastward from Sacramento to Roseville, the grading was light, inasmuch as the road was located over the flat lands of the Sacramento Valley. Beyond Roseville, then called Junction, where the line crossed the railroad leading northward from Folsom, the work became heavier; and from Newcastle, thirty-two miles from Sacramento, to a point near Truckee, a distance of nearly ninety miles, grading work was the heaviest order of construction. In order to keep within the ruling grades, deep cuts and high fills were essential over most of the distance. Bloomer Cut, west of Auburn, about 800 feet long and sixty-five feet in average depth, had to be blasted through a mass of cemented gravel. Higher in the mountains the excavation was through stained earth and shale, or sometimes sandstone; and when beyond Emigrant Gap the line passed to side-hill construction the material encountered was granite. Wide ravines were passed by trestles that were afterward filled, and in the upper region, tunnel succeeded tunnel. From Truckee eastward the work was lighter, except in the two canyons of the Truckee River. Out on the plains of Nevada and Utah the grading was all light, except for rock work in narrow canyons.

All earth work was done with pick and shovel in the hands of laborers, who loaded the material in wheelbarrows or on one-horse wooden dump carts. Animal traction was the only power used. Blasting was mainly done with black powder, which was far less expensive than the newly patented nitroglycerine that was just coming into use. Nitroglycerine was put to good use, however, in some of the tunnel blasting operations.

 p144  Labor

The Central Pacific was built largely by Chinese laborers, imported for that purpose from southern China. The Chinese had a well-developed system of contracting for labor, which was used on the railroad. As organized by Strobridge, the work was under the supervision of riding bosses, whose responsibility it was to keep the work going and to provide supplies for the workmen.

At first Strobridge was opposed to the use of Chinese laborers, but later changed his mind, since white laborers were not available. Clement thus described the situation: "California laborers were mainly miners accustomed to work in placer mines or not, as it suited them. Mining was more to their liking than the discipline of railroad work. They were indifferent, independent, and their labor high priced. Labor sufficient for the rapid construction of the Central Pacific was not then on the coast and the labor as it existed could not be depended upon — the first mining excitement meant a complete stampede of every man and a consequent abandonment of all work."

Strobridge expressed his revised opinion of the Chinese when he said: "They learn quickly, do not fight, have no strikes that amount to anything, and are very cleanly in their habits. They will gamble and do quarrel among themselves most noisily — but harmlessly."

The Chinese, who numbered about 12,000 at the most, worked in groups, each with his own cook, who also provided hot water for bathing. Their drink was tea, which, being made with hot water, avoided the danger of disease to which white men were subject from drinking all kinds of water along the line. The pay of the Chinese ranged from $30 to $35 a month, on which they boarded themselves. They were paid in coin, brought to them by the railroad paymaster, the payment being made to the Chinese labor boss of the gang, who kept the time of the men during the month. The Chinese gave very little trouble, but out in Nevada they sometimes wanted to quit. The  p145 Piute Indians spread the story that in the desert toward which they were heading there were snakes big enough to swallow a Chinese whole, which of course had its effect. However, the Chinese were kept on the work to the finish, and years later the people of California came to recognize the splendid character of the Celestials.

White labor, as stated, was difficult to obtain and was used only on important tasks. After the Civil War, white labor was more readily available with the Irish predominating. White common laborers were paid about the same as were the Chinese but were provided with subsistence and living quarters by the contracting company. The number of whites employed ranged from 1,200 to 1,300, the largest number being used in the years 1866‑1868. Expert workers, such as carpenters, track layers, and stone masons of which some 500 were used, were paid higher wages, ranging from $3 to $5 a day. All wages were paid in coin, usually gold.


In contrast to the Union Pacific, the tunnels on the Central Pacific were one of the major problems of construction. In all, there were fifteen tunnels, with a total length of 6,213 feet. The shortest was the Red Spur Tunnel, ninety-two feet long, and the longest was the Summit Tunnel, 105 miles from Sacramento, which was 1,659 feet in length. Some of the tunnels were built on curves and some were on tangents, the long tunnel at the summit being constructed on a tangent.

All of the tunnels were located over a distance of sixty miles on the upper reaches of the Sierra Nevada, but the heaviest tunnel work was in the twenty miles from Cisco eastward to the summit. Nine tunnels, having a total length of 5,158 feet, were necessary in this stretch of the road, which lies at elevations of from 6,000 feet to 7,000 feet above sea level in the region of heaviest snowfall. Here the road was built along the sides of steep mountains, with an average slope greater than forty-five degrees, sometimes on the side of bare granite cliffs that were  p146 broken by projecting ledges and boulders. Embankments were impracticable, as the excavated material from cuts slid far down the mountainside. Under such conditions it was best to locate the road inside the mountain, since tunnels made snow sheds unnecessary, heavy retaining walls were avoided, and work could be carried on in the wintertime. In one place there were seven tunnels in two miles of line.

Most of the tunnels were excavated in solid granite. The cross section of a tunnel was a rectangle at the bottom, sixteen feet wide by eleven feet high, above which the section was arched with a diameter of sixteen feet. Grade was at the center of tie, being one foot three inches above subgrade. Tunnel 11 was partly lined, and Tunnel 13 wholly lined with timber. Sills were 12 inches by 12 inches, posts were 12 by 16, and the arch was formed of three 5- by 12‑inch planks bolted together at breaking joints. The distance between the centers of the timber supports varied from one and one half feet to five feet, according to the type of earth material to be supported. Wall and ceiling clearance in mixed soil tunnels was greater than in rock tunnels, allowance having been made for future lining with masonry. However, after completion of the road, the size of rolling stock increased so rapidly that the original tunnel sections had to be enlarged.

