The Road That is Built

The Montana Post/May 14, 1869

Now that the east and west have been placed in communication by rail, by the completion of the U.P. and C.P. Railroads, a brief account of the inception and construction of the herculean wonder is apropos. The general facts and figures here given, we take from a very complete article on “The Iron Road” in the May Overland. As early as 1836, the project of a railroad across the Continent was suggested by Carver, Clarke, Benton, Wilkes, Whitney, and John Plumb, an engineer of Dubuque, Iowa, the latter making it a speciality, and laboring earnestly though ineffectually to bring it to the favorable consideration of Congress, until his death after the California gold discovery. In 1846-7, Asa Whitney suggested a land subsidy, and in 1853 and 1854 appropriations of $340,000 were made for explorations and surveys and nine expeditions organized under Stevens, McClellan, Saxton, Gunnison, Beckwith, Whipple, Williamson, Parke and Pope, who surveyed ten routes, including, and we believe recommending most high’y, the Northern Pacific route.

In 1862 Congress passed the first Pacific Railroad bill, which was approved July 1st, making appropriations of land and money subsidies. The California company organized in 1861, under the name of the Central Pacific and made preliminary surveys in the same year. In the autumn of 1862, the working surveys were made fifty miles, extending east of Sacramento, and in January 1863 grading was begun. The company worked against very discouraging circumstances, and it was not until mid summer of 1867, that the rails were laid to the summit of the Sierras, 7,042 feet above the sea, and 105 miles east of Sacramento, having tunneled in fifteen places, aggregating 6,262 feet, and crawled up the Sierras nearly 100 feet grade to the mile. The first passenger train reached the summit Nov. 30, 1867. The company employed from 10,000 to 12,000 men and 1,300 teams in grading and construction, and has in one instance laid seven miles of track in a single day. Although the U. P. was chartered to build to the California line, the act was amended to permit the Central to continue east until the Union was met, and by extraordinary energy the Central has been pushed forward to Promontory Point, 809 miles east of San Francisco.

In the summer of 1865, eighteen months after the commencement of the Central, work was begun by the U.P. at Omaha, and up to June 1st, 1866, had only extended to Columbus, 91 miles. By November it had reached the North Platte, 308 miles. It reached Cheyenne at the base of the mountains, in the fall of 1867—516 miles from Omaha—and in April 1868 reached Evans’ Pass (Sherman) 548 miles from Omaha, at an altitude of 8,242 feet, the highest point between the two oceans. By the 1st of January, 1869, it was in Echo Canyon, nearly 1,000 miles west of Omaha, and on the 10th of May united with the Central at Promontory Point. The distance between Chicago and Omaha is 497 miles: Omaha and Sacramento 1,727; Sacramento and San Francisco 124 miles—total 2,348 miles. The road between San Francisco and Sacramento will be completed in July 1869. The government land grants to the roads was 12,800 per mile—nearly 16,000,000 acres in all. At the government estimate of value—the $2.50 per acre—this would be $32,000 per mile, aggregating about $40,000,000. The bond subsidy aggregates $52,976,000—a government subsidy of $92,976,000 from Omaha to Sacramento, and $3,376,000 more from Sacramento to San Francisco—a total of $96,352,000. From 20,000 to 25,000 men, and from 5,000 to 6,000 teams have been engaged for the last year, nearly all of whom found their occupation suddenly gone on last Monday, when the golden spike was driven. Soon this army of laborers will have gone; the debris will be gathered up; the “inner rings” will have pocketed thirty or forty millions profits, on each road, (when they fulfill the contracts); the towns will settle down to legitimate existence, pursuits, prosperity or decline; trade will begin to flow through the new channel, and the beneficent influences of the great enterprise be radiated from Occident to Orient; mind in the mastery of matter reap the sweet fruits of the brilliant victory, and all the world learn the great lesson of the Nineteenth Century, that nothing is impossible to the irrepressible Yankee with steam, green backs, grit and lighting subject to his command.

(Source: Library of Congress, “Chronicling America,”