The Transcontinental Railroad is 150

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the US Transcontinental Railroad… surely one of the most important ‘infrastructure’ projects of all time. Railway Age reprints the contemporary coverage from their predecessor publication, Railway Times.

Union Pacific has completed the restoration of their ‘Big Boy’ steam locomotive, #4014, and will be running it, together with Living Legend #844, from Ogden, Utah to Cheyenne, Wyoming, as part of the transcontinental commemoration.

Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy is, as the title suggests, about the Canadian transcontinental railroad rather than the American, but is a fitting song for the occasion nonetheless. Also, the Smithsonian website Folklife has a playlist of 20 songs that are in some way related to the transcontinental, with some information about each.  (only short samples available unless you have Spotify)

It seems likely that, absent the transcontinental railroad, the United States would not have been able to stay together as a nation on a continental basis–certainly, long-distance transportation technology acts as a centripetal force to counterbalance the many centrifugal forces that tend to separate geographies politically.  I’ve previously cited the thoughts of Edward Porter Alexander, a Confederate general turned railroad president, on this topic, while raising the question as to how far this effect can and should extend.

31 thoughts on “The Transcontinental Railroad is 150”

  1. And it started in Sacramento with the Central Pacific Railroad. We still have the railroad yard (if I could post pictures I would) – used until the 40s, it is a huge brick complex and I am told there is an old steam engine or 2 buried on the grounds. All fenced off and abandoned.

    I think cutting and blasting through all that granite in the Sierras is the greatest achievement – all done by the Chinese.

    Just to show you that graft isn’t a new thing, Congress was allocating to the railroads so much for each mile. So much for flat land, so much for foothills and so much for mountains.

    IIRC the people of the CPRR convinced Congress that the Foothills – and Sierras were 15-20 miles further west than they were.

    But then if you look at those snow tunnels and granite they probably needed every penny.

  2. Gnereal Sherman and his Army helper, Maryanne Bickerdyke planned a major role. She had joined his army as a nurse and volunteer. She eventually spent the rest of the war with them and organized “contraband,” escaped slaves into building kitchens and bakeries, which helped give the slaves work as well as earning them respect of the soldiers.

    The the war was over, many of the railroad men on the Central Pacific were ex-Army and “Mother Bickerdyke” built and ran hotels for them. Sherman protected the railroad from Indians and both moved west with the railroad.

    Her biography

    In Georgia during the war, she learned that blackberries, everywhere growing wild in the South, prevented scurvy,

    After the war ended, Bickerdyke was employed in several domains. She worked at the Home for the Friendless in Chicago, Illinois in 1866.[38][39] With the aid of Colonel Charles Hammond who was president of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, she helped fifty veterans’ families move to Salina, Kansas as homesteaders. She ran a hotel there with the aid of General Sherman. Originally known as the Salina Dining Hall, it came to be called the Bickerdyke House.[40][41] Later, she became an attorney, helping Union veterans with legal problems, including obtaining pensions.[42][43]

    General Logan helped her get a job in the San Francisco Mint.[44][45] She also worked for the Salvation Army there.[46] While in California, she was elected as the first president of Lyon Women’s Relief Corps, No. 6 of Oakland, California. She declined, but is on their membership rolls as a charter member</, which had not existed.

    She played a role in organizing the VA

  3. It’s interesting to look at the time sequence of some of the major transportation innovations and accomplishments. Fifty years before the Transcontinental, in 1819, railroads weren’t really yet a thing…construction on the B&O didn’t start until 1830…canals were the exciting thing in transportation, with the Erie Canal opening in 1821.

    Fifty years *after* the Transcontinental, in 1919, steam was still dominant on the railroads, with exception of urban transit and some short electrified lines through tunnels and congested area. Considerable advances had been made though, through improved signaling and the air brake. Aviation had demonstrated its military value in WWI, and some very limited airline services had begun, but it was a very minor factor in passenger and freight transportation.

    And fifty years after *that*, in 1969, the Boeing 747 was about to be introduced, and man went to the moon.

    Today? There have been great breakthroughs in aviation safety and efficiency, and also steady improvements in railroad operation, but nothing as transformational as the changes between 1819 and 1869, or between 1919 and 1969.

  4. No, no, no! When will you doofuses ever get it right? It was the intercontinental railroad. Which wasn’t all that out of character, it turns out. Obama Flubs U.S. History — Again.

