Early American Railroad History

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by Allen Johnson

The first use of crude railroad tracks was in England and Wales, where donkeys pulled carts full of coal out of the coal mines. Mine owners determined that, with less friction (wheels on rails), it was easier for the donkeys to pull a cart with more coal than previously had been done. In 1803, Richard Trevithick, an English mining engineer, figured out how to mount a steam engine on a moveable platform and constructed the first steam railway engine. Within a few years, the very first steam locomotives were used to haul coal from mines to seaports. In 1825, the first rail passenger service was begun in England, and America’s first railroad was the Baltimore and Ohio, which started in 1830.

Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and thousands headed west chasing after gold or to homestead. However, the railroad then only ran as far as Omaha, Nebraska. Extending it to the Pacific Coast was a huge undertaking, with construction through mountains and across rivers a formidable task. Many people thought this a foolish, wasteful project, while others believed California to be the promised land. At any rate, President Abraham Lincoln decided to go ahead with the Transcontinental Railroad and signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. He felt that, with the Gold Rush in full swing, a foreign attack was always possible, and we needed the extended railroad to get troops and supplies to California to deal with that problem.

When work finally began extending westward, it was done even though the Civil War had begun. The Union Pacific (UP) Railroad headed west from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific (CP) Railroad headed east from Sacramento, California. Right off, they had problems finding reliable workers.

Most able-bodied men were mining gold and those recruited proved to be largely unreliable. Finally, the railroad hired Chinese laborers, who were much better workers. During the six-plus years of construction, the Central Pacific used about 10,000 workers, 90% of which were Chinese.

Building the railroad was tough, dangerous work over terribly difficult terrain. In some areas laborers were suspended from cliffs by ropes in order to hack the roadbed out of the mountainside. While digging the Summit Tunnel in the Sierras, work crews had to blast through 1600 feet of such hard granite that, in spots, their progress was only one foot a day. After 5 years of very hard work, the CP crews had laid just 100 miles of track. By comparison, one Union Pacific crew laid just over ten miles of track in one day – an astonishing feat considering the backbreaking nature of the work and lack of any kind of power equipment. Union Pacific pay was $1.00 per day – considered a relatively high pay in those days.

(From Railroad Ties, the Friends of the Railroad Newsletter, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2014)

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