Connecting a continent in the 19th century (photos)
We mark the storied anniversary of the day the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads made transcontinental travel possible for the first time in North America.
Connecting a continent
As the United States economy industrialized in the 19th century, there were two ways to get goods and people from the east to the other side of the continent: either load huge freight wagons for a rigorous journey over treacherous mountains before reaching the West Coast, or travel by boat around the tip of South America.
Industrialist Leland Stanford is credited for organizing an idea to build a new railroad infrastructure that would connect the still-young nation. So it was that Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, guaranteeing public land grants and loans to the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads. Work began in 1866 from Omaha and Sacramento, and on May 10, 1869, in Promontory, Utah, the "golden spike" was driven connecting the two rail lines.
The connection bridged the 2,000 miles to the Missouri River, and the passage to the West was reduced to just six days.
Photo by:Library of Congress/Photo by Andrew Russell, 1869 / Caption by:
The ceremony for the golden spike
Here's a photo of the ceremony for the golden spike, which connected the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads. It marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad, May 10, 1869.
Photo by:Historic image, photographer unknown / Caption by:
The engineers shake hands
An illustration in Harper's weekly, on June 5, 1869, shows the completion of the Pacific Railroad and the meeting of locomotives of the Union and Central Pacific lines as the engineers shake hands.
Photo by:Library of Congress/"Photographed by Savage & Ottinger, Salt Lake City." / Caption by:
The route of the first Transcontinental Railroad, with the Central Pacific railroad built from Sacramento in the west, is shown in red. The Union Pacific from Omaha in the east is shown in blue.
Photo by:Artwork by DanMS/GNU Free Documentation License / Caption by:
The great link
A graphic from "Views of Chinese" published in Harper's weekly in 1869 shows the completion of the Pacific Railroad, May 10, 1869. Chinese immigrants played a large role in the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.
Photo by:The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. / Caption by:
Devil's Gate bridge
The Devil's Gate bridge in Georgetown, Utah, was washed out just a few days before the planned railroad meeting and Golden Spike Ceremony in 1869.
A modern day meeting of the engines at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah, where the two lines of the transcontinental railroad joined on May 10, 1869.
Photo by:Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division / Caption by:
Meeting of the two railroads
Here, you can see the meeting of the two railroads and the different kinds of ties used. The theory is that the ties from the West were superior due to the prevalence there of saw mills and abundant lumber.
During the final weeks of the project to complete the Transcontinental Railroad, the crews working on each side competed to see who could lay the most track in a single day.
"In early April (1869), the Union Pacific laid 8.5 miles of track in one day," reads a National Park Service brochure. "The (Union Pacific) then bet the Central Pacific $10,000 that they could not better the record. On April 28, 1869, the CP won the bet!"
Union Pacific train No. 119, which met the Central Pacific's Jupiter at Promontory Summit, as Congress decreed the site be called. No. 119 had crossed 1,086 miles to get to the first-ever meeting point of the two railroads.