Tunnel 6 at the summit, the longest on the road, was 1,659 feet in length, and was the greatest depth below the surface, 124 feet. It was built through granite of medium hardness, crossed by seams. The excavation of this tunnel caused such a serious delay that to expedite matters a shaft was sunk about halfway between the tunnel openings, a hoisting engine was installed, and the tunnel was simultaneously excavated from both ends and from the middle.

It was at Tunnel No. 6 that nitroglycerine was first used on the road. It had been discovered in 1846, but it was not until 1867 that Alfred Nobel patented it as being usable for blasting. It was made by treating glycerine with nitric and sulphuric  p147 acids, which produced a light yellow-colored oily liquid that was highly explosive. It was possible to use nitroglycerine in small holes, thereby reducing drilling costs and correspondingly increasing the speed of excavation. At Tunnel 6, and to some extent at Tunnel 8, nitroglycerine was used, being prepared on the spot by James Howden at a cost of about seventy-five cents a pound. It was thought to be eight times as effective as powder, and building progress was increased by 50 per cent.

Work on the tunnels was carried on throughout the winter of 1866‑1867, although Tunnels 1 and 2, both west of Cisco, were finished in 1866. Some work had been done on the approach cuts to the Summit Tunnel late in 1865, but winter set in before much was accomplished, and the work gangs were driven out. During 1866 the tunnel approaches swarmed with men working night and day in three shifts of eight hours each. Some storms occurred in November and December, but by the time winter arrived the headings were all under ground. The work was then independent of the weather, except as storms would block tunnel entrances or avalanches would sweep over the work camps. In spite of these difficulties, excavation went on inside and much was taken out through tunnels in the snow. Tunnel 6 took longest to complete on account of its length and its position at the head of Donner Pass, but it was finally holed through in November, 1867.

Much of that foregoing information regarding tunnels was obtained from an account contributed to the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1870 by John R. Gilliss, engineer in charge under L. M. Clement.

In describing the work, Gilliss dwells on the snowstorms of the high Sierra and the difficulties of carrying on work. All accounts of the winters emphasized the violence of the storms and the deep snows. Speaking of the winter of 1866‑1867 Gilliss says:

"These storms, forty-four in number, varied in length from a short snow squall to a two-week gale, and in depth from a  p148 quarter of an inch to ten feet — none less than the former number being recorded, nor had we occasion to note any greater than the latter. This, the heaviest storm of the winter began February 18th at 2 P.M. and snowed steadily until 10 P.M. of the 22nd, during which time six feet fell. . . . It snowed steadily until March 2nd, making ten feet of snow and thirteen days of storm. It is true that no snow fell for five days, but it drifted so furiously that in time the snow tunnel at the east end of Tunnel No. 6 had to be lengthened fifty feet.

"The storms were grand. They always began with a fall in the barometer and a strong wind from the southwest. . . . The thermometer was rarely below twenty degrees at the beginning of a storm, and usually rose to thirty-two degrees before its close so that the last snow would be damp and heavy, sometimes ending in a rain. Storms ended and clouds were scattered by cold winds blowing over the eastern range of the Sierra Nevada; these raised the barometer and dropped the temperature at once. The lowest temperature of the winter was from a wind of this sort, five and a half degrees above zero."

Gilliss gives a picture of the furious winds that roared through the pass, piling the snow into towering drifts. He tells also of the difficulties in breaking roads, and of the use of snowshoes by the men. Of the snow slides or snow avalanches, he gives the following graphic account:

"Snow slides or avalanches were frequent. The storm winds being always from the southwest, form drifts or snow wreaths on the northeast crests of hills. When these become too heavy, which is generally towards the close of the storms, they break off, and in falling start the loose snow below. This slides on the old crust. I never knew of a slide from the ground.

"Near the close of one storm, a log house with board roof, containing three Scotchmen, brothers, and sub-contractors with their gang, some fifteen or sixteen men in all, was crushed and buried up at day-break. The storm ended at noon. Towards evening a man coming up the road missed the house and  p149 alarmed the camp, so that by six o'clock the men were dug out. The bulk of the slide had passed over and piled itself up beyond the house, so that it was only covered fifteen feet deep. Only three were killed; the bunks were close to the log walls and kept the rest from being crushed. Most of them were conscious and strange to say, the time had passed rapidly with them, although about fourteen hours under the snow. . . . (The snow slides) were so frequent across the trail leading to Tunnel No. 9, some fifteen or twenty Chinamen were killed by a slide about this time. The year before, two road repairers had been killed and buried, too, by a slide, and their bodies were not found until spring."

Dirt and rock from the tunnels were carried out to the waste banks through tunnels dug through the snow that filled the approach cuts. The length of the snow tunnels varied from 50 to 200 feet, and some of the tunnels were big enough for a two-horse team to walk through. At Tunnel 8 a snow tunnel for the men was dug around the outside of the rock ledge through which the tunnel was being excavated. As the rock tunnel was 375 feet in length, the snow tunnel must have been at least 500 feet long. In the spring, when the wagon roads down the mountain had begun to be bare, snow had to be dug out of the cuts in order that the road could be used. One such snow bank was twenty-five feet deep.

The snowfall in the winter of 1866‑1867 and also in the following winter was extremely heavy. Over forty-four feet of snow fell and the depth of hard packed snow in Summit Valley was eighteen feet. This extraordinary snowfall comes from the storms that sweep in from the Pacific Ocean and break against the high mountains. The rain precipitation increases about one inch for each 100 feet up to 5,000 feet as a storm climbs up over the Sierra. While the average rainfall may be eighty inches, it has occasionally reached more than 100 inches. Once the storm passes over the summit of the range the snowfall rapidly decreases. At Truckee there may be from two to three feet, and at  p150 Reno, at the base of the mountains, only a few inches of snow may fall.

