Building the World’s First Transcontinental Railroad, Part IV

Central Pacific Railroad Chinese worker at Summit Tunnel, circa 1867. | Courtesy Huntington Library

This year, American train buffs are celebrating the May 10, 1869, completion of the world’s first transcontinental railroad. The 1862 Pacific Railroad Act was passed during the Civil War primarily as a national security measure. Congress reasoned that the railroad would be a source of strength in war supporting Army supply logistics, in addition to delivering security and profit in peacetime. A military road across the continent was needed to link the vulnerable Pacific Coast with the populated East. It would also save the government money when mobilizing troops and staffing frontier forts in the Intermountain West, and especially on the Plains where Indian-American conflict was intensifying.

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Union Pacific Railroad didn’t start grading and tracklaying until 1865, two years after Central Pacific began in 1863. The delay was due to the Civil War, but once the conflict was over, Union Pacific had thousands of veteran soldiers ready to be hired to build the line. Manpower was a constant problem for Central Pacific until it sourced Chinese nationals to do the work. Union Pacific also made much faster progress because, unlike Central Pacific in California, it wasn’t filling in massive ravines, building intricate trestle bridges over deep canyons or boring through obdurate Sierra granite. No doubt Union Pacific had topography and river-crossing challenges, but not at the same level as Central Pacific engineers and crews.

Transcontinental Railroad Celebrations
June 8 | 5 p.m.
History Talk: The Story of Tunnel 6 & Dinner | Clair Tappaan

June 10 | 6 p.m.
History Talk: Locomotive Technologies | Pizza on the Hill

There were other differences facing the two railroad companies. As Union Pacific construction advanced deeper into Nebraska, the traditional homeland and hunting grounds of the combative Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indian tribes, attacks became more frequent. Chief engineer Grenville Dodge requested the U.S. Army deploy mounted Calvary troops to protect his men, but due to the random and sudden nature of the Indians’ guerrilla-style attacks, their effectiveness was limited. To bolster his own defenses, ex-Union general Dodge ordered that crews working near the end of track be armed. For these men, their Civil War military experience served them well in their dangerous encounters with angry marauding Indians.

The Sioux and Cheyenne in Nebraska were especially hostile because they soon observed how buffalo would not cross the iron rails and it split the Great Plains bison herd into two parts, thus weakening it. Once the line was operational, armed train passengers would erupt into a shooting frenzy, killing for sport thousands of buffalo that the Indians relied on for food, hides, tools, clothing, moccasins, knives, shields and more — even the string used to shoot arrows from their bows. Buffalo had always been the key to survival for the Plains Indians and the demise of the great herd would ultimately mean the end for the Indian tribes, too. The railroad accelerated the process.

In a July 1868 attempt to placate Indian outrage at the unwanted invasion of their lands, a contingent of America’s top military officers headed to the Plains to discuss peace among the various tribes, particularly the powerful and influential Sioux. Leading this group of notable delegates was newly nominated Republican presidential candidate Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He was accompanied by the Army’s highest-ranking commanders – Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman and Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, as well as other senior ranking officers of the disbanded Union Army. Included in the pilgrimage were top Union Pacific executives. In his book, “A Great and Shining Road,” history professor John H. Williams observed: “If Chief Red Cloud [Sioux] had massacred that party he would have devastated the American high command, decapitated the Republican party, and rewritten America history.”

Instead, after prolonged negotiations, the relevant tribes signed treaties that moved them to so-called protected reservations assisted by government aid, as long they promised to be peaceful and leave the railroad alone. In a rare capitulation by the U.S. Army, Gen. Grant acquiesced to Red Cloud’s demand to close the hated Bozeman Trail, the main route from Montana to Oregon, along with its military forts. Perhaps inspired by an agreement between Central Pacific and Native Americans in Nevada, Union Pacific’s Grenville Dodge promised the Shoshone Indians that their tribal members could ride the train for free anywhere that they wanted to go. The treaties did not completely stop Indian attacks on Union Pacific workers, but they de-escalated the violence.

Meanwhile, back in the Sierra, Central Pacific was incrementally forcing its way through and over the mountains. In order to accelerate progress, Superintendent Charles Crocker ordered thousands of men down into the Truckee River Canyon where grading and tracklaying weren’t inhibited by winter storms, avalanches and tunnel work. The laborers advanced quickly down the ravine and into the high desert of western Nevada. Finally, after five years of Central Pacific battling its way up and over Donner Pass, on Aug. 28, 1867, the 1,659-foot-long Summit Tunnel (No. 6) was punched through. More construction needed to be done, but by June 18, 1868, Central Pacific had run trains through to Reno. The railroad also established stations and named many of the towns along the line: Truckee, Boca, Verdi, Reno, Wadsworth, etc.

Tragically, in October 1863, Central Pacific’s chief engineer Theodore Dehone Judah, the brilliant man whose passion and surveying-engineering expertise had made possible the railroad’s conquest of the Sierra Nevada, died of yellow fever. Judah contracted the tropical disease in Panama while heading to New York with his wife Anna. Headstrong Judah had a falling out with the equally obstinate directors of Central Pacific and was determined to persuade wealthy investors and industrialists back East to finance him in a takeover of Central Pacific. Judah’s attention to technical details and ability to find solutions to challenges that overwhelmed ordinary men had convinced the country’s top businessmen, U.S. Congressmen and even President Abraham Lincoln, that building a working railroad over Donner Pass was possible — unfortunately, he didn’t live to see his grand vision succeed.

The federal legislation that helped fund and subsidize the Transcontinental Railroad included incentives for each company to lay as much track as fast as possible. Framing the project as a race was a uniquely American approach to the country’s most formidable engineering and construction enterprise in history. Crocker was under intense pressure from Central Pacific’s board of directors — Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins. In January 1868, after excruciatingly slow progress over the Sierra, Central Pacific crews had taken five long years to make just 131 miles to Reno. Across Nebraska and Wyoming, Union Pacific had gone hundreds of miles beyond that. Crocker surveyed the desert landscape and swore to make at least 1 mile per day in 1868, but Central Pacific crews would race across Nevada and into Utah laying 611 miles of track in just 15 months.

Stay tuned for Ten Miles in One Day in the next edition or at