Everyone knows that the Transcontinental Railroad opened to through traffic with a huge gala ceremony heard ‘round the world. One hundred and fifty years ago this week Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford ceremonially drove the golden “Last Spike” into the track at Promontory Summit, Utah connecting both sections.

To record the actual tapping of the nail into place, the hammer and spike had been wired to a nearby telegraph line so that each blow of the mallet would be heard as a click at stations nationwide. Legend has it that Stanford missed the spike on the first swing.

As soon as the gold “Last Spike” had been taken out and replaced by an ordinary iron one, a message was transmitted by the operators to both the East Coast and West Coast that simply read, “DONE.”

Travel across the country had been reduced from six months to slightly more than a week. Connecting the two shores together finalized the Manifest Destiny of the country and helped America become the powerhouse it is today.

The idea of a railroad connecting the east and west was tossed around for decades within Washington, stalling at every chance and every administration. Only after California became a state in 1850 and the glamour of huge gold deposits contained therein was observed by a greedy Congress, did action begin.

Up until that time there was no easy way to get to the West Coast. If you were daring, you could take the California Trail. If you were a sea lover you could take the six-month trip around Cape Horn and through the Straits of Magellan. If you were rally adventurous, you could even cut across the Isthmus of Panama, despite the banditos there. In the end, roughly half of California’s new settlers came by trail and the other half by sea – but both took a long time.

In February 1860, Iowa Representative Samuel Curtis introduced a bill to fund the trans-continental railroad. Unfortunately opposition from southern states who wanted a lower route killed the deal. After those states seceded from the Union in early 1861, the opposition was removed and Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 into law. It authorized creation of two companies, the Central Pacific in the west and the Union Pacific in the east, to build the line.

The Act also settled the official width of the railroad. Up until that time, there were two primary standards for track gauge in the United States. Most northern railroads copied the English system of 4 feet 8 1⁄2 inches rail to rail, while southern states favored the exact 5 foot gauge. Bur, due to the Civil War, and the half empty seats in Congress, the English gauge became the standard to this day.

To save money, the rails initially used were made of hardened iron having a flat bottom I-beam profile weighing about 20 pounds per foot. Although the Bessemer and open hearth furnace steel making processes were in operation by 1865, they were not used at first due to their higher cost. Eventually, however, steel rails won out because they were harder and lasted much longer, and at the same time, were easier to work with because they didn’t flex as much.

In the end, the Central Pacific, starting from Sacramento, laid down 690 miles of track, crossing the 7,000 foot Sierras in the process. By 1868 they had reached Reno, having spent five years blasting 11 tunnels in the hard granite mountains east of Donner Summit.

Crafted painfully before dynamite became commonplace, the tunnels were built by drilling a series of holes in the rock face, filling them with black powder and detonating the assembly to break the rock free. Because the rock was so hard the average pace was only about a foot a day despite large crews working round the clock.

The tunnel projects were a busy place with some workers drilling holes while others collected and removed the loosened rock after each explosion. Progress on the tunnels doubled when they started using the newly invented nitroglycerin — often manufactured near the work place — in what can be considered by some a booming business.

When the Central Pacific joined the Humboldt River east of the sink, things became a little easier. Following that path they continued onto Wells and from there veered north into Utah and eventually Promontory Summit all within one year.

The other railroad company, Union Pacific, had it a little easier. They started in Omaha, Nebraska, and proceeded rapidly due to the open terrain of the Great Plains. This changed, however, as the work entered the Indian-held lands of Wyoming where Native Americans saw the railroad as a violation of their treaties with the United States.

Notwithstanding many violent skirmishes along the way the Union Pacific moved forward, being amply supplied by trains bringing all necessary material for the construction from eastern cities right up to the construction site. Wooden ties were placed on the track ballast and leveled to get ready for the rails. The rails, which weighed the most, were often kicked off the flatcars and carried by gangs of men to be placed down, measured for the correct gauge and nailed to the ties. The fishplates connecting the ends of the rails would be bolted on quickly, leaving space for thermal expansion, and the work moved forward at a rate of a mile or two per day depending on terrain.

Water for the steam locomotives coming from the east was usually provided by wells, springs, or pipelines along the way. Fuel and water stops on the early system may have been as often as every 10 miles. These today form the basis of the little towns dotted along Route 80 today.

The first transcontinental rail passengers arrived in the west terminus, Oakland on September 6, 1869.

Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.


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