Building the World’s First Transcontinental Railroad, Part II

Charles Crocker. | Courtesy California State Library

Construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s was one of the great engineering feats in U.S. history; on May 10, America celebrated the 150th anniversary of that epic accomplishment. In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act, legislation that authorized the Sacramento-based Central Pacific Railroad Company to lay track to the California-Nevada border. The law also established a new Union Pacific Railroad Company to build west from the Missouri River frontier toward Utah.

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When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862, the law authorized each line to get a 400-foot-wide strip of land on which to build, plus 10 alternating square-mile sections of public land for each mile of track. The government retained ownership of the other alternate sections. The railroads received government loans in the form of bonds at low interest, repayable in 30 years or less. The loans were $16,000 for each mile of track on flat land, $32,000 for each mile in the deserts of Utah and Nevada and $48,000 for each mile in the mountains. Additional federal legislation in 1864 and 1866 doubled the land grants and the loan terms were liberalized.

Transcontinental Railroad Celebrations
May 30 | 7 p.m.
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Initially, Central Pacific was commissioned to build to the state line with Nevada, but that stipulation was discarded in the 1866 legislation that placed no restrictions on how far each company could build — meaning the faster the better. These changes radically incentivized each corporation to race the other for distance in order to earn more of the federal bonds and land, no matter the cost, waste or quality of construction. After all, the railroad companies figured that they could go back and fix the bridges, trestle work and other rushed undertakings once a segment had been inspected and certified and the bonds were issued.

The two railroads building the transcontinental line received a total of 21 million acres of public land, an area about equal to Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts combined. That might seem like a huge loss to the federal government, but it was the railroads that gave value to mostly useless tracts of land that could not be marketed otherwise. In California from Sacramento to the Sierra and in Nebraska, the railroads were able to sell the land for $2.50 per acre, the standard price at the time. But most of the acreage in Wyoming, Utah and Nevada was never purchased by settlers and farmers (lack of water) or ranchers (insufficient grazing land). Unless the land had minerals on it, it was worthless. For the railroad companies, the land sales never came close to offsetting the actual cost of construction, but that didn’t stop them from getting as much of it as possible.

This radical, competitive national enterprise was uniquely American, and it caught the public’s imagination, especially as the two railroads rapidly opened vast western lands to settlement and the exploitation of natural resources. The line would eventually connect New York with California by rail and bind the country together. When the track crossed the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass in 1868, it changed mountain life in the Tahoe Sierra forever.

In 1863, Central Pacific began constructing a line east out of Sacramento. From the start the project was logistically challenged by a 13,000-mile supply chain that originated in Mid-Atlantic industrial centers such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. There were no iron foundries or heavy-metal industries in California at the time and Congress had mandated that all equipment and the iron rails and spikes be American-made. For Central Pacific, that meant material and rolling stock had to be transported by ship from those cities around the southern tip of South America to San Francisco and then ferried to Sacramento. Each mile of track required 40 railroad cars full of material, including 400 sections of rail weighing 700 pounds each; 2,400 wooden ties (slightly more if the ground wasn’t level); 4,000 spikes, etc.

Track laying and grading were further stymied by a dire lack of laborers willing to do the back-breaking work it required to push a railroad into the increasingly formidable terrain of the Sierra Nevada. It took the dedicated and concerted effort of thousands of Chinese immigrants to succeed in driving the railroad through. Without them, it would not have been done. Indicative of the topographical difficulties, construction crews made only about 50 miles in the first two years.

Union Pacific Railroad had its own problems when work started west out of Omaha, Neb., on the Missouri River. A lack of trees on the prairie forced Union Pacific to import lumber for buildings and railroad ties from distant states such as Wisconsin and in the southeast. Cottonwood ties were shipped up the Missouri River in barges pulled by steamers. The newly cut softwood was so green and filled with sap that it had to be processed by the Burnettizer — a large vacuum device that drew out the water and replaced it with a zinc solution that helped extend the wood’s functional lifespan.

Central Pacific’s workforce majority of ethnic Chinese provided it with a relatively docile labor pool that was generally content to stick with the project as long as they were paid and fed relatively well. The Chinese did strike once in June 1867 for higher wages, a shorter workday and to protest that their overseers whipped them if they tried to quit to look for alternative employment. However, after a week of them refusing to work, Central Pacific director and construction supervisor Charles Crocker cut off their food supply and told them he would not bend to their demands. When some of the strike leaders threatened to whip any laborer who returned to the job, Crocker promised that he would protect all Chinese who worked for him and would shoot down anyone who tried to harm them.

As construction superintendent for Central Pacific, Crocker earned the respect of the men who worked for him. A naturally cheerful man, he also had that rare gift of getting others to share his enthusiasm for the job at hand. He also had sound common sense, an important component in project of this magnitude. One close associate said that he never heard Crocker “reprove or speak to any one except in encouragement and in a manner to increase the man’s self-respect.” Crocker instilled in his employees the belief that they were doing their best, and they responded by elevating their efforts even more.

Read Part III in the next edition or at Click on History under the Explore Tahoe tab.