The first transcontinental railroad, also known as the Pacific Railroad or the Overland Route, was the first railway to connect the United States west to the existing east network.
The railroad was built between 1863 and 1869 and the 3,075 km long project was split between three private companies. The Western Pacific Railroad Company (WPRC), the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California (CPRR) and the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) received public land and state issued government bonds to finance the initial investment.
The WPRC built 212 km of track, from the road’s western terminus at Alameda/Oakland to Sacramento, California. The CPRR built 1,110 km east from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, the hardest part of the construction, as it passed through the Sierra Nevada mountains that need to be dug out for tunnels. Lastly, the UPRR built 1,746 km, from the road’s eastern terminus at the Missouri River settlements of Council Bluffs and Omaha, Nebraska westward to Promontory Summit.
The railroad officially opened between Sacramento and Omaha on 10 May 1869, with the last part of the route, from Sacramento to San Francisco Bay, being completed in the following six months.
The coast-to-coast railroad connection reformed the settlement and economy of the American West, bringing the western states and territories into alignment with the northern Union states and making transporting passengers and goods coast-to-coast considerably quicker, safer and less expensive. Once the railroad was complete, it cut travel times from California to Nebraska from six months to just six days, revolutionising the way people and cargo travelled across the country.
The shorter and cheaper travel times contributed to a flourishing trade, with an estimated $50 million worth of goods being transported on the new railroad each year by 1880, according to BBC. The railway also gave way for new towns to quickly develop along the route, redefining where Americans lived, boosting westward expansion and the spread of Anglo-European influences.
3. Human cost
At the same time the transcontinental railroad connected America and boosted its development, its construction displaced many Native American tribes and had hundreds of casualties among the workers.
The CPRR struggled to find enough workers to build its section of the railroad and turned to Chinese immigrants for the most demanding labour. At first trialling with people already living in the US, the company soon set up recruiting offices in Guangdong. The Chinese had the most difficult tasks, including digging the tunnels through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
During the 6-year construction, about 1,200 Chinese workers died, according to the BBC, while those that survived faced heavy discrimination. Chinese communities across the US were quickly run out by racist locals, culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, that prohibited all immigration of Chinese labourers to the US. The law was only abolished in 1943.