Snow Sheds and Galleries

As has been mentioned, when the railroad over the Sierra Nevada was projected by Theodore Judah, he believed that the railroad line could be kept open during the winter by using the ordinary snow plows of that period. Such plows only shoved the snow to each side of the tracks, where it packed. In the fall of 1866 the road had reached Cisco, where experience during the following winter proved that snow plows would not solve the problem. Most of the snow had to be removed by hand and it was therefore necessary to keep a small army of men shovelling all the time. It was obvious that some other method had to be found to keep the road open.

Much discussion followed before it was finally decided that snow sheds and galleries were the only solution. To build fifty-odd miles of these structures was unprecedented in railroad work and the cost would be heavy, but there was no alternative. The work was entrusted to Arthur Brown, Engineer of Bridges and Buildings.

In the summer of 1867 some experimental sheds were erected from a design that was later modified. In 1868 the building of the sheds was begun, all the cuts were covered with sheds, and at the points where there was danger of avalanches, snow galleries were built. As the great rush across the deserts of Nevada and Utah was then under way, it was vitally necessary to keep the railroad open for through traffic in order that supplies would reach the builders at the end of the track without interruption. Men were gathered from every source and were paid high wages for the work. About 2,500 men were employed and six trains were used to bring material. It was not until the fall of 1869, months after the rails had been joined at Promontory, that work on the snow sheds was finished.

The sheds were built with two sides and a steep peaked roof. Owing to the lack of sawed timber, hewn timber and round  p151 logs were often used. The galleries differed from the sheds in that they had but one side and a roof that sloped upward until it met the mountain side. This design permitted avalanches to slide over the gallery, some of which extended up the mountainside as much as two hundred feet. In some places, masonry walls were built across canyons where avalanches occurred, to prevent an avalanche from striking the side of the vulnerable wooden construction.

The total completed length of the sheds and galleries was about thirty-seven miles, the building of which consumed 65,000,000 feet board measure of lumber and 900 tons of bolts, spikes, no other iron. The cost was over $2,000,000, but the sheds and galleries did accomplish the purpose of protecting the line from snow blockades. Maintenance experience since 1869 has brought about changes in the design of snow sheds, but the railroad still depends upon such works to keep the line open for traffic throughout the entire year.

Bridges, Trestles, and Culverts

With the exception of the great bridge over the American River at Sacramento, spans were of moderate size on the Central Pacific. However, over the Sierra Nevada the location of the line was such that long, high trestles were often necessary. They were employed as an economy measure on the first construction, but it was also true that they speeded up the progress of the road. For a number of years after the opening of the road to traffic, the work of filling the canyons crossed by trestles was carried on, the time for the fill-ins being determined by condition of the individual wooden trestle. Where fills were made across small water courses, cut stone culverts were generally used, the stone being set in Portland cement.

The bridge over the American River was a work of considerable magnitude. As built, there were two spans of 192 feet each, the two spans covering a length of 400 feet. In addition, there was a trestle approach on the south or Sacramento side  p152 of 2,196 feet, and one on the north side of 2,890 feet over the bottom lands of the river. The total length of trestle was thus 5,086 feet, making the total length of the bridge 5,486 feet, or over a mile. Trusses of the bridge were simple Howe trusses, where all members, including the lower chord, were of timber, with only the vertical members being of iron. The original bridge was founded on pile piers that were later replaced by stone masonry piers. The stone piers rested on piles that had been driven into the bed of the river, cut off below low water, and covered with a timber grillage. The first bridge burned a few years after it was built.

Most of the bridges on the line were also erected with a truss span having trestle approaches at one or both ends. At Long Ravine there were three Howe trusses with a combined length of 428 feet, and at one end 450 feet of trestle of a maximum height of seventy feet, the total length of bridge being 878 feet. Others of this type, with truss spans exceeding 100 feet, were the bridges at Lower and Upper Cascade Creek, each with spans of 204 feet; at Cold Creek, 126 feet; at Little Truckee and at Prosser Creek, each with spans of 105 feet; the first, third, fourth, and fifth crossing of the Truckee River, with spans of 150 feet; the first crossing of Humboldt River of 129 feet and the second crossing of the same stream of 150 feet. All of these truss spans were of the Burr type, which was the same as the Howe truss, with a wooden arch in addition, built alongside the trusses from end to end and abutting upon the piers or abutments. The Burr type was popular with bridge engineers at that time, but went out of use a long time ago. All of these bridges rested upon stone masonry piers, usually on rock sides of the river or canyon.

In addition, there were numerous trestles made with bents spaced about sixteen feet apart, with wooden stringers spanning the space between on which the ties of the track rested. The bents were made of four posts, one on the bottom, two inclined, and one as a cap at the top. Longitudinal girts connected the  p153 several bents, which were sometimes in two or more stages. The bents rested upon stone masonry foundations. In some cases, where the track was high above a gully, the trestles were made up of short spans of trusses, about forty feet in length. An example of this combination was the Secret Town trestle, where there were 280 lineal feet of forty-foot spans and 820 lineal feet of trestle, a total of about 1,000 feet of timber structures with a maximum height of ninety feet.

There were originally a number of long, standard-type trestles crossing low places or ravines. Among these, on the ascent of the Sierra Nevada were: Newcastle, 528 feet long; Auburn, 416 feet; Station 450, 568 feet; Station 470 near Lovells Gap, 496 feet; Clipper Gap, 446 feet; Clipper Ravine, 450 feet; and Butte Canyon, 48 feet. The height of the trestles ranged up to seventy feet.

