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The Union Pacific Railway

The Early Years of the First of the Transcontinentals


The celebration following the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, May 10, 1869

The celebration following the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, May 10, 1869

MUCH as life in the British Islands is bound up with the railways that cross them in all directions like the meshes of a huge net, the influence of the iron way has been even more felt on the other side of the Atlantic. For whereas in Britain the country has made the railway, in the States the railway may be said to have made the country, being the precursor of civilisation in waste and barren places, and not merely the most beneficial means of communication in districts already opened by roads.

Any literary work that deals with the expansion of the United States can no more avoid references to the rise of the great railway tracks than the traveller in the land of the Stars and Stripes can get from point to point without calling in the aid of the locomotive. In fact, so mightily has the invention of Trevethick grown and prospered under western skies, that the stories of the railroad and the American people are intertwined in a manner that is without parallel in any other country of the world. And the same enterprising spirit that has raised the United States in a comparatively short time to a foremost place, both industrially and politically, among the nations, has also signalised them as in many ways the scene of the most marvellous advances in the science and practice of mechanical locomotion.

The writer of a series of interesting articles in the Times - from which the author of this book has kindly been allowed to quote - thus generally reviews the contrast between the positions of railway systems in the British Isles and the United States:

“In Great Britain the era of railways followed the era of highways. The towns were settled, vested interests in real property were respected by the law, and land for railways in a country of such circumscribed dimensions could, in most cases, be obtained only at a very considerable cost, and, it might be, after a heavy outlay for Parliamentary and other expenses. At the outset, too, the promoters had to meet not only active opposition, but the full force of popular prejudices of the bitterest kind; while, quite apart from this, it has always been regarded as a matter of course in Great Britain that a railway company was an organisation out of which every individual who had the chance might squeeze the uttermost farthing. Then, again, the British companies have been forced, either by law, by the requirements of the Board of Trade, or by the powers possessed by the various district authorities, to construct their lines in the most substantial manner. . . . In the United States, on the other hand, excepting only the case of New England, the railways preceded the settlement of districts and the building up of the towns. They generally made the roads along which population was to follow. They were, in fact, the pioneers of national development.” (1)

Though money was not so plentiful in the States as in England, the promoters of railroads had great advantages in the huge supply of timber available for conversion into sleepers and trestle bridges, and in the readiness that Government showed to give them land all along a projected route, and even to help them financially, by guaranteeing a part of the constructional expenses. The avenues created for the movement of population proving, in most instances, what the country wanted, the free lands of a Company soon increased in value, and their sale enabled the vendors to set their system in better order than was possible in the first instance, when economy demanded the laying of a track such as, in England, would horrify a Board of Trade Inspector.

Competition and speculation in railways were by no means unknown in the United States, and their results were sometimes as disastrous as in the British Isles. “Many (systems) got into a deplorable condition. Where little or nothing had been spent on them since their construction, they practically required to be rebuilt at the end of eight or ten years. In one instance an engineer who was inspecting a line that was being taken over by another Company kicked down with his foot a thoroughly rotten piece of timber forming one of the supports of a trestle bridge over which a train had passed only a few days previously.” (2)

After a period of speculation there naturally followed one of panic; and about the time of the Civil War railways in America experienced a good “shaking up”, out of which they emerged in a more stable condition, and better organised for a policy of expansion. That they should expand rapidly was felt to be a political necessity, as the war had proved that the States were really not one or two countries, but a number of countries, distinct in their populations, ambitions, and resources. For welding them together into anything like an harmonious and mutually supporting whole, one thing was particularly needful - vastly improved means of communication; or in other words, an immense lengthening of railway mileage. The Eastern States already had a well-developed network in operation, stretching westwards as far as the Missouri and Mississippi; and on the Pacific Coast engineers had laid many leagues of track. But between east and west lay the vast expanses of prairie and desert, crossed only by the mule caravan, or bands of hardy miners bound for the goldfields of California, and, as the home of the yet untamed, bloodthirsty Indian, a perilous land for white travellers.

