Transcontinental Railroad’s 150th anniversary | Part I

Theodore D. Judah. | Courtesy California State Library

During the month of May, communities across the Western United States will be celebrating the sesquicentennial — 150th — anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. In the Truckee region, there are many activities, lectures and interpretive walks scheduled for the next few months. There is a full schedule on Facebook at the Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration.

For many cities and towns across the vast Great Plains and Intermountain West of the United States, the railroad was the sole reason they existed in the second half of the 19th Century. But rail commerce and related economic activities solidified and expanded their footprint on the map and those that survived are now well rooted and thriving. Reno, Nev., was officially established by the railroad in 1868, as were other towns along the Humboldt River in the Silver State.

By the 1870s, businesses in the remote yet bustling mountain hamlet of Truckee — which also received its moniker when the Central Pacific Railroad came through in 1868 — were shipping more freight than any other point on the Central Pacific line.

By the 1870s, businesses in the remote yet bustling mountain hamlet of Truckee — which also received its moniker when the Central Pacific Railroad came through in 1868 — were shipping more freight than any other point on the Central Pacific line. The local timber industry supplied vast amounts of cut lumber, shingles and other specialized wood products to the booming Comstock, as well as markets in California.

During winter months crews in the Truckee River Canyon cut blocks of ice from frozen ponds and stored them in large insulated warehouses. In the spring and summer, the ice was loaded into railroad boxcars to refrigerate perishable produce grown for export in the Golden States’ Central Valley. Thousands of fresh fish were also transported to San Francisco and Virginia City, Nev., markets from the vibrant commercial fishery at Lake Tahoe. None of this would have been possible without the railroad.

Try the Gold Spike cocktail
Available at Truckee restaurants and bars this summer.

The Transcontinental Railroad represented a transportation revolution for the country that stitched the U.S. together coast to coast. The idea had first germinated in the California Gold Rush, but the epic engineering project was delayed for decades due to sectarian and obstructionist politics in Congress based on tensions over western expansion and the issue of slavery between Northern and Southern states. Despite multiple surveys, the polarized parties could not agree on which route the track should take across the country, along with other concerns. Secession by Southern states in 1861 offered Congress a way forward and in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act authorizing federal loans and land grants for the massive construction project, as well as financial support for the first transcontinental telegraph line.

When the Transcontinental Railroad was finally completed on May 10, 1869, promoters stated that — unlike the Donner Party — instead of taking months to cross just the western two-thirds of the country, New Yorker’s could ride to San Francisco in about 10 days. It was an incredible leap forward that would only be exceeded by aviation more than half a century later.

Lincoln’s ardent backing of a Pacific Railroad at the start of his presidency may seem surprising given that he already had his plate full as commander-in-chief at the onset of the American Civil War, tasked with organizing, financing and equipping the largest army that the United States had ever deployed in an effort to suppress the confederate rebellion. But Lincoln had always been a big supporter of railroad development.

Before he obtained his credentials to practice law in Illinois in 1836 — at the time legislation stipulated that the certification only required the applicant be of good moral character and to swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and Illinois — he was a riverboat pilot. In the mid-1830s, railroad fever was sweeping the United States and Lincoln became a staunch advocate of its development. By 1840, nearly 3,000 miles of track had been laid in the U.S., more than all of Europe.

Financing a railroad was a major obstacle in its formation. As a young lawyer, Lincoln championed the controversial idea of government allocating federal and state land adjacent to any proposed railroad right-of-way. He won a decision before the Illinois Supreme Court to grant the Illinois Central Railroad 2,595,000 acres, a verdict that was later cited as precedent in 25 other cases throughout the United States. Later the Supreme Court also accepted Lincoln’s argument that the Illinois Central be exempt from county taxes.

Lincoln further burnished his credentials as a successful railroad lawyer in 1857 when he defended the Rock Island Bridge Company that had built the first railroad trestle over the Mississippi River. The company was being sued after a steamboat ran into one of the piers and caught fire. At that time, cities such as St. Louis supported the principle of free navigation for shipping commerce over the interests of railroads constructing bridges. Although Lincoln did not win the case outright — the jury deadlocked and the suit dismissed — the outcome was a victory for the railroad. An Iowa court later found against the builders and ordered the bridge removed, but that verdict was overruled by the Supreme Court. The result opened the door for railroad bridges over Western rivers, an important step in the nation’s economic development and rail expansion.

A major obstacle to the Transcontinental Railroad was conquered, at least on paper, at the end of the 1850s. A brilliant young engineer named Theodore Dehone Judah, who had constructed California’s first railway, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, mapped a workable, if difficult, route through the Sierra via Donner Pass. Judah’s line would require building 15 tunnels, six up the western slope of the range, nine down the other side, but it was feasible, given sufficient financing. It took passage of the Pacific Railway Act to create the Union Pacific Railroad, which would construct track from Omaha, Neb., to about Salt Lake City, Utah, but Central Pacific Railroad, which would start from Sacramento, sprang from the dreams of private California businessmen.

Even before the federal legislation passed, Judah went to four successful Sacramento merchants: Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington. A persuasive man, Judah interested the four hardheaded entrepreneurs, not by visions of a nationwide railroad that seemed beyond the grasp of one company or group of men, but by practical talk about the profits they could make supplying the Nevada mining camps near which their line would pass. As the Big Four, as they came to be known, had all made their money as merchants in the Gold Rush, this was an argument that they could understand. It would be Judah’s expertise, attention to detail and inspired engineering, that generated the driving force for the establishment of Central Pacific Railroad.

Read Part II in the next edition or at