Transcontinental Railroad

You can assume for sure that many of your ancestors, even from decades ago, traveled on the railroad- short distances or long distances.

With the development of the steam engine in the United States in 1830 with most of its use in the years to come in areas east of the Missouri Territory. But this new innovation was great for moving goods and products as well as passengers.

There was later a great Westward expansion of settlers going beyond the Mississippi River to locations west. With gold discovered in California in 1848, now there were many people wanting to seek their fortunes during the gold rush. The main methods to travel outwest was the Oregon Trail which could be very hard and dangerous. Another method was by ship from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean through Cape Horn (southern end of South America), but that voyage took 6 months. A better method of travel was needed.

There was Asa Whitney, an entrepreneur, in 1845, suggested to the US Congress the use of a railroad system that went from the east coast to the west. Only the Congressmen could decide what was the best route across the country. In 1853, the House appropriated funds to the Army Topographic Corps to determine viable routes. Five different surveys set out and came back with potential routes, but Congress still failed to act.

It would be Theodore Judah in 1860 who came up with a potential route through Donner Pass. The Pacific Railroad Act by Congress, chartering the work of the Central Pacific Railroad Company (on the West Coast) and the Union Pacific Railroad (East Coast) to build a transcontinental railroad. Theodore Judah attempted to recruit investors to get the project going, but he contracted yellow fever crossing the Isthmus of Panama and died in 1863.

Both railroad companies (from east and from west) were confronted with challenges to construction. As the Union Pacific set out toward the West, construction began to encroach upon the lands of Native American tribes, the members of which were none too happy with these railroad tracks. Attacks upon railroad workers became a regular problem of construction.

To create passages through the western mountains, the railroad companies recruited 14,000 Chinese immigrants who labored under brutal conditions. By 1867, the companies were rapidly approaching each other in Salt Lake City, Utah, and President Ulysses S. Grant announced that he would withhold funds until the companies settled on a point of intersection. ‘Promontory Summit’, north of Great Salt Lake, was determined as the meeting point of the Transcontinental Railroad construction. For the final railroad spike, Leland Stanford of the west company had been given a 17.6-karat golden spike. It was driven into the ground at 12:47 p.m. on May 10, 1869, marking the birth of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Once the Transcontinental Railroad was functioning in full, travel time from the East Coast to West Coast was cut from several months to under a week. The cost was as little as $65 for a ticket on the transcontinental line from New York to San Francisco; $136 for first class in a Pullman sleeping car; $110 for second class; and $65 for a space on a third- or “emigrant”-class bench. The American West was opened up to massive development, resources could be easily transported across the continent, and westward expansion boomed.

You may have had numerous ancestors who moved west settling in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, etc that traveled there by the transcontinenal railroad system.

Photo: Transcontinental Railroad Express New York City to San Francisco.

Related Blogs:

Railroads Across America

Railroad Depots

Ancestors Going West

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