At the time the road was nearing completion, culverts had been built on 375 miles of line. They were usually of stone, but some were of brick, and all were laid in hydraulic cement. The bottoms were paved, and some of large size were made to be used as cattle crossings. On the line across the desert, where stone could not be easily obtained, short trestles were built in place of culverts, although as a rule the water courses were small. Culverts were afterward built at these places.

A telegraph line and other adjuncts of a railroad were built along the main track. The track sidings and turnouts aggregated about 7½ per cent of the length of the main line. The necessary rolling stock was determined at first by the needs of construction. Near the close of the work there were on hand 162 locomotives, of which two had two drivers, 110 had four drivers, and fifty had six drivers, the number of drivers depending on the capacity of the locomotive. One locomotive had been constructed in San Francisco, the others had been purchased from various companies in the eastern states. At that time thirty-six additional locomotives were being shipped west and twenty-eight more were under construction. There were some passenger  p154 cars, but when the road opened there were not enough. The first sleeping car, the "Silver Palace Sleeping Car," arrived at Sacramento June 8, 1868. There were 1,694 freight cars of various types, with additional cars being manufactured at the company's shops at Sacramento at the rate of eight a day. Snow plows were provided for all the locomotives. Turntables had been built at section points, with principal shops being located at Sacramento, where all necessary machinery had been installed for repair and construction of both cars and locomotives. Passenger and freight stations had been built at depots, while at Sacramento a wharf and quay with a frontage of 1,150 feet were erected. Watering stations as far east as Wadsworth were easily found, but across the desert water had to be obtained from wells or from springs from which it was piped to the railroad. The wells at Humboldt Wells and in Thousand Springs Valley furnished much of the supply. One reason for locating the road north of Great Salt Lake was the fact that water was available on that route, whereas it was lacking on the salt deserts south of the lake.

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A Central Pacific freight train ready to depart from Truckee's barn-like depot while three wood burners with steam up await duty on a siding.

Construction and Progress

The Central Pacific Railroad of California was incorporated June 28, 1861, and a year and six months later, on January 8, 1863, ground was broken at Sacramento, marking the commencement of the actual work of building the railroad. As a local newspaper described the event, there were gathered on the water-soaked levee on Front Street near K, "Dignitaries of the state, representatives of every portion of the commonwealth and a great gathering of citizens to see Leland Stanford, newly elected governor of the Central Pacific Railroad of California, break ground for the commencement of the iron belt that was to make the United States for the first time a united country and open to California an era of great development."

Women looked on from near-by balconies, a brass band played, a preacher called for divine blessing on the work, and Stanford said that the work would go on with "no delay, no  p155 halting, no uncertainty in its continued progress." He cast a few shovelfuls of earth from a cart and told his hearers that they could look forward with confidence to the completion of the road. He used more flowery terms that seemed appropriate for the occasion, and then followed a spate of oratory by a group of politicians whose names have since passed into oblivion. Charles Crocker, who was master of ceremonies, then said, in a more practical vein:

"This is no idle ceremony. The pile driver is now, while I am talking, driving piles for the foundation of the bridge across the American River. Tomorrow morning one of the subcontractors who owns these teams and has brought this earth here to deposit on the commencement of this road, will proceed across the river and commence the labor of grading. It is going on right now, gentlemen, I assure you! All that I have — all of my own strength, intellect, and energy — are devoted to the building of this section which I have undertaken. Amen." A mural painting in the Southern Pacific depot at Sacramento idealizes the scene, which was more significant than many of those present could appreciate. It is probable that Judah was there, but there is no record of a speech being made by the man who had originated the project and to whom much credit was then due.

Grading and bridge building went forward slowly and it was not until October 8, 1863, that the ship, Herald of the Morning, arrived at San Francisco with rail. The first rail was laid on October 26, and the next month, on November 10, the first locomotive, the "Governor Stanford," moved over the rails. Grading across the level plain was easy, and by February 29, 1864, when the road had been finished to Roseville, eighteen miles distant, train service started. It had taken fourteen months from the time when ground was first broken to build those eighteen miles. Judah had been in his grave four months.

The fundamental trouble with the constructive progress, or rather lack of progress, was due to a lack of money. The Law of 1862 had not produced any securities that would sell, other  p156 than government bonds, and forty miles of road had to be built before those bonds became available. However, the builders went on slowly with the construction, and Newcastle, thirty-one miles from Sacramento, was reached on January 31, 1865. Two years had been consumed in building thirty-one miles of railroad under favorable physical conditions. But by that time the Law of 1864 had been passed, and the Civil War was soon to close, and from that date on until the line was completed to Promontory, four years later, progress was rapid.

The contract for constructing the first eighteen miles had been let to Charles Crocker, who had resigned from the firm's board of directors, and Crocker had sublet the work of grading to several other contractors. On the section as far as Newcastle, Crocker was given only two miles to construct, the remaining road being awarded to other minor contractors. This method was unsatisfactory from a number of standpoints. The contractors bid against each other for the scanty supply of labor; some work was finished and other parts left unfinished, as the small contractors failed to complete their work on time. For these and other reasons, a general contract was given to Charles Crocker to build to the California-Nevada line, and from that point on the work was in the hands of the Contract and Finance Company, which was the Big Four under a different name.