    Speaking yesterday about energy, the president found it necessary to casually slander Rutherford B. Hayes. In Obama’s telling, Hayes was a Luddite who, when confronted with the invention of the telephone, wondered who would ever want to use one.

    “That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore,” Obama intoned. “He’s explaining why we can’t do something instead of why we can do something.”….
    According to contemporaneous accounts, what Hayes really said when he first used the phone was, “That is wonderful.”

    In fact, Hayes installed the first telephone in the White House, along with the first typewriter, and invited Thomas Edison in for a visit to show off the phonograph — and was no one’s idea of a technophobe. “He really was the opposite,” Card told Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo. “Between the telephone, the telegraph, the phonograph, and photography, I think he was pretty much on the cutting edge.”

    Or attributing an Adlai Stevenson quote to Abraham Lincoln.

    In the waning days of his 2008 campaign, then-Sen. Obama criticized Republicans with this statement: “Abraham Lincoln once said to one of his opponents, ‘If you stop telling lies about me, I’ll start telling truth about you.’ ”

    (If that quote doesn’t sound like Lincoln, that’s because it wasn’t. Adlai Stevenson, another Illinois Democrat, was fond of this line. So was William Randolph Hearst, who used it when he ran for governor of New York in 1906, although Sen. Chauncey Depew, another New Yorker, employed it back in the 19th Century.)

  5. @David – something that opened my eyes – a lot of the cars we baby boomers idolized – the Cobra, Stingray, E-Type Jag, are over 50 years old.

    When these cars came out about 50 years earlier cars started appearing.

    Electronics and metallurgy have made them more efficient and long-lived, but the real strides – by 1969 – not much has really improved.

    Same with Aviation.

  6. I just learned something new here after many years. Always thought the first transcontinental railroad started in Sacramento. Anything going on to San Francisco would have been by river boat.

    And I always thought there were only two railroads involved: the Central Pacific and the union pacific.

    Apparently there were three: the western Pacific constructed track from Oakland to Sacramento.

    There really isn’t much of a challenge and building that may be 100 miles? I wonder why they subcontracted a third rail road.

    Now that I think of it probably politics.

  7. Haven’t “major transportation innovations and accomplishments” of the past 50 years come via computers, with things like route optimization, etc? The 747 vs. Wright Brothers changes of the past 50 years is your cell phone vs. NASA computers of the 1960s, no?

  8. Certainly, the improvements in aviation safety over the past 50 years have a lot to do with computer technology. Moving maps, combined with terrain-avoidance systems, have greatly reduced the incidence of airplanes running into mountains.

    But consider: by 1969, the aviation industry had developed instrumentation for flight in low-visibility conditions..electronic navigation systems…radar, a key enabler of air traffic control as well as weather avoidance…autopilots…and computerized reservations systems.

    I don’t know if anyone has attempted to assess the impact of route-optimization systems on an economy-wide basis. There’s a lot going on in that field in the railroad industry these days, and I wonder if some over-automation experiences are going to occur.

  9. If the exponential growth industry as far as technology and economic impact was trains for 50 years, then cars for 50 years, then computers for 50 years, what’s it going to be for the next 50 years? Probably health-related, no? Life extension, human augmentation, etc?

  10. what’s it going to be for the next 50 years?

    Things didn’t really take off exponentially for computers until the internet, so the pattern here is with technologies that connect people and places. People striving for more, faster, shorter connections. What health-related technology is going to connect people?

  11. Software / AI especially is a good bet, beside the health-care stuff. I think society is much more atomized than ever before, so it’s not clear to me that making connections is what drives things anymore.

    That being said, I think there are massive demographic-driven disasters coming on a <50 year timeline, so I don't know that exponential growth in anything is a good bet for the coming century.

  12. You can cover much of the same track by taking the California Zephyr between Oakland and Chicago – great scenery and a very pleasant ride in first class.

    To get a feel for the brute force required, you can visit the toughest cut, now bypassed. It lies under Norden California and is a hand-cut tunnel (with nitroglycerine) through solid granite under the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Easy walking in summer under two ski resorts.

    The Transcontinental was an early example of a shovel ready project after the Civil War and the eastern leg was headed by the president and owner of the country’s largest shovel manufacturers – somethings never change.

  13. E.P. Alexander was making the point that the Civil war would’ve been impossible if you’d had large scale communications, travel, and commerce between the North and the South. People in 1861, didn’t travel much. And from a 20th Century standpoint, there was surprising little inter-sectional commerce.

    As a result, the North and South newspapers could paint the other as full of devils and average people believed it. And were able to whip the the hatred that caused the war.

