Building the World’s First Transcontinental Railroad, Part V

Sacramento and San Francisco celebrated two days early. | Courtesy California State Library

In its effort to construct the California portion of America’s first transcontinental railway, Central Pacific Railroad struggled to conquer the Sierra Nevada. It took crews consisting of mostly hard-working Chinese nationals five years (1863-68) to reach Reno, Nev., 131 miles from Sacramento, with progress measured in feet or sometimes just inches per day.

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Despite working around the clock, crossing the Sierra had proven nearly impossible due to climate, topography and geology. Deep winter snow, steep canyons and obdurate granite combined to slow the effort to breach the mountain range. Central Pacific accountants figured that grading the roadbed, laying the ties and rails, and rolling stock and support infrastructure had already cost the railroad company about $32 million, an average of $245,600 per mile. Cost estimates had been way off. In one example, chief engineer Theodore Judah predicted the expense of driving tunnels through the mountains at just $50 per foot — the actual cost was closer to $1,000. By the time the company reached Nevada, it was nearly bankrupt.

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Central Pacific wasn’t only facing the challenges of laying track over the Sierra Nevada; it was in a desperate contest with Union Pacific Railroad to cover as much ground as possible in the least amount of time. Once crews reached the more forgiving Nevada desert, however, work advanced rapidly. Central Pacific general superintendent Charles Crocker was determined to push forward at least 1 mile per day in 1868 in the race to Promontory, Utah, against the westbound progress of Union Pacific Railroad, which had started in Omaha, Neb. To maximize productivity, Crocker discouraged alcohol drinking among Irish workers and threatened Chinese laborers when on occasion he caught them smoking opium to relax or forget aching muscles.

Transcontinental Railroad Celebrations

June 15 | 5 p.m.
History Talk: Boca Brewery | Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center
June 15 | 10 a.m.
Interpretive Walk, Boca Town Site

The construction competition between Central Pacific and Union Pacific was a profligate waste of money, but it ranks as one of the greatest feats of engineering in U.S. history. During the 1860s, the railroad companies were competing with the Union Army during the American Civil War in purchases of iron rail, locomotives and railroad equipment. Prices for these items skyrocketed. After Judah’s untimely death in 1863, James Harvey Strobridge took over as Central Pacific’s lead engineer. The tall, 37-year-old Irishman was perfect for the job — gruff yet highly competent. Strobridge believed that without the pressure of speed required, construction costs would have been 70 percent less, but the line was built “without regard to any outlay that would hasten its completion.”

No Hollywood movie director could have set a better stage for the challenge of human endurance and complex organization than the epic race between Central and Union Pacific railroads. The whole operation ran like a well-oiled machine. Graders and bridge builders worked miles in advance of the track crews laying iron rail while separate telegraph teams installed poles and strung wire. Part of the Pacific Railway Act required the first transcontinental telegraph to be installed along with track construction. Every 2 miles of new track consumed 500 tons of rails, ties and track hardware. Every piece used by Central Pacific was shipped to San Francisco from foundries on the East Coast.

By August, Central Pacific workmen were averaging 2 to 3 miles of track a day, but they still had hundreds of miles to go. An intense rivalry had built up between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific crews. When Union Pacific crews bragged that they had set a track-laying record with 4½ miles in one day, Central Pacific crews exceeded it with 6 miles. Union Pacific then boosted the pace to 8 miles, but it had taken from three in the morning until midnight to do it. The race for riches had turned into a contest of pride and bragging rights. Crocker was certain that his Chinese laborers and Irish tracklayers could outperform Union Pacific workers in speed and endurance.

As both lines approached Promontory Point, Crocker decided to set a track-laying record that no one could beat. Six months before he had bet Union Pacific’s vice president Thomas C. Durant $10,000 that Central Pacific would lay 10 miles of rail in one shift from dawn to dusk. Crocker assured himself victory by waiting for a level stretch that would end less than 10 miles from Union Pacific’s end of track, thus guaranteeing that there could be no counter-effort by Durant.

On April 27, 1869, the day before the attempt, Crocker assembled about 5,000 employees (nearly all volunteers) to work in specialized support teams. Only 850 men would do the actual track laying. Central Pacific executive Leland Stanford was there to cheer the men on as were guest engineers and witnesses from Union Pacific and officers from a nearby army garrison.

At dawn the following day a whistle shrieked, and the frenzy commenced. Chinese workers unloaded wagons and delivered supplies while eight strong Irishmen muscled the 600-pound iron rails — two men at each end — into place with tongs. They were quickly followed by rail straighteners, levelers and then spikers who hammered down the iron spikes in 10 quick blows. Next were fishplate men, then tampers and finally the gravel-crunching ballast teams. No man stopped and no man passed another. It was a living, breathing, human track-laying machine.

Eyewitnesses stared in awe as newly completed track miraculously appeared as fast as a man could walk. Only months before in the Sierra, Central Pacific crews were progressing inches a day. Now, at one point, workers constructed 240 feet of track in just 1 minute and 20 seconds. One military officer said, “It was just like an army marching over the ground and leaving a track behind.”

As the line advanced, exhausted men were pulled and replaced with fresh workers. The Irish ironmen were each lifting 11,000 pounds of rail per hour but showed no signs of faltering. It was an incredible performance. At 1:30 that afternoon the lunch whistle blew with 6 miles done. Union Pacific officials knew then that Crocker would certainly win his bet. Central Pacific gave the men a full hour to eat before the work whistle blew again. By dusk 10 miles and 56 feet of new track crossed Utah’s high desert. Crocker ordered his heaviest locomotive to run the track at 40 mph. The track passed the test and Central Pacific set a world record that stands today.

In one 12-hour shift, the construction had consumed 25,800 railroad ties, 3,520 rails, 28,160 spikes and 14,080 bolts. Each of the eight Irish track layers lifted 264,000 pounds of iron in the course of that day’s work — the eight-man reserve team was never used. On May 10, 1869, the track was complete, and the United States was united by rail and telegraph.