In building the railroad to Dutch Flat, the construction forces relied on local wagon roads that had been built by the mining interests, but beyond Dutch Flat there was no road of any importance. As a wagon road is a vital adjunct to the construction of a railroad through a new country, especially so across a high range of mountains such as the Sierra Nevada, the directors of the Central Pacific organized the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road. This was the basic reason for the road, but there were other reasons that were also important. At that time the mines of the Comstock Lode at Virginia City and Gold Hill were under intensive development and thousands of people had gathered in that region. All supplies had to be obtained in California,  p157 and therefore a highly developed system of animal-drawn freighting had been organized. It was a profitable business while it lasted. The route led from Folsom, at the terminus of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, and over the mountains by way of Placerville and the South Fork of the American River, across two summits to the Carson Valley, thence to Virginia City.

The ninety-mile Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Road, which was started in 1862, was built at a cost of $100,000, being completed in June, 1864. There was some profit from it but it was in full use for only about three years. When the railroad reached Reno in June, 1868, the highway was completely abandoned, but it had already served its principal purpose as a construction road.

The road was located over the Donner Summit, where the railroad was to be built, because no road crossed that rocky gap. There was some semblance of a road that led up Cold Creek and across Emigrant Pass to Summit Valley, but this pass was some 700 feet higher than Donner Pass, although easier for wagons to cross. Today, tourists traveling through the pass by automobile can see portions of the old construction road where it leads eastward from the summit.

The road could not be kept open for wagons during the winter, so animal-drawn sleighs were used for the transportation of men and animals for the construction forces. It was over this road that the rolling stock and materials were moved in the winter of 1866‑1867. Three locomotives, forty cars, and material for forty miles of track, together with camp supplies, were hauled from Cisco across the summit and down to Donner Lake, a distance of over twenty miles. The locomotives were carried on sledges made from logs that had been split down the middle and rounded at the ends. This work was often done during raging blizzards and it was sometimes even necessary to transfer construction forces from the snowbound western side of the Sierra to the eastern slope, where the snowfall was less and work could go on. In this manner about fifty miles of road were completed  p158 down the eastern side of the mountains before the summit tunnel had been opened and the final track laid across the summit.

Track laying was organized under Strobridge as a part of the general construction contract, and not, as on the Union Pacific, as a separate contract. A camp train moved ahead with the track at the speed at which the track was being laid. Trains of track material came from Sacramento, with ties being obtained from mills along the Truckee River. Rails, fastenings, and ties were first dumped on the ground and were then loaded in horse-drawn cars that carried supplies forward to the end of track. The correct number of ties were then placed in position to hold the rail and the rail gang carried forward two rails to place them on the ties, where a spiking and bolting crew fastened them into place. The small car was then moved ahead and the operation was repeated. When the car was empty, it was tipped off the track so that another car could be pulled past it. The empty car was then returned to the track and sent back for another load.

It was on the track of the Central Pacific, near Promontory, that the laying of ten miles of track in one day of twelve hours was achieved on April 28, 1869. This accomplishment stands as a record even today. The Union Pacific under the able management of the Casement brothers, had stepped up track laying from one mile a day to an average of about three miles, and one occasion, when everything was favorable, had laid eight and one half miles. The uncorroborated story runs that Durant bet Crocker $10,000 that the Central Pacific force would not exceed that record. In any case, Crocker was determined to beat the record of the other road. It was close to the end of the great race of the two roads across the country; therefore Crocker waited until the distance between the track was so short that there was no chance for the rival road to beat the record he hoped to make. An accident on April 27 delayed the start, but on the next day the contest was held, with a newspaper correspondent timing  p159 the movement of the track layers. The first rail was laid and others followed at the rate of about 240 feet of rail in one minute and twenty seconds. As the reporter said: "It may seem incredible, but nevertheless it is a fact that the whole ten miles of rail were handled and laid down this day by eight white men. These men were Michael Shay, Michael Kennedy, Michael Sullivan, Patrick Joyce, Thomas Dailey, George Wyatt, Edward Kioleen, and Fred McNamara. These eight Irishmen in one day handled more than 3,500 rails — 1,000 tons of iron."

The rails were fifty-six pounds to the yard and weighed 560 pounds each. On curves, the rail was bent in the usual manner. In all, there were brought up and placed 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes, 7,040 poles, and 14,080 bolts, a total of 4,362,000 pounds. The distance was ten miles and 200 feet, and representatives of the Union Pacific were present to measure the distance. The track was ballasted with the ties tamped, so that a train was run over the line that night. It was a notable achievement. That ten-mile stretch of track was later marked by signs recording the feat.

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Picture taken in 1927 showing sign marking east end of the ten-mile section of track laid in one day by Superintendent Strobridge's laborers.

The telegraph line was built at the same time the track was laid. Poles were brought out on the material trains and distributed by wagons. The cross-arms were fastened to them, a gang of laborers under a foreman dug the holes, and a third gang erected them. The wire was then brought forward on a wagon and unwound from a reel as the wagon went ahead. A wire gang raised the wire and fastened it to the insulators. Great rivalry existed between the telegraph gangs and the track gangs, the former being sometimes delayed by lack of poles. However, at the end of a day the wires were connected to a temporary telegraph set and communication established with the supply points at the rear.

It is customary to indicate the progress of construction of a railroad by the position of the rail head, or end of track. That is the measure of the advance of the operated track but not of the progress of the entire project, as much difficult work may be  p160 in progress beyond the end of track that must be completed before track laying is resumed. The tunnels at the summit of the Sierra Nevada held the end of track at Cisco for over a year, but still work went on beyond Truckee. The following record of track should be of interest.