    As for the Transcontinental Railroad, it was the beginning of the end for California. Its gone from Golden State to NY West.

  14. BTW, I recommend everyone take the train from Chicago to SF. It was quite a treat leaving Chicago in the PM, falling asleep in Nebraska and then waking up in Denver, seeing the Rocky mountains and going over the Nevada Desert to Reno. We got off there, since we’ve seen the Sierra Nevada many times.

    Train travel is so much more relaxing then driving. Assuming you can get your own compartment.

  15. Overland transportation in the U.S. was all but nonexistent before the railroad. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s that roads started to be developed in a systematic way to connect the island of pavement in towns and cities and allow long distance travel.

    The Transcontinental Railroad was between the “East” and the gold fields, in between was the rollover country.

    Most of Europe had a fairly comprehensive system of post roads or coach roads. These included infrastructure supporting travelers and especially law enforcement. Traveling by coach was expensive, but the maintained roads and inns helped the common people afoot. Of course, Europe and England had 2,000 years head start.

    When I read “Jude the Obscure”, I was struck by how at the start of the book, around 1820-30 (my guess), walking was the accepted way of traveling as far as 50 to 100 miles. At the end, 19 years later, he is routinely going from place to place by rail.

    The Civil War in the West was mainly fought along rivers. Both armies found it often nearly impossible to traverse even a few miles overland.

    The Erie Canal connected the East Coast with the Northwest Territories through the Great Lakes, bypassing Niagara Falls. This allowed better east-west connections in the North. The South was still largely dependent on sea going transport with the navigable rivers often seasonal, even the Mississippi. I believe that this was a large part of the reason that railroads were so underdeveloped on the South.

    A better connected country might have allowed slavery to die a natural death from having to compete with free labor. The tenacity of the South in maintaining the conditions of slavery through Jim Crow and share cropping for the better part of a century after the actual institution ended argues against a peaceful solution.

  16. No offense, but the Civil War did NOT start over slavery. You can actually read Lincoln saying this. The South thought secession was a right, and thought slavery was threatened, and seceded. The North went to war to “Save the Union” and would’ve kept Slavery if the South had lost in 1861 or early 1862.

    Eventually, Lincoln and everyone else figured out that you couldn’t have Union AND slavery and we got the Emancipation Proclamation.

    You can thank Jeff Davis and his band of amoral morons for destroying Slavery.

  17. Rcocean: I’ve heard the same argument since High School or even Jr. High. I’ve outgrown it. I won’t inconvenience any electrons trying to convince you. Instead I’ll tell you how to convince me:

    Name one free state that joined the Confederacy over all of these issues that “really” caused the Civil War and surely affected non slave states.

  18. Remember that most of the Africans who had been enslaved by other tribes in African and sold to European slave merchants on the coast of Africa were shipped to English, French, & Portugese territories in the Caribbean and South America. Slavery in those countries ended in the 19th Century without anyone fighting a civil war. What was the difference? The total lack of civil war around the end of slavery in the rest of the world suggests there may have been other factors involved in the War Between The States.

    It is so difficult for us today to get a clear picture of what motivated people over a century & a half ago — especially because of the pernicious influence of Political Correctness and the continuing efforts by rich white liberal Democrats to fan the flames of racism for their own short term advantage. However, the driving force for ending slavery everywhere is clear from an economic perspective — slavery could not compete with the steam engine. Coal freed the slaves around the world — except in Africa itself, where slavery continues right up to the present day. But no good liberal Democrat will ever talk about that.

  19. slavery could not compete with the steam engine. Coal freed the slaves around the world

    You have a good point. The South was a planter society and cotton was a high labor intensity crop. Read about Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn working in cotton fields as children.

    The farm crops of the midwest were labor intensive but nothing like cotton. I have heard some accounts from my grandfather. He was one of 9 boys in his family but his wife’s parents had only two girls but they farmed successfully,

    Sherman’s letter to his friends in Louisiana makes that point.

  20. Your list is short by: Southwest Asia, especially Arabia, China, North Korea and, at least as a North Korean proxy, Russia.

    According to this:

    Slightly less than half of Confederate soldiers, or their families, owned slaves. This is actually a larger proportion of slave owners than I would have thought.

    Most of the immigrants, who overwhelmingly chose to settle in the North, had experience with various forms of peonage and cause to dislike it.

    Slavery remains the common factor causing the Civil War. No slavery, no Civil War.

