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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 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p3  Chapter 1
The Pacific Railroad

The traveler speeding west from Omaha on the Overland Route may give but little thought to the smooth roadbed and comfortable train on which he is journeying. He is on one of the world's great travel routes, that of the first transcontinental railroad, which was built in the sixties,º linking Omaha on the Missouri with Sacramento in California. The construction of this 1,800‑mile railroad across grassy plains and sagebrush deserts and through the passes of the Rockies and the high Sierra was, without doubt, the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century.

As he glances through the window of his air-conditioned car, he may observe what appears to be an abandoned road, overgrown with brush. Leaving the track and passing around a rock spur or river bend it returns to the roadbed on which he is riding. Occasionally it parallels the tracks on a higher level; at times it disappears. What the traveler sees is not an abandoned dirt road, but the original roadbed of the railroad on which he is riding.

 p4  The nineteenth century witnessed the development of two modes of transportation, one by water and the other by land, which changed entirely the course of human affairs. The steamboat came first, but the railroad worked the greatest change. More progress was made in transportation in fifty years than had been made during the thousands of years that had passed since the human race rose from savagery. George Washington had no better means of travel than had Julius Caesar, or the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. All this was changed by the invention of the steam-driven locomotive and by the development of the railroad.

The culminating effort in the building of the railroads in the United States was the construction of the Pacific Railroad — the Union Pacific from Omaha to Ogden, Utah, and the Central Pacific from Sacramento to Ogden. Slightly less than a third of a century had passed since the day when the first feeble attempts were made to construct a railroad on the eastern seaboard for commercial use until ground was broken at Sacramento for the Central Pacific. In that short space of time the eastern United States had been threaded with railroad lines that reached out as far west as the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The great project, however, was to build a line across the plains, the mountains, and the deserts of America to California on the Pacific Ocean. The distances were great, the country unsettled, the prairies filled with warlike Indians, and the mountain ranges the highest in the United States.

The work was done by men of courage, ceaseless determination, skill and ability. Along with the rest of their generation, the railroad builders who overcame the forces of nature and the man-made difficulties have long since passed from the scene. The story of the railroad is rapidly fading into the past and the interests of the American people have turned toward new projects and later events.

When construction of the Central Pacific was started at Sacramento early in 1863 and the building of Union Pacific began at  p5 Omaha in the latter part of the same year, an organization was brought into being that has lasted until the present day and is still capably performing its intended service. The big job was to build the railroad, but of equal importance was the creation of an organization to operate the line after it was built. Since the linking of the roads on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific, through its successor, the Southern Pacific, has built and added other lines to the original track to Ogden, until it now operates more than 15,000 miles of roadbed and employs 90,000 persons. The Union Pacific now operates 9,751 miles of main line track and employs 50,000 people. The total among other things two organizations represents 24,751 miles of railroad and 140,000 employees. Trains of these two great railroad systems pass and repass over a large portion of western America.

Where once roamed wild animals and wilder Indians there has developed a rich empire providing homes and livelihood for millions of people. All this has come into existence since two groups of men in 1863, one on the east bank of the Sacramento and the other on the west bank of the Missouri, performed simple ceremonies and started the work on the railroad that was to open for settlement the vast expands of the American West.

When the railroad was started, the nation was engulfed in a Civil War that was to last well into 1865. The national government considered it necessary to build the road as a link connecting the East with the Pacific Coast in order to retain the western section of the country within the Union. There is no doubt that even the beginning of construction was an important factor in accomplishing this purpose of Lincoln and his advisors. Land and rights of way were given to the projectors of the railroad, and the national credit was loaned in order to assist in the financing of the project. Much controversy arose out of the financial assistance given by the government, and from these debates a measure of criticism was levelled at the master builders of the railroad.

It cannot be maintained that the strong and able men  p6 who built the Pacific Railroad were models of the abstract virtues. Such men often have the spirit of enterprise that moves them to override opposition. An impatience with restraint and opposition soon gives rise to the spirit of dominance. Obstacles are brushed aside or over­powered ruthlessly in order to achieve their objectives.

The builders of the railroad were men of restless energy, driven by ambition to attempt and accomplish great things. Engineers like Theodore Judah and Grenville Dodge, businessmen like the Associates of the Central Pacific — Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker — or those who comprised the scheming, quarreling group that drove the Union Pacific through to completion are never satisfy to live in quiet security. Without question, the desire for gain actuated these men, for money is power, but beyond the desire for gain lay the driving desire to initiate, build, and control great enterprises.

That explains why Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, and Crocker, in response to Judah's urgings, were willing to leave their profitable businesses and embark upon the uncertain project of building a railroad across the continent. It explains why Oakes Ames and his brother Oliver, wealthy and leaders in a thriving industry, were willing to come to the rescue of the projectors of the Union Pacific and by utilizing their wealth and example provide the means by which the project was put through. Here indeed was epitomized the restless spirit that in all ages has driven men forward to discover the secrets of the world.

It is regrettable that this great constructive work had to be accompanied by so much distrust, politics, and internal dissention. However, all of the men connected with the work are now dead and their deeds are one with the past. The location and construction of the railroad was a great work, and as such deserves a place in history with other works of its kind.

In the city of Rome there is a stone bridge over an arm of the river Tiber, from the city to the Island of St. Bartholomew.  p7 For two thousand years the bridge of the Commissioner Fabricius has carried the traffic across the yellow river and it still stands as a monument to the practical skill of the Romans. In our own country the railroad which has carried a much greater volume of traffic across mountains and deserts of Western America for more than three-quarters of a century bids fair to last as long as rail transportation continues. This account of the building of the Pacific Railroad seems of sufficient import to warrant a detailed description of what was, in spite of some human failings, one of the greatest engineering and construction feats of all time.

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