The first rail was laid at Sacramento October 26, 1863; and Roseville, eighteen miles away, was reached February 29, 1864. Newcastle, thirty-one miles from Sacramento, was reached June 6, 1864, and then there was a long delay. The line was in operation to Clipper Gap, forty-three miles, June 10, 1865, and to Colfax, fifty-five miles from Sacramento, September 10 of that year. Grading had begun beyond Colfax on August 1, 1865, when work was started on the Summit Tunnel. In July of 1866 trains were running to Dutch Flat, and by November 9 to Cisco, ninety-four miles from Sacramento. At this point the track was held up, although about fifty miles of track were laid east of the mountains. In August, 1867, the Summit Tunnel was completed, together with the other tunnels, leaving only a seven-mile gap in the track at the end of that year, between Coldstream and Tunnel 12. The completed track reached Truckee April 3, 1868; Reno, 154 miles, June 19; and Wadsworth, 189 miles from Sacramento, July 22. The road across the desert from Wadsworth to Promontory, a distance of 501 miles, was built between July, 1868, and the early part of May, 1869. Actually, 523 miles of line were built in ten months, July 1, 1868, to May 1, 1869, and about fifty miles of grading had been done beyond Promontory. Afterward the Central Pacific purchased forty-seven and one half miles and leased five miles of line from the Union Pacific so that a connection could be made at Ogden. In this manner the Central Pacific comprised 742 miles of line from Sacramento to Ogden, and the Union Pacific 1,032 miles of line from Omaha to the same place, a total length from Sacramento to Omaha of 1,774 miles.

Accounts differ as to the number of men that worked on the Central Pacific. On the western side of the Sierra Nevada there  p161 were about 11,000 men employed at the time of maximum effort. It has been stated that, in the race with the Union Pacific, from western Nevada to Promontory, the Central Pacific employed from 5,000 to 6,000 men. Thirty vessels were at sea at one time carrying supplies, and numerous mills were at work along the Truckee River turning out ties, bridge timbers, and fuel.

The men on the western side of the mountains were moved eastward as the construction work progressed. The experience of one engineer, J. M. Graham, was typical of this progress. Employed first at the Summit, Graham moved progressively to the Truckee River, to the Truckee Meadows, to Wadsworth, to Humboldt Station, to Emigrant Canyon, to Palisade, and finally to the Toana Mountains.

In a report to Leland Stanford, Strobridge describes the construction work under his charge:

I was superintendent of construction during the building of the road. The work was pushed with the utmost vigor; all the men were hired that could be found and no effort or expense was spared to complete the road as quickly as possible. In this way it was finished and in operation from Sacramento, Cal., to Ogden, Utah, about seven years sooner than was required by the act of Congress. During construction very high prices were paid for powder and all tools and supplies used on the work, and nothing was spared that would hasten its completion and the work was pushed regardless of the season. The winter of 1865 and 1866 was a very wet one, making the roads on the clay soils of the foothills nearly impassable for vehicles. Large numbers of pack animals had to be brought into use and on them were carried nearly all supplies and even hay and grain over steep mountain trails to the construction camps. . . . During the winter of 1866 and 1867 and the following winter of 1867 and 1868 there were unusual snowfalls in the upper Sierra Nevadas where the road was then under construction. The tunnels were got under way with as large a force as could be used on them and the remainder of the force was sent to the Truckee canyon on the east slope of the Sierras where the snowfall was not so great as to  p162 prevent entirely grading during the winter, the total force being about 13,500 men at that time. . . . In the spring of each year the men were taken back from the Truckee into the mountains and an average depth of ten to twelve feet of snow was cleared away before grading could be commenced.

In crossing the deserts eastward from the Truckee River, water for men and animals was hauled at one time forty miles. It was necessary to have the heavy work in Palisade Canyon done in advance of the main force, and 3,000 men with 400 horses and carts were sent to that point, a distance of 300 miles in advance of the track. Hay, grain, and all supplies for the men and horses had to be hauled over the desert for that great distance, there being no supplies to be obtained on the entire route. The winter of 1868 and 1869 was one of severe cold. The construction was in progress in the upper Humboldt Valley, where the ground was frozen to a depth of two to three feet, and material required blasting and treatment like rock which could have been cheaply moved in a more favorable time.

The road from Wadsworth to Ogden, about 555 miles, was built between July, 1868, and May, 1869, about ten months, with a force averaging 5,000 men.

As the road advanced across the desert, the same procedure of sending men and supplies to advance points was followed. The final advance outfit was sent from Wadsworth to Promontory, as construction east of that point was done by the Mormons.

On the Central Pacific there was little or no trouble from liquor, gambling, and prostitution such as troubled the builders of the Union Pacific. The common laborers were Chinese, who kept to themselves. The white men were above the grade of laborers, but credit for the absence of saloons was due to Strobridge. He hated liquor, and whenever someone set up a tent to sel it, the superintendent sent men to destroy the tent and if objections were offered to destroy the liquor. His actions may not have been quite legal, but the railroad builders were the only law in that uninhabited region, and drastic action was deemed necessary.

 p163  There is no record of any particular Indian trouble on the Central Pacific, in contrast to the major difficulties with Indians experienced by the Union Pacific. In western Nevada the Piutes were the only tribe of any consequence, and they had been subdued in what was known at Virginia City as the "Indian War." In previous years Indians had murdered a number of emigrants and had robbed the pioneers' wagon trains, but much of the trouble should have been laid to the deeds of renegade white men, bad whiskey, and outrages committed by the whites against the Indians. In 1860, several white men were murdered by Indians at William's Station in revenge for assaults on Indian women. When a party of men under Major Ormsby was sent out after the redskins, the party was trapped on the Truckee River near Pyramid Lake, and a number, including Major Ormsby, were killed. A larger expedition soon afterwards defeated the Indians and drove them into the northern deserts.

