Former US railway company. Together with the Union Pacific Railroad, it was chartered to build a line (or Pacific Railroad) that, once completed, would span the North American continent. The two railways ultimately joined at Promontory, Utah, north of the Great Salt Lake; this was a key event in US history, as it opened up the west of the country to settlement. The Central Pacific became part of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1884.
In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln authorized two organizations to begin construction of a ‘Pacific Railroad’ linking the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. The Central Pacific was to build eastwards from the coast through the Sierra Nevada, while the Union Pacific would advance westwards from Omaha, Nebraska, across the Great Plains. The two railheads were originally intended to meet on the border of California and Nevada; however, because the government gave higher loans for more mileage of track completed, the two companies became involved in a construction race. They met in western Utah in early 1869, but continued past each other, laying 362 km/225 mi of parallel tracks before the situation was resolved. Finally, a ceremonial ‘Golden Spike’ was driven on 10 May 1869, signalling completion of the transcontinental line. In doing so, the Central Pacific had built 1,885 km/1,170 mi of track, some of which was laid at record speed. For example, in just one day – 28 April 1869 – its gangs laid 16 km/10 mi of track at a rate of over 24 m/80 ft per minute.
The Central Pacific had its origins in the 37 km/23 mi-long Sacramento Valley Railroad (SVR), built in the 1850s between Sacramento and Folsom, in the Californian goldfields. The SVR's builder, Theodore D Judah, envisioned a line across the mountains and won backing for his plan from a group of Sacramento merchants – Collis P Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker – later known as the ‘Big Four’ (in time, their investment made them millionaires). Once the Federal Act authorizing construction was passed, the government donated public lands along the route and offered financial incentives to the companies involved. In 1863, the Central Pacific began driving its track through the Sierras by way of the Donner Pass. Problems retaining workers soon led Crocker, the project's manager, to hire thousands of Chinese labourers; many of them were former Californian gold miners, but they were soon joined by others recruited directly from southern China. Following completion of the transcontinental line, the Central Pacific acquired several small Californian lines, and in the 1870s built south down the Central (San Joaquin) Valley and through the Tehachapi Mountains into Southern California.