It is impossible in the scope of a few pages to even refer to the hundreds of eastern systems of the States. Not that they are without their romance, for here, as in other countries, their creation has been accompanied by many a thrilling adventure, and by constant fights with Nature. We must confine ourselves to a consideration of the mighty tentacles that spread from their western centres to the Rockies and the lands beyond.

A glance at the railway map of the United States will be profitable and instructive to one whose knowledge of the geography of the country is derived mainly from the dry details painfully accumulated in the school classroom. From St. Paul, on the Mississippi, the Great Northern reaches across to Seattle, on Paget Sound, Washington. One hundred and fifty miles south, on the average, runs the Northern Pacific, from the same eastern terminus, to Portland, Oregon - 2056 miles; with other divisions and branches totalling over 5000 miles. South of that again, the eye follows the route of the Chicago and Milwaukee from Lake Michigan to Omaha, whence the Union Pacific carries it on to Salt Lake City, where in turn the Southern Pacific rails takes up the running to San Francisco. At this great seaport terminates also the Southern Pacific track from New Orleans, passing through Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and California, in a mighty sweep of 3000 miles or more. In California it picks up the system known as the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway, which in the heart of New Mexico throws off a branch that stretches hundreds of miles southwards towards the mouth of the Gulf of California. Besides these main lines there are others, too many to enumerate, though scarcely less important, which form links in the chief arteries of transcontinental traffic, some of them working in open rivalry to one another.

To-day the opening of such a line is a comparatively peaceful process; what fighting there may be is waged in Congress or the railway office. But when the surveyors and engineers of the Union Pacific first set their faces towards the prairies the railwayman carried his life in his hand, and the pick and shovel had to do their work behind the protection of the rifle and revolver. The ancestors of the Indian who now, phlegmatic and half civilised, watches the express roar past, fought hard against the men who came out into the prairies with flags and chains and levels as the precursors of the greater army following behind to lay a path for the iron feet of the horse that would outstrip the mustang in speed, the buffalo in strength. Thirsting for blood, the Sioux hung round the camps, and awaited the opportunity to add one more item to the cruel record of the quarrel between red man and white. It may be truly said that these early transcontinental railways were in parts laid in blood, and marked by the lonely graves of the victims of arrow and tomahawk.

Missouri River Bridge, Union Pacific Railway

Missouri River Bridge, Union Pacific Railway

The first line built right across the States from the Missouri to the Pacific resulted from the private enterprise of a few small merchants of Sacramento, California. They, in 1861, organised the Central Pacific Railroad Company (now merged into the Southern Pacific) to carry the metals eastwards to the limits of California, where they should meet the platelayers working westwards from the Missouri, over the track now known as that of the Union Pacific Company. The project was formidable enough, including as it did the crossing of the Sierras at an elevation of 7000 feet or more, and a plunge into the great territory, 1400 miles long and 1300 miles wide, which as late as 1850 was still marked as “unexplored desert”; a tract so unknown to the Yankee, that in one stretch of 665 miles there lived but one white man. The cross-country route used by the traders was not established till 1860, when a coaching and pony express came into being. The coaches - often laden with gold-seekers bound for the Californian fields - required, we read, “1000 horses, 500 mules, and 700 men, of whom 150 were drivers. . . . Travellers by this overland route had not only to face blizzards on the deserts, to cut their way through snowdrifts, to cross swollen streams, and to endure the other fatigues and privations inevitable to a journey over deserts and mountains, but they had to run the risk of attacks from hostile Indians, and so frequent were these attacks that blood is said to have flowed in streams.” (3)

The Sacramento merchants found support in the public opinion of the Eastern States, where bright dreams were being dreamed of the great possibilities for trade with China and Eastern Asia that would be opened by transcontinental rails. A strong feeling was also forming itself on a political basis, since the unsatisfactoriness of the isolation of the Pacific States became more and more apparent in the unsettled times preceding and continuing throughout the Civil War.

