The First Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was built in the 1860’s. Its construction was considered to be one of the greatest American technological achievements of the 19th century. The purpose of the railroad was to connect the developing railway network of the Eastern coast with the western United States. The railway was completed in its entirety on May 10, 1869. The infrastructure not only gave America a nation-wide transportation network, but it forever changed the American West.
In 1862, Congress passed and signed the Pacific Railroad Bill, which granted public land and funds to build a transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad would lay tracks from California heading east, and the Union Pacific Railroad would lay tracks from the Missouri River west. The Congress supported it with 30-year U.S. government bonds and extensive land grants of government-owned land. Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins were the “Big Four” that conceived this project and brought it to a successful ending .
Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing rugged mountains and arid desert. The alternatives were to travel by sea around the tip of South America, a distance of 18,000 miles; or to cross the Isthmus of Panama, then travel north by ship to California. Each route took months and was dangerous and expensive. The transcontinental railroad would make it possible to complete the trip in five days at a cost of $150 for a first-class sleeper.
Work on the railroad was physically difficult and at times dangerous, and attracting workers was a challenge. The majority of the Central Pacific’s laborers were Chinese. Both railroad companies actively recruited Chinese laborers because they were regarded as hard workers and were willing to accept a lower wage than white workers, mostly Irish immigrants. They did prodigious work building the line over and through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across Nevada to the meeting in Utah.
Now the country was connected as never before: a journey between San Francisco and New York that previously took up to six months now took only days. Six years after the groundbreaking, laborers of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was here on May 10, 1869 that Stanford drove The Last Spike that joined the rails of the transcontinental railroad As soon as the ceremonial spike had been replaced by an ordinary iron spike, a message was transmitted to both the East Coast and West Coast that simply read, “DONE.” The country erupted in celebration upon receipt of this message.