In eastern Nevada and in Utah there were constant conflicts between the Indians and the operators of the stages, with finally led to the establishment of a number of military posts through central Nevada. To protect the construction forces on the Central Pacific, the federal government in 1867 established Fort Halleck near the north end of the Ruby Mountains, not far from the Humboldt River. The presence of troops at Fort Halleck and the operations of General Patrick E. Conner in cleaning out the Indians had its effect, and while brushes with the Indians occurred from time to time, this did not delay the building of the Central Pacific.

The Meeting of the Rails

By the Law of 1862, the Central Pacific was authorized to build eastward as far as the Missouri River, provided the eastern roads had not built westward. The Law of 1864, inspired by the Union Pacific, limited the Central Pacific to building to a point 150 miles east of the California-Nevada line, the Union Pacific to meet with it at that point. Huntington was not especially  p164 worried by that provision, preferring to allow the matter to come up later. The subject was brought to a head in 1866, and by the Act of Congress of July 3 of that year the "Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, with the consent and approval of the Secretary of the Interior, are hereby utilized to locate, construct and continue their road eastward, in a continuous completed line until they meet and connect with the Union Pacific Railroad."

Each company was prohibited from working more than 300 miles in advance of their completed lines.

At least times it was the intent of the laws that the two railroads should join when and where they met. The men of each road, however, interpreted this statement to suit themselves. The Union Pacific graded a complete line to promontory and a partial line to Monument Point, and did a small amount of work as far west as Humboldt Wells, about 168 miles west of Promontory. The Central Pacific made its surveys and filed its maps beyond Ogden as far east as the eastern end of Echo Canyon, and had graded to Ogden. Thus the grading of the roads, more or less complete, paralleled each other for about 200 miles. The struggle was for the trade of the Salt Lake region and for the subsidy bond and also to secure the greatest freight length of haul over the total distance. Over a million dollars were wasted in the struggle between the two roads. A compromise was finally offered to the Union Pacific by Huntington, by which the Union Pacific would build its road to Promontory and the Central Pacific would then purchase enough of the line to enable it to reach Salt Lake Valley. As an alternative, he would continue with his plans of extending the Central Pacific to Ogden. He seemed to hold the trump cards when he applied for and received over a million dollars in government bonds for the line east of Ogden. The struggle had reached a point where the grading crews of the two railroads were setting off blasts that killed men on the rival line, when Huntington's compromise was accepted by the Union Pacific. The Union Pacific agreed  p165 to join rails at Promontory and to sell forty-seven and one half miles of line extending to within five miles of Ogden for $4,000,224.96. When this agreement was reached, Congress refused it on April 10, stating that "common terminus of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads shall be at or near Ogden; and the Union Pacific Railroad Company shall build, and the Central Pacific Railroad Company shall pay for and own, the railroad from the terminus aforesaid to Promontory Point, at which point the rails shall meet and connect and form one continuous line."

Later the price to be paid was reduced and the Central Pacific leased the remaining five miles into Ogden for 999 years. Thus, after much pointless struggle and waste of money, the meeting point was settled and the proper junction, Ogden, was determined.

The early building years of the two railroads did not interest the general public especially, but after the Civil War ended and as progress on the work was accelerated, the attention of the American people became focused on the great project. Prominent men journeyed into the West to see the work, and editors all over the country described it. In the year 1868, the race across the Utah and Nevada deserts by the Central Pacific and across the Wyoming Basin and over the mountains to the Salt Lake Valley by the Union Pacific was in full swing. Every day the newspapers of the country carried bulletins of miles laid and vivid descriptions of progress made. It soon became apparent that the meeting of the rails would take place some time in the first part of 1869, almost seven years sooner than the date set by Congress for completion.

In April came the last rush, and on 28th of that month Crocker and his men laid the ten miles that set the track-laying record. The gap between the tracks grew smaller and smaller until finally early in May it was seen that it would close on or before May 8. The Union Pacific permitted the last of its rowdy construction towns to be established at Promontory, complete  p166 with saloons, gambling dens, and houses of prostitution. The celebration of the meeting of the rails and the driving of the last spike was set for May 8, but the Union Pacific train bearing the official delegation was late, and so the ceremonies had to be held on May 10.

The story of the event has been told by various writers, but the eyewitness account given by Sidney Dillon, then a director and later president of the Union Pacific, covers the essential points. He said:

The point of junction was the level circular valley about three miles in diameter surrounded by mountains. During all the morning hours the hurry and bustle of preparation went on. Two lengths of rail lay on the ground near the opening in the roadbed. At a little before eleven the Chinese laborers began levelling up the roadbed preparatory to placing the last ties in position. About a quarter after eleven, the train from San Francisco [he should have said from Sacramento] with Governor Stanford and his party arrived and was greeted with cheers. In the enthusiasm of the occasion there were cheers for everybody, from the president of the Union Pacific to the day laborers on the road. The two engines moved nearer each other and the crowd gathered around the open spaces. Then all fell back a little so that the view should be unobstructed.

Brief remarks were made by Governor Stanford on one side and by General Dodge on the other. It was now about twelve o'clock noon, local time, or about two P.M. in New York. The two superintendents of construction, J. H. Strobridge of the Central Pacific and S. B. Reed of the Union Pacific, placed the last tie on the rails. It was of California laurel, highly polished, with a silver plate in the center bearing the following inscription: The last tie on the completion of the Pacific Railroad, May 10, 1869, with the names of the officers and directors of both companies.

