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
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
- 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
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.
Bain, David Haward. Empire Express : Building the
First Transcontinental Railroad. New York : Viking,
LC Call Number: HE2751 .B24 1999
LC Catalog Record: 99033375
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
United States. Pacific Railway
... of the United States Pacific Railway Commission [and Testimony
taken by the commission] Washington, Gov't print. off.,
LC Call Number: HE1062 .U6
LC Catalog Record: 06045508
Available online via Hathitrust
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
United States. War Department. Reports
of Explorations and
Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a
the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Made under the direction of
the secretary of war, in 1853- ... Washington, A.O.P.
Nicholson, Printer [etc.] 1855-60.
LC Call Number: F593 .U58
LC Catalog Record: rc01001840
Available online via HathiTrust
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
Central Pacific Railroad
Photographic History Museum
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)
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
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)
This is a guide with sources pulled from
throughout the Library’s collections.
Topics in Chronicling America –
Golden Spike, 1869
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"
A brief piece about the completion of the
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."
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
Pacific Railroad Company--History.
Pacific Railroad Company--History.
Last updated: 06/21/2018