The Transcontinental Railroad

In 1862, the United States Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Acts, a group of acts that would promote the building of a cross-country railroad system. After calling it the Pacific Railroad for a time, this railway system was later dubbed the First Transcontinental Railroad. The acts were officially signed into law in July of that year by President Abraham Lincoln.

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was overseen by two main companies: the Central Pacific company and the Union Pacific company. The objective for both companies was to start building on opposite ends of the planned railway route and eventually meet in the middle.

transcontinental railroad map

The Central Pacific Railroad Company was founded in 1861 by then-governor Leland Stanford and three other men: Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, Jr. They named Leland Stanford the president of the railroad company, a title he held until 1893. The workers of the Central Pacific Railroad Company began construction of the railway in 1863, and they were told to build east from Sacramento, California. During this time, the United States saw an influx, or an arrival in large numbers, of Chinese immigrants - specifically men who wanted to work to support their families. The company wound up hiring over 15,000 Chinese immigrants to work on the Transcontinental Railroad with them. All of the laborers faced the same hardships while engaging in the back-breaking work: the numerous mountains they had to dig through, the ravines, and the blizzards that they encountered as the construction went on.

On the other side of the Transcontinental Railroad, there was the Union Pacific company, whose task was to begin at the Missouri River in Omaha, Nebraska, and work westward. Thomas Durant was named Vice President of the Union Pacific Railroad and oversaw the project. Although their counterparts in Sacramento began in 1863, construction in Omaha for Union Pacific didn’t start until after the Civil War ended in 1865. The majority of workers for the Union Pacific company were Irish immigrants, although some laborers were Civil War veterans and African American laborers. Union Pacific did grapple with attacks by Native American groups, who were angry that the Transcontinental Railroad was being built on their lands.

Finally, after years of grueling labor, the two sides met on May 10, 1869, in Promontory Utah. The full path of the Transcontinental Railroad, once complete, measured around 1,907 miles long and cut through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. It also connected with the existing Easter U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa, right on the Missouri River.