Officials and workers of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railways held a ceremony on Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory—approximately thirty-five miles away from Promontory Point, the site where the rails were joined—to drive in the Golden Spike on May 10, 1869. The spike symbolized completion of the first transcontinental railroad, an event that connected the nation from coast to coast and reduced a journey of four months or more to just one week.
The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, generated the first maps and reports to describe the topography of the trails and passages that led from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Congress recognized the importance of such topographical studies to westward expansion and organized a Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838. In the 1850s the Senate ordered that ten thousand copies be printed of topographical reports and surveys called the Pacific Railroad Route Reports, including one by John Charles Frémont, a member of the Corps. It was clear to expansionists such as Senator Thomas Hart Benton (Frémont’s father-in-law) that both pioneers and railroaders would rely on such topographical reports to transverse the continent and to accomplish what so many believed was the nation’s Manifest Destiny—unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It also became increasingly clear to Congressional leaders that in the event of a Civil War between the North and the South, whichever side had the best transportation system and access to the West would hold a great military advantage.
Among the great topographical studies of the nineteenth century were those undertaken by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads. Men such as Grenville Dodge and Peter Dey, chief engineers for the Union Pacific, and Theodore Judah and Samuel Montegue, Chief Engineers for the Central Pacific, plotted railroad lines which were soon laid across prairie and desert, and blasted straight through mountains. It is a measure of their engineering skills that today, the well traveled east-west motor highway, Interstate 80, closely follows much of the path charted in the 1860s by engineers of the first transcontinental railway.
The Central Pacific Railroad began construction eastward from Sacramento, California, and the Union Pacific Railroad began construction westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The majority of the track was built by Irish laborers from the East, Chinese who entered the country from the West, veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies, and Mormons who wished to see the railroad pass through Ogden and Salt Lake City. (The Mormon leader Brigham Young became a member of the Board of Directors of the Union Pacific). The men worked for an average of between one and three dollars a day. Between 1865 and 1869 the Union Pacific laid 1,086 miles of track; the Central Pacific laid 689 miles of track.
The years immediately following the construction of the transcontinental railroad were years of astounding growth for the United States. Between 1860 and 1890 the miles of railroad track interlacing the U.S. increased ninefold—from 30,000 miles to 270,000 miles, and the population leapt from 31,000,000 persons to over 76,000,000 people; many were recent immigrants.
My folks came to the United States from Sweden in 1866; landed in New York, then came to Omaha. When they got to Omaha they had $5.00 in American money, no job, and couldn’t speak a word of English….Then they both got work on the new Union Pacific railroad from Omaha to Laramie City. Father worked on the road and mother cooked and washed for twenty-two men, for nine months; when they got back to Omaha they had $900.00 saved up.
“Mrs. Will H. Berger“. Edna B Pearson, interviewer; Dakota City, Nebraska, November 21, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
- To read historical newspaper coverage of the “Wedding of the Rails” in the Library’s Chronicling America collection of historic newspapers, begin with: Golden Spike (1869): Topics in Chronicling America.
- The collection Railroad Maps, 1828 to 1900 presents maps that reveal the development of cartographic style and technique and highlight the achievement of early railroaders. Search the collection by Region and State. Read the illustrated essay History of Railroads and Maps which contains a section on the building of the transcontinental railroad.
- Visit the Library’s other Map Collections, particularly the section on Transportation and Communication for maps displaying railway lines and other modes of transportation, and the collection Panoramic Maps, which may be searched by state or city (such as Ogden City, Utah, and Topeka, Kansas). Zoom in to view railroad tracks, trains, depots, or roundhouses.
- To find firsthand accounts of railroad work and travel in the collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, search the collection for the term railroad.
- To find late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century prints and photographs documenting the visual history of the railroads, search the Library’s collections of photos, prints and drawings using terms such as railroad, railway, locomotive, and railroad lines such as Union Pacific and Central Pacific.
- Search the Library’s collections of audio recordings using terms such as train and railroad to hear music inspired by railroad trains, and interviews with passengers and workers.
- As an Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln took a case for the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad intended to ensure the right of that railroad to construct a bridge across the Mississippi. As president, he signed the Pacific Railway Act that provided government support for the building of the transcontinental railroad. Search on the term railroad in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress to read more about Lincoln and the railroads. Read, for example, a letter from Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific to Lincoln regarding a request for a military escort for a party of engineers led by Peter Dey.