Building the World’s First Transcontinental Railroad | Part III

Laying Track down | Courtesy UPRR

The United States’ Transcontinental Railroad represented a transportation revolution that stitched the country together from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans, exponentially boosting communication, migration and trade. Support for the epic undertaking was especially strong in states and territories along the country’s western frontier because American expansion advanced toward the Missouri River and beyond. Isolated California communities with family and business connections 3,000 miles away in the East wanted a coast-to-coast railroad the most.

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Constructing a national railroad system of this magnitude through such rugged and remote terrain, along with extremely challenging supply logistics, was nearly unprecedented in human history — certainly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. For decades the project had struggled to get legislative traction from the federal government and the engineering was considered daunting, if not outright impossible. In one of those strange twists of fate, the American Civil War shattered the entrenched political stalemate in Congress and in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. The bill injected the seemingly far-fetched proposal with financial capital, bonds and land, as well as critical political will. A significant amount of that political will was obtained by bribing influential congressmen and prominent capitalists with generous stock giveaways and cash.

When work on the California portion of the line started in 1863, Central Pacific Railroad had it relatively easy across the level Sacramento Valley, but it wasn’t long before they started approaching the greatest challenge anywhere: the massive granite wall known as the Sierra Nevada. The Pacific Railroad Act had stipulated a sliding scale of loans available to Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads per mile of track laid: $16,000 per mile on flat land; $32,000 for the deserts of Utah and Nevada; and $48,000 for work in mountains.

Transcontinental Railroad Celebrations

May 30 | 7 p.m.
Historical Talk: An engineering marvel with Jerry Blackwell | Camp Richardson

June 1
Historical Talk: The Firsts with Bill Oudegeest | Truckee Tahoe Airport

Of course, $48,000 per mile sounds much better than $16,000 so Central Pacific president and Governor of California Leland Stanford called in the state’s official geologist, Josiah D. Whitney, to determine where the mountains began. Central Pacific co-founder and general superintendent of the railroad Charles Crocker escorted Whitney out to Arcade Creek, just 7 miles east of Sacramento and in terrain nearly flat as a board. Arcade Creek was about 15 miles west of where the landscape was considered uplifted Sierra terrain, but Stanford saw the difference in distance as an additional $240,000 of much-needed capital for his railroad — if he could get it.

At Arcade Creek, Crocker showed Whitney an outcropping of reddish soil indicative of foothills geology and the eminent scientist declared it the western margin of the Sierra range. He signed official papers to that effect, which were presented to President Lincoln by Aaron Sargent, a former U.S. Congressman and good friend of Central Pacific’s chief engineer Theodore Judah. After reading Whitney’s report — considered a well-respected geologist and namesake of California’s highest mountain — and reflecting on Sargent’s persuasive arguments in support of the decision, President Lincoln saw no reason to disagree and he signed off on the designation of mountain topography. From that geological chicanery came a variety of humorous quotes insinuating that “Abraham’s [Lincoln] faith moved mountains.” Biblical references aside, the decision did move mountains, at least on paper.

Union Pacific’s initial westbound efforts in Oklahoma faced no hills at all, but the railroad had its own set of challenges to deal with. Ramshackle, fly-by-night tent cities constantly sprang up trackside to provide sordid distractions for the thousands of isolated and deprived Irish track layers and graders. These temporary pop-ups were dubbed Hell on Wheels and offered the over-worked young men nefarious forms of entertainment such as gambling, prostitutes and plentiful whiskey. It also led to vicious fights and deadly shootings among the inebriated laborers.

These movable but sleazy encampments were disgusting by day and dangerous at night, crawling with card cheats, thugs and con men. One observer wrote about such a place in Wyoming that lasted only 60 days, describing it as “Averaging a murder a day; gambling and drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce.” No town lots were ever sold at a Hell on Wheels bivouac because no one expected to be there long. No such dens of iniquity followed Central Pacific’s Chinese laborers who drank no alcohol and only smoked opium on Sunday, their day off.

As Union Pacific crews pushed west, deadly attacks by American Indians trying to protect their ancestral land made worker recruitment and retention problematic. Unlike Union Pacific, California’s nonviolent indigenous Indian population had been decimated by disease and genocide before and during the Gold Rush, so Central Pacific didn’t have to worry about armed aggression on men at its remote construction sites. Union Pacific, however, had to be ready to fight and was by necessity run like an army. Virtually all of its majority workforce of Irish immigrants were battle-hardened veterans of the Civil War, so military-style regimentation was familiar to them.

In April 1866, retired U.S. Army general Grenville Dodge was appointed Union Pacific’s chief engineer, a choice enthusiastically endorsed by fellow Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Dodge was an excellent engineer and pioneering figure in military intelligence during the Civil War, but he had repeatedly declined to take on the role of railroad superintendent due to his military commitments. But Dodge and his fellow senior commanders eventually realized that building the Transcontinental Railroad would provide an enormous advantage to the United States’ armed forces for years to come, so he took the job.

Dodge brought a soldierly demeanor to operations at the end of track. Nearly all of the chief subordinates that he hired were Union Army vets and just about all of the lead graders and track layers had served in the infantry. Due to hostile Indians and shortages of timber, water and other necessities, historians have suggested that without military organization it’s unlikely the Union Pacific segment could have been built at all.

Their vast tent encampments were laid out in precise, orderly rows and structured discipline generally kept the rambunctious young men in line. Most of the employees had served in the Union Army, but there were plenty of Confederate Rebels in the labor mix, as well. When the weather turned cold the former mortal enemies were easily identified by their blue and gray military overcoats, but apparently, they worked side-by-side with little animosity between them now that the brutal conflict was over.

Stayed tuned for Part IV in the next edition and at