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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.

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James Martin
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1 of 16 Library of Congress/Photo by Andrew Russell, 1869

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.
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2 of 16 Historic image, photographer unknown

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.
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3 of 16 Library of Congress/"Photographed by Savage & Ottinger, Salt Lake City."

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.
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4 of 16 Artwork by DanMS/GNU Free Documentation License

Across America

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.
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5 of 16 The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

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.
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6 of 16

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.
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7 of 16 Library of Congress

Timetable and map

Covers from the timetable and map for a publication called "The Great American Over-Land Route" for the Union and Central Pacific Railroad Line, published in 1881.
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8 of 16 Library of COngress/A. J. Russell, 1868

Railroad Construction Citadel Rock Wyoming

Construction of a railroad bridge near the rock formation known as Citadel Rock near Green River Valley, Wyo., in 1868.
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9 of 16 Railarchive.net

The Jupiter locomotive

Jupiter of the Central Pacific Railroad was one of the locomotives that met in the 1869 Golden Spike Ceremony in Utah, marking completion of America's first transcontinental railroad.
The American rail network did not run coast to coast until June 4, 1876, when a train named the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left New York City.
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10 of 16 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Golden Spike National Historic Site

Driving through open country on a gorgeous Utah day on the north side of the Great Salt Lake as part of his Road Trip 2009, CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman discovered the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
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11 of 16 Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah

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.
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12 of 16 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

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.
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13 of 16 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Who could lay the most track in a single day?

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!"
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14 of 16 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The controls of the Union Pacific's No. 119 train

Some of the controls of the Union Pacific's No. 119 train, which met nose-to-nose with the Central Pacific's Jupiter at the dedication of the Transcontinental Railroad 140 years ago.
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15 of 16 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Union Pacific train No. 119

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.
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16 of 16 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The two trains

The two trains, the Central Pacific's Jupiter (left) and the Union Pacific's No. 119, are nose-to-nose at Promontory Summit, the site of the final meeting place of the Transcontinental Railroad.

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