Everything was then in readiness, the word was given and "Hats Off" went clicking over the wire to the waiting crowds at New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and all principal cities. Prayer was offered by Mr. Todd, at the conclusion of which our operator tapped out: "We have  p167 got done praying. The spike is about to be presented," to which the response came back: "We understand. All ready in the East." The gentlemen who had been commissioned to present the four spikes, two of gold and of silver, from Montana, Idaho, California, and Nevada, stepped forward and with brief appropriate remarks, discharged the duty assigned to them.

Governor Stanford, standing on the north, and Dr. Durant on the south side of the track, received the spikes and put them in place.

The operator tapped out, "All ready now. The spike will soon be driven. The signal will be three dots for the commencement of the blows."

An instant later the silver hammers came down and, at each stroke, in all the offices from San Francisco to New York, the hammer struck the bell.

The signal "Done" was received at Washington at 2:47 P.M., which was about a quarter to one at Promontory. There was not much formality in the demonstration that followed, but the enthusiasm was genuine and unmistakable. The two engines moved up until they touched each other and a bottle of champagne was poured on the last rail, after the manner of christening a ship at a launching.

There were several photographs taken,a in one of which General Dodge and Montague, the engineers of the two roads, are shown shaking hands. It was fitting that Strobridge, superintendent of construction on the Central Pacific, and Reed, of the Union Pacific, should be there and take a prominent part in the ceremony. For some reason never explained, Crocker was not there to meet Durant of the Union Pacific, though they represented the driving forces that had pushed the construction over the plains, mountains, and deserts for nearly 1,800 miles. The memory of General Dodge must have gone back over the years to that day in 1853, sixteen years before, when he had crossed the Missouri River with his survey party on the first investigation of the Pacific Railroad. The other great engineer, Theodore Judah, had been dead for six years, but undoubtedly he was not forgotten by those at the ceremonies.

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May 10, 1869. The historic scene at Promontory, Utah, on the day that the rails of the Central Pacific joined those of the Union Pacific to complete America's first transcontinental railroad.

 p168  There were celebrations in many cities of the country. The telegraph company had arranged for bells to be rung in Washington, New Orleans, New York, Boston, and Omaha by the strokes of the hammer that drove the last spike. A gun was fired at Fort Point in San Francisco. In Chicago there was a parade. In New York a salute of 100 guns was fired, and the bells of Trinity Church were rung. There were celebrations at Omaha and Sacramento, and ministers throughout the nation preached sermons about the work. The importance of the great achievement was everywhere appreciated with the closing of the line at Promontory, being justly regarded as the greatest engineering and construction feat of the nineteenth century.

When the ceremonies were concluded a luncheon was held in Stanford's car, and then the trains separated. There was still work to be done, but in the weeks that followed the working forces gradually melted away. Many of the men went into the operating forces of the two railroads, but most of the engineers moved to other railroads and were active in later construction. Many railroads were to be built across the continent, but never again would there be a first one. That had been completed. It was not long before the shacks that formed the town of Promontory Point disappeared and nature reclaimed the lonely valley. Since that time some attempts at farming have been made there, but today the desert mountains with their sparse growth of stunted trees look down in silence upon the historic spot where the great enterprise was culminated. A concrete monument erected there bears this inscription:

last spike
completing first
driven at this spot
May 10th 1869

 p169  The line over the Promontory Mountains was operated for more than thirty-three years, but was largely discarded when the Lucin Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake was opened for service in 1903. Later, most of the western end of the line was abandoned, and in 1942, during the World War II, the entire line of rails from Corinne to Lucin was scrapped.

The railroads were not completed when the tracks were joined. There was still much work to be done, even to comply with the requirements of the government. To settle the legal requirements of the laws, an examination was made by a special commission of five men that was appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, J. D. Cox. The Central Pacific was examined in September, 1869, and the commission's report included a list of twenty-seven items to be completed at an estimated cost of $576,650. The inspection of the Union Pacific was made in the same month, and the cost of the sixty-four items listed was estimated at $1,586,100. The commission concludes in its report, which is dated October 30, 1869, with the following statement:

"This great line, the value of which to the country is inestimable, and in which every citizen should feel a pride, has been built in about half the time allowed by Congress, and is now a good and reliable means of communication between Omaha and Sacramento, well equipped and fully prepared to carry passengers and freight with safety and dispatch, comparing in this respect favorably with a majority of first-class roads in the United States."

The actual date of the completion of the two roads was long the subject of controversy between the railroads and the government. The report of the commission was not conclusive, as it noted in the case of each road that additional work was necessary. In November, the Secretary of the Interior released to the companies the remaining bonds that were due them, but required that collateral securities be deposited with them. However, the Secretary refused for five years to issue patents for the lands. On request of the Union Pacific another commission,  p170 this one of three men, was appointed, and after an examination rendered a report that the roads had been completed as required by law, by the report of the former commission, and by the instructions of the Department of the Interior on October 1, 1874, However, when the Secretary of the Treasury, acting under the Law of 1874, demanded payment of 5 per cent of the net earnings, he gave the date of completion for the Central Pacific as the 16th of July, 1869, and of the Union Pacific as the 6th of November, 1869. A suit was then brought by the government against the Union Pacific, in which the court held that the above completion dates would hold as far as payment of the 5 per cent was concerned, inasmuch as these were the dates when the last bonds were delivered by the government to the railroad companies.

Thayer's Note:

a Some are more posed than others, or show better detail or a wider scene, or conversely, are close-ups. Different from each other and from the one above: R. W. Howard, The Great Iron Trail, p338 of my transcription; Robert Lardin Fulton, Epic of the Overland, frontispiece. At least one painting was made from them, reproduced in John Moody, The Railroad Builders, frontispiece.

Page updated: 16 Oct 13