  21. I think that technology would have eventually ended slavery here. Many in the North professed to be content with limiting slavery to the existing states. The slave states couldn’t allow that, the fugitive slave issue was just the most clear danger to continuation of slavery.

    As a side issue, what is going to happen when someone, say, from Texas, charged with selling marijuana jumps bail to Colorado. Will he be extradited? If a state judge says no, will the judge face Federal charges for harboring a fugitive? What about the A.G.?

    The irony is that many people saw slavery dying out from inefficiency at the time the cotton gin was introduced. It made short staple cotton production economic. The long staple cotton that could be easily separated from its seed could only be grown in the tide lands. Cotton is now being grown in Kansas.

    Slaves were very quick to determine exactly mow little effort they could get away with and had no incentive at all to do any more.

  22. “Most of the immigrants, who overwhelmingly chose to settle in the North, had experience with various forms of peonage and cause to dislike it.”

    The reluctance of mechanically-skilled immigrants to settle in the South, in large part because of their dislike of slavery, was one major reason why there was so little industry in that region, pre-Civil War.

    Which in turn is why the South was so exposed to tariffs on imported goods.

  23. My guess — we are all just shooting in the dark here about the importance (or unimportance) of slavery to those who fought in the Civil War.

    We can obviously dismiss today’s Politically Correct nonsense that the Civil War was ONLY about slavery. If that had been the case, Lincoln’s first act in the war would have been to free all the slaves — not wait 2 years before freeing only the slaves in the those states where his proclamation had no effect. And if freeing slaves required civil wars, there would have been many conflicts throughout South America and the Caribbean; but those conflicts did not happen.

    It is so difficult for us to understand what life was like for people in the days before fossil fuel. Did 18th & early 19th Century European immigrants not want to settle in the South because of their dislike of slavery — or was it the lack of air conditioning? Certainly, we do know that the Sun Belt did not take off until AC became affordable and widespread. There is also the issue of loyalties, which can be hard for many of us to understand today. General Lee thought of himself as a Virginian, and only secondarily as a citizen of the United States; that view was probably widespread in both the South and the North — My State, right or wrong. Today, we live in a very different world where even an elected President of the United States like Barry Soetero thinks of himself as a citizen of the world rather than of a mere country.

    The unassailable facts are that slavery was the natural condition of mankind prior to the introduction of fossil fuels (see e.g. Old Testament – Egypt & Jews), and that slavery was brought to an end in most of the world without war once fossil fuels made slavery economically inefficient. Today’s Politically Correct attempt to rewrite history simply does not stand up.

    Slavery was the proximate cause of secession — but that spark would not have ignited the fire of the Civil War in the absence of the fuel of many other social & economic factors.

  24. The North wasn’t going to war to free the slaves any more than America went to war to redress the depredations of the Japanese in China or Hitler in Europe. We did to save the Union and answer direct attacks. Slavery was the Confederate motivation, not Lincoln’s.

    No war has ever been, will ever be, fought for a single reason. The backwardness of the South was caused as much by their adherence to an unworkable system as the Soviet Union’s. The South paid the price for 100 years after the war ended, largely because they clung to Jim Crow and made themselves unattractive to investment.

  25. Rocean
    No offense, but the Civil War did NOT start over slavery. You can actually read Lincoln saying this. The South thought secession was a right, and thought slavery was threatened, and seceded. The North went to war to “Save the Union” and would’ve kept Slavery if the South had lost in 1861 or early 1862.

    I would agree with you that the South “thought slavery was threatened” by Lincoln’s election. I would also agree with you that the North went to war to preserve the Union, not to end slavery.A LETTER FROM PRESIDENT LINCOLN.; Reply to Horace Greeley. Slavery and the Union The Restoration of the Union the Paramount Object.

    My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

    When we take a look at the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, we see that slavery was paramount in the decision to secede. There are 18 instances of words with the root “slave” in the document. Absent slavery, South Carolina would not have seceded. No slavery, no Civil War.

    BTW, for those who claim that “states’ rights” was why the South seceded, bear in mind that the slaveholders in the South were quite content with having states’ rights in the North being trampled on by enforcing the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, by forcing northern states to deliver escaped slaves to their “owners.” I put “owners” in quotes, because most in the North believed that once a slave had escaped to the North, a slave no longer had an owner. The slaveholders believed otherwise.

  26. Gavin Longmuir:slavery could not compete with the steam engine.

    MCS: I think that technology would have eventually ended slavery here.