A Bill was passed through Congress in July 1862, assuring both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific of Government support, and a commencement was made in the same year at the Pacific end. Eastwards matters hung fire. Money was “tight”, and the desert did not seem very attractive either to capital or labour. Consequently the charter, with its subsidy and land grants, fell somewhat flat, none of the railroads which, as President Lincoln imagined, would be benefited by the scheme coming forward to take a hand. They declared that they saw no prospects in a railroad across the desert. Individuals made desperate efforts to collect sufficient capital for a beginning, in the hope that when once things had been set in motion, money would come in. But to little purpose; and not till after the passing of a second Bill in 1864, which doubled the land grant and offered a subsidy of 16,000 to 48,000 dollars a mile of track, could a start be made at the Missouri end.

Dale Creek Bridge, Union Pacific Railway

Dale Creek Bridge, Union Pacific Railway. Completed in April, 1868, it presented engineers with one of their most difficult challenges.

Among the engineers of the line was one Grenville Dodge, (4) who, as early as 1853, had been over the Iowa and Nebraska country, surveying and looking about for the best route for a railway. On more occasions than one he found himself in danger of annihilation, by the Indians, who then were mighty in the land. He pushed up the Platte River and across the plains as far as the Rockies, and took a liking for “South Pass” as the proper gate to a terminus on the Pacific, which he fixed at Portland, Oregon. In an interview with President Lincoln in 1863, he gave it as his opinion that the Union Pacific should at least start from Omaha, on the left bank of the Missouri opposite Council Bluffs.

Here, accordingly, in 1864 the first ground was broken for the Union Pacific Railway. At the commencement operations were much hampered by lack of transportation, as no railroad as yet reached the Missouri near Omaha, and all material had to be brought, at enormous cost, up the river from St Louis. And even when considerable progress had been made, and people began to talk of the great future of the road, the granted lands did not sell well enough to cover current expenses, though the subsidy was paid as soon as a section had been completed. The Company was also seriously annoyed by the hostility of the Indians. These were ever with the surveyors going in advance of the construction trains. Many a promising young engineer found a grave in the prairie. Nor did the Sioux hesitate to attack the plate-laying gangs, stealing upon them under cover of a swell in the ground, and, before help could come, massacring them to a man. It was no rare thing for a party to return at nightfall to find a bunch of scalpless corpses where in the morning they had left a busy band of toiling comrades. So serious were the losses in the ranks, that it became necessary to import military guards to watch over the navvies as they struggled with ties and rails.

Yet the “rail-head” gradually crept westwards across the prairie. In 1866, 260 miles of steel bars were spiked down to the sleepers; and by the end of the following year a locomotive could run 540 miles west of the Missouri. Nor were the Central Pacific folk idle. They had breasted the Sierras and prepared for the attack on the desert of Utah, where the Mormon stronghold of Salt Lake City alone had beaten back the desolation of that rainless country. The Government subsidy, far heavier for mountainous than level stretches, now loomed large before the eyes of both parties. Each strove for the richer share of the spoil, the Central Pacific men on their slope, and the Union Pacific on the western flank of the Rockies. In the last lap across the plains the going was furious, and feeling ran so high that even when the graders working in advance of the platelayers met, they continued their onward course, until they overlapped nearly two hundred miles. It had already been settled by Congress, however, that where metals met metals, there a junction should be effected; and this happened at Promontory Point, near Ogden, in April 1869. On May 10, in the presence of the rival armies of workers, and of a few outsiders who had come across the line for the purpose, four spikes, two of silver, two of gold, were driven home to complete the laying of the rails. A moment later the glad news had sped across the “whispering galleries” of the railroad, and in Chicago, New York, and Buffalo public thanksgivings proclaimed the opening of a new era in the history of the United States.

In the early days of the Union Pacific Railroad

In the early days of the Union Pacific Railroad. This photograph is of a replica of a Union Pacific train in the middle ‘sixties. The wooden coaches had especially narrow windows so as to offer as small as possible a target to Indian arrows and bullets. Each train carried a community stove, where cooking was done. Bedding, if any, was owned by the passengers.

(1) The Times, January 5, 1903

(2) The Times

(3) The Times, April 10, 1903

(4) Afterwards General Dodge, and a prominent railway man.

You can read more on “The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway”,  “North American Railroads”, “The Pennsylvania Railroad” and “The Union Pacific Streamlined Express” on this website.