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Book of the Week — The Central Pacific Railroad: A Trip Across the North American Continent…

“A railroad is like a lie you have to keep building to make it stand.” – Mark Twain

The Central Pacific Railroad: A Trip Across the…
New York: T. Nelson and sons, 1870
F594 C46

This is one in a series of pictorial guide-books published by T. Nelson and sons. The Central Pacific Railroad: A Trip Across the North American Continent from Ogden to San Francisco includes twelve tinted lithograph views along the line. The guidebook was published shortly after the final spike was driven into the rails at Promontory Summit, Utah, where the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroad joined, completing the first transcontinental railroad linking the east and west coasts of the United States. Immediately, the railroad became an alluring way for a large number of curious Americans to witness the continent without the struggles of pioneering.

Between 1862 and 1872, Congress included railroads east of the Mississippi in a complex appointment of land grants. More than 125 million acres of land was given to aid in the construction of the railroads. The railroads eventually received from the states and federal government more than 223 million acres of land, 35 million acres of which they later forfeited. The largest grants went to the transcontinental railroads. The Central Pacific, along with the Union Pacific, received 20 odd-numbered sections of land for each mile of track they constructed. In addition, Congress loaned the railroads from $16,000 to $48,000 per mile, depending on the nature of the terrain through which the railroad passed. The construction of the first transcontinental railroads was chartered during the American Civil War – the Union Pacific to build across the continent westward from Omaha, the Central Pacific to build eastward from Sacramento. Fortunes were made by the directors of the railroad corporations and much of these fortunes found their way into the pockets of congressmen and senators who looked after the railroads’ legislative needs.

Financial problems were one source of headache. Government loans did not meet the costs of the daunting project. The railroads had to attract private capital, by selling stock or bonds to private investors using tracks, locomotives, cars, and land grants as collateral.

Theodore D. Judah, an engineer, created the Central Pacific. He bombarded senators with charts, graphs, and drawings determined to convince Congress of a plan that would construct a railroad from San Francisco across California to the Sierra Nevada, enter Nevada, and strike eastward. It was an audacious plan, but the need for transportation West in time of war convinced the lot. Judah persuaded four Sacramento merchants – Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker – to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad in 1862. Together, the men made a modest investment of about $60,000. They squeezed Judah out of the project, leaving them in complete control. They then set up a separate construction company. The Big Four, as they became known, secured a loan of nearly $2 million from the State of California and falsely convinced President Abraham Lincoln that the Sierra Nevada began almost at Sacramento, nearly doubling the federal government’s subsidy. Equipment was sent around Cape Horn to San Francisco and upriver to Sacramento. Trees in the foothills were cut for ties and trestles. Tracklaying began in 1863, but the Central Pacific extended only 115 miles four years later as the construction teams entered the Sierra Nevada, struggling against rock, snow, and wind.

The labor was done by construction crews manned largely by Chinese (who numbered nearly 10,000 at the peak of construction), Civil War veterans, and Irish immigrants. Hundreds of workers died, often replaced by recruitments from China, brought to California, and taken by rail to the end of the track. Leland Stanford characterized the Chinese as “quiet, peaceable, industrious, economical – ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work required in railroad building.” Fair enough words, but Charles Crocker’s comment was more telling about the attitude toward the men who built the edifice that connected west to east: “[If] you should drive these 75,000 Chinamen off, you would take 75,000 white men from an elevated class of work and put them down to doing a low class of labor that the Chinamen are now doing, and instead of elevating you would degrade white labor to the extent.”

The two lines met on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, near Ogden, Utah. No Chinese were visible in the famous photographs taken by Andrew J. Russell of the momentous occasion. By the time the juncture was completed the line already needed nearly 7 million dollars’ worth of repairs.

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