About Railroads: The Transcontinental Railroad

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by Allen Johnson

Many of the Union Pacific workers were Irish and German immigrants, and many had seen service in the Civil War. As the railroad move farther west, it entered Sioux territory. While the Indians had largely ignored the occasional wagon train, this was clearly a serious threat to their way of life. Attacks became more frequent and progress slowed as the ex-soldiers were diverted into armed units assigned to protect the remaining work crews. The work went on at a relatively fast pace; one Central Pacific crew laid about 10 miles of track in one day — a tremendous accomplishment since they had no power equipment.

The transcontinental railroad finally linked up May 10, 1869, when the two railroad sections finally met near Promontory, Utah. An ordinary iron spike (not a gold one) was actually driven into the last cross tie.

Look at the difference in the cross-country time it took after the railroad was completed. The wagon train took around 6 months to go to California from a Midwestern jump-off point; and around ten percent died on the journey. In contrast, people could travel by train in relative safety with their belongings all the way from New York City to Sacramento in about 7 days!

Before the transcontinental railroad completion, mail was carried by stagecoach, or around the Horn by ship if mail was coast-to-coast. A time span of several months. With trains now, lots of mail could be carried coast-to-coast in a week or less. Mail was sorted enroute in mail cars; bags of mail, then, were thrown from trains or picked up from trackside poles as trains traveled through towns, coast-to-coast, without stopping. Trains brought news for the masses, too — more of it and faster than ever before.

By 1865, when the Civil War ended, some 30,000 miles of track crossed the country. During the next 25 years, steel rails spread out all across America until by 1890, well over 200,000 miles of track ran from sea to shining sea.

The federal government encouraged the spread of the railroads by giving them land — not just rights of way on which to lay their tracks, but land adjacent to the tracks, too — millions of acres. The railroad sold this land at very low prices — actually gave it away in some cases. “Immigrant trains” carried families, their personal belongings and even livestock into the newly opened areas.

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