    When did hand harvesting of cotton end in the United States? Not until after World War II. Farming in the 1950s and 60s:Cotton Harvesting.

    The first attempts at a mechanical cotton picker or combine were patented as early as 1850. Over the next 100 years, there were over 1,800 different patents issued for cotton harvesting schemes – and none of them were successful until International Harvester built the Model “H-10-H” in 1942 in the middle of the war. …

    Between 1948 and the late 1960s, mechanical harvesting of the cotton crop went from essentially zero to 96 percent of the crop. The machines reduced the man-hours required to produce a cotton crop from 125 hours per acre to 25. It’s estimated that each two-row cotton combine replaced about 80 share croppers and farm workers. In a sense, the cotton combine completed the exodus of blacks from the rural South to the urban North.

    Had we waited for technology to make slavery uneconomic, the US would have had slaves until after World War II. How long, how long?

  27. Hand harvesting for most crops except grains continued until then or even later and for some crops continues to this day. What changed was that the rest of the process of tillage and cultivation was much more easily mechanized. This allowed the harvest labor to be supplied by migrants with no need to furnish sustenance on a year round basis for a few weeks work.

    I return to Ron Chernow’s Washington biography. As time went on, Washington was saddled with an ever increasing number of non productive slaves. Many were too old or disabled for heavy work while many were children, too young. This was exacerbated by his policy of not selling slaves. Washington was probably exceptionally soft hearted, other plantations considered slaves as just another commodity to be raised and sold for cash.

    The major liability of slave labor is extremely low productivity. Supervision has to be constant and detailed and is about the least pleasant job imaginable. The incentive for the slave is to put forth the absolute minimum of effort.

  28. Gringo: “Had we waited for technology to make slavery uneconomic, the US would have had slaves until after World War II. How long, how long?”

    Some in the South had expected European nations to intervene in the Civil war on the side of the South in order to preserve their access to cotton. This intervention did not occur because Europeans instead built an alternative source of cotton from Egypt. How many slaves did the Egyptian cotton industry require? You know the answer.

    It is ingenuous (and inaccurate) to suggest that slaves were used only for picking cotton, or to imply that slaves were needed until the development of cotton-picking machines. Rather, the millenia-long practice of human slavery came to an end when the slave became economically inefficient compared to new alternatives. A man with a fossil-fueled machine could outproduce a team of slaves under an overseer. This economic rising tide raised the overall productivity of labor in the general economy, which meant that human slaves were no longer required.

    Historians estimate that 90% of the Africans enslaved by other Africans and sold to European slave traders for transportation to the New World went to Central and South America. What is now Brazil had been importing African slaves since the early 1500s, in very large numbers. After hundreds of years of an economy dependent on slave labor for a lot more than cotton-picking, Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 – without fighting a civil war. Why then? It is not that Brazilians became better and more moral in the 19th Century – it is that technology and fossil fuels provided a better alternative to slave labor, and the demand for slaves disappeared.

  29. Most of the other slave societies had horrendous slave mortality rates and were dependent on a continuous source of new slaves. I believe that America was one of the few places where a self supporting population existed.

    There was a clear gradation from less bad to far worse. A proportion of Washington’s slaves lived to old age. The life expectancy of a field slave in the West Indies sugar cane plantations was around 4 years. The sugar plantations of Louisiana had and deserved a similar reputation.

    One of the precipitating factors to the attack on Fort Sumter was the prospect that the Republicans would vigorously resist slave smuggling. The slave population was not in danger of dying out but the natural increase was not nearly enough to meet demand, especially as land opened up in Texas and the West.

  30. MCS: “Rollover country?”

    Not exactly. Union Pacific began at Omaha because there were already railroads heading toward the Missouri River to gather up the grain. That’s one reason to this day that the Eastern Trunk Lines all end at Chicago or St. Louis: better to solicit for agricultural traffic off any Corn Belt carrier rather than to acquire one and antagonize all the others. And all the Corn Belt carriers (the “granger” roads in transportation parlance) all headed to Omaha to solicit traffic off the Pacific Railroad.

    West of the Missouri River, or the Red River of the North, there was a traffic desert, until late in the 20th Century with the Powder River coal, and the Bakken oil. Yes, the transcontinental carriers tried to induce immigrants to farm out there, and, yes, that has always been a marginal proposition (although somehow the Native Americans subsisted in those parts until the rails came.)

    On the ground, though, what’s there is pretty visible, unlike what you can’t see at Angels Thirty.

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