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Summary Article: Transcontinental Railroad
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US railway constructed 1861–69 by the Union Pacific Railroad building westwards from Omaha, Kansas, on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, and the Central Pacific Railroad building eastwards from Sacramento, California, on the Pacific West Coast; the lines met at Promontory Point, just north of the Great Salt Lake, Utah. The largest civil engineering project in western history to that date, the railroad was over 4,800 km/3,000 mi long and crossed deserts, canyons, and mountains, requiring the development of new construction techniques. Upon its completion the journey time from East to West was cut from six months to one week and the process of uniting the USA into one nation took a giant leap forward.

Impact The Transcontinental Railroad effectively shrank the USA by linking its previously separate halves. Trade opportunities between East and West were quickly exploited to the benefit of the US economy, and government judges and officials were sent out to the new territories. Homesteaders were able to move easily to the Great Plains to take up lands offered under the Homestead Act (1862), accelerating America's fulfilment of its belief in its manifest destiny to populate the land of North America. The philosophy that Americans had a right to do so as God's chosen people was reinforced by their overcoming of the seemingly impossible difficulties posed by the railroad's construction.

For the Plains Indians, however, the railroad was disastrous. Their life-giving herds of North American buffalo, or bison, were decimated on both the northern and southern Plains by hunters who used the railroad to ship the hides and bones to the East. As the homesteaders flooded in, the Plains Indians were forced to give up more land. The success of the Americans led to the final destruction of the Plains Indians' way of life.

Construction The dream of a transcontinental railway had been around for decades when the Union government under President Abraham Lincoln passed the Pacific Railways Act in 1862, proposing to build a government funded railroad connecting the East and West. The Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad were set up, and the government offered generous subsidies of $16,000 per flat mile (1.6 km) of track laid, $32,000 per mile laid in hilly terrain, and $48,000 in the mountains. The railroad companies were also given alternate sections of 6,500 ha/16,000 acres of public lands on each side of the track for each mile of track that they laid. These generous payments were hoped to be enough to finance a project seen as vital by the US government to unify and strengthen the nation.

Progress was slow until the end of the American Civil War (1861–65) with just a few hundred kilometres of track laid, but from 1866 progress was rapid, with teams of workers laying many kilometres per day on the Great Plains. However, the conditions of work were unattractive. The gangs worked hundreds of kilometres from the nearest towns, with searing heat on the Plains and freezing temperatures in the mountains, and faced constant danger from rock falls and accidents. They were also attacked by the Plains Indians after entering their tribal lands until the government sent in the US Army. As a result, both companies had difficulty retaining their crews, who were initially mainly American and Irish. By 1868 this problem was solved with the introduction of Chinese gangs who worked far faster and for lower wages. The progress of both companies, however, was severely slowed by the Rocky Mountains, the track often advancing just a few centimetres each day.

On 10 May 1869 the two companies held the Golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Point, in the Mormon territory of Utah, a meeting point set by the government. The presidents of the two companies, Leland Stanford of Central Pacific and Thomas Durant of Union Pacific, hammered in three silver spikes and one gold spike to connect the last rails together and the news was flashed by telegraph across the USA to much celebration.


Transcontinental Railroad

Great Plains cattle industry

Homesteaders on Great Plains

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