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This Month in Business History

The Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad

Ellen Terrell
Business Reference Specialist
May 2018

Introduction

The Transcontinental Railroad was the first continuous railroad line across the United States and opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869 when Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford ceremonially drove the gold "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit. Railroads would remain the main form of moving people and goods throughout the United States at least until the advent of the airlines that usurped the bulk of personal travel.

 

Print shows an allegory of linking of Trans-Continental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah; Indians and buffalo fleeing in the foreground as two trains with large hands extending from the locomotives, labeled San Francisco and New York, approach each other to connect the transcontinental railroad

 

Above:
"Does not such a meeting make amends?"
Beard, Frank, 1869 May 29
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Reproduction number: LC-USZC2-747

Overview

By connecting the existing eastern U.S. rail networks to the west coast, the Transcontinental Railroad (known originally as the "Pacific Railroad") became the first continuous railroad line across the United States. It was constructed between 1863 and 1869.

The idea of a railroad that went from the east coast to the west didn’t start when building began. It is a story made up of a series of events and filled with a cast of people and companies that made it happen—here are just a few of note:

  • One of the early and most prominent people making the case for a transcontinental railroad was Asa Whitney. In 1849 he published his ideas on the idea of a railroad that began in Chicago and went to California. There were many others who also joined the chorus.
  • In 1852 Theodore Judah was the chief engineer for the newly formed Sacramento Valley Railroad. He undertook a survey to find a manageable route through the high and rugged Sierra Nevada and in 1856 presented his plan to Congress.
  • Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 on July 1, 1862, and the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) and the Union Pacific Railroad were authorized by Congress.

The rail line, also called the Great Transcontinental Railroad and later the "Overland Route," was predominantly built by the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California (CPRR) and Union Pacific (with some contribution by the Western Pacific Railroad Company) over public lands provided by extensive US land grants.

The railroad opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869, when CPRR President Leland Stanford ceremonially drove the gold "Last Spike" (later often referred to as the "Golden Spike") at Promontory Summit in Utah.

But the story of the railroads in the United States, and these two companies in particular, was really just getting started. The original Union Pacific, entangled in the Crédit Mobilier scandal and hit hard by the financial crisis of 1873, was eventually taken over by the new Union Pacific Railway in 1880 with its major stockholder being Jay Gould. It continued on, eventually becoming Union Pacific Railway. Central Pacific also went through changes including consolidation with the Western Pacific Railroad and the San Francisco Bay Railroad Co. under the name "Central Pacific Railroad Co." In 1885 it was leased to Southern Pacific and three years later the ICC listed it as non-operating. In 1899 it was reorganized as Central Pacific Railway and in 1959 it merged into Southern Pacific.

Additional Reading

Bain, David Haward. Empire Express : Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York : Viking, 1999. 
LC Call Number: HE2751 .B24 1999
LC Catalog Record: 99033375
Table of Contents

A history of the transcontinental railroad. Includes extensive Notes and Bibliography sections.

Statutes at Large

United States. Congress. House. Select Committee on Establishment of Railroad and Telegraphic Communication between the Atlantic States and the Pacific Ocean. Pacific railroad and telegraph ...[Washington, 1856]
LC Call Number: HE2705.I856 A3
LC Catalog Record: 32016378

A report by Congress on the necessity to connect the east and west coast with a railroad and telegraph lines as a way to maintain the US position on the Pacific coast, particularly in light of the discovery of gold.

United States. Pacific Railway Commission. Report ... of the United States Pacific Railway Commission [and Testimony taken by the commission] Washington, Gov't print. off., 1887-88.
LC Call Number: HE1062 .U6
LC Catalog Record: 06045508
Available online via Hathitrust External Link

This report was required by an act passed in March 1887 to investigate the railroads that built the railroad. It includes a history of the construction.

United States. War Department. Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Made under the direction of the secretary of war, in 1853-[6] ... Washington, A.O.P. Nicholson, Printer [etc.] 1855-60.
LC Call Number: F593 .U58
LC Catalog Record: rc01001840
Available online via HathiTrust External Link (incomplete set)

This twelve volume set done in preparation for the construction of the railroad examines different possible routes and also includes botany and zoological surveys.

Whitney, Asa. A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific. New York, Printed by G. W. Wood, 1849.
LC Call Number: HE2763 1849j
LC Catalog Record: 05038860

One of the earliest and most notable examples making the case for an overland route.

Internet Resources

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum
http://cprr.org/Museum/index.html#Read External Link

A collection of digitized and transcribed material related to the building of the transcontinental railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. Included are:
  • "Report of the Chief Engineer on the preliminary survey, cost of construction, and estimated revenue of the Central Pacific Railroad of California, across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, from Sacramento to the eastern boundary of California, October 22, 1862."
  • "Transcontinental Railroads. History of Construction." Commissioner of Railroads, 1883.
  • "Report on Transcontinental Railways." Secretary of War, 1883.
  • Legislative History of the First Transcontinental Railroad from the Congressional Globe

Maps (Library of Congress)
https://www.loc.gov/collections/.../articles-and-essays/history-of-railroads-and-maps/the-transcontinental-railroad/

This is a cartographic perspective on the transcontinental railroad. It is part of the large collection of railroad maps held by the Library.

Online Exhibit – Transcontinental Railroad
Linda Hall Library with support from the BNSF Burlington Northern Santa Fe Foundation
https://railroad.lindahall.org/index.html

There is a brief history of building the railroad, general information on the history and technology of nineteenth-century railroads, and full text access to the library's collection of 19th century railroad periodicals.

Primary Documents in American History - Pacific Railway Act (Library of Congress)
https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/PacificRail.html

This is a guide with sources pulled from throughout the Library’s collections.

Topics in Chronicling America – Golden Spike, 1869
https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/goldenspike.html

Newspaper & Current Periodical staff created a guide containing selected articles from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project as well as searching suggestions to find additional material.

Today in History (May 10, 1869): "Wedding of the Rails"
https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/may-10/#wedding-of-the-rails

A brief piece about the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Union Pacific
https://www.up.com/aboutup/history/index.htm External Link

The company's website has historical resources and information on Union Pacific provided by Union Pacific. The site also includes the online project "The Great Race to Promontory."

LC Catalog Searches

Additional works on this topic in the Library of Congress may be identified by searching the Online Catalog under appropriate Library of Congress subject headings. Choose the topics you wish to search from the following list to link directly to the Catalog and automatically execute a search for the subject selected. Please be aware that during periods of heavy use you may encounter delays in accessing the catalog. For assistance in locating other subject headings which may relate to this subject, please consult a reference librarian.

Pacific railroads--Early projects.

Railroads--United States--History.

Union Pacific Railroad Company--History.

Central Pacific Railroad Company--History.

Last updated: 06/21/2018

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