onThe Transcontinental Railroad and Westward Expansion
Thesis: The transcontinental railroad greatly increased Westward expansion in
the United States of America during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The history of the United States has been influenced by England in many ways.
In the second half of the 1800’s, the railroad, which was invented in England,
had a major effect on Western expansion in the United States.
“Railroads were born in England, a country with dense
populations, short distances between cities, and large
financial resources. In America there were different
circumstances, a sparse population in a huge country, large
stretches between cities, and only the smallest amounts of
money.” (“Railroad” 85)
The first American railroads started in the 1830’s from the Atlantic ports of
Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah
(Douglas 23). Within twenty years, four rail lines had crossed the Alleghenies
to reach their goal on ‘Western Waters’ of the Great Lakes or the tributaries of
the Mississippi. Meanwhile, other lines had started West of the Appalachian
mountains, and by the mid-1850’s Chicago, St. Louis, and Memphis were connected
to the East. Still other lines were stretching Westward, beyond the Mississippi.
An international route connected New England and Montreal and another one
crossed Southern Ontario between Niagara, New York, and the Detroit River.
During the 1850’s, North and South routes were developed both East and West of
the Alleghenies. It was not until after the Civil War, however, that a permanent
railroad bridge was constructed across the Ohio River. After the Civil War, the
pace of railroad building increased. The Pacific railroads, the Union Pacific
building from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific building from Sacramento,
California, had started to build a transcontinental railroad during the war to
help promote national unity. They were joined at Promontory, Utah, on May 10,
1869, completing the first rail connection across the continent.
Before the transcontinental railroad, the Eastern railroads had lines running
only as far West as Omaha, Nebraska. The Western railroads had a few lines
running North and South in California, far West of the wall of the Sierra Nevada
Mountains. In between these two networks was a huge gap of about seventeen
hundred miles of plains and mountain ranges. Closing this gap was a dream shared
by many Americans. Businessmen thought of all the money they could make by
having an entire continent full of customers and using the railroads to serve
their needs. Romantics dreamed of the discoveries of wild Indians, scouts and
hunters, and, of course, gold. Gold had been a desired find throughout the
exploration of America. The California Gold Rush of 1849 again created much
excitement about the search for gold.
The Pacific Railroads were founded when the Civil War was in progress. Until
the war was over, the transcontinental railroad was a giant enterprise stalled
by much bickering between a reluctant Congress and the Army, who had clamored
for it (Cooke 254). If it had been left to the government, it would have taken
another twenty years to complete the transcontinental railroad. However, it was
a commercial venture, and it was fortunately fed by the adrenaline of
competition. There were two railroad companies building the transcontinental
railroad, the Union Pacific from the East, and the Central Pacific from the West.
The two companies struggled to beat each other in slamming down a record mileage
of track. At first, Congress avidly pursued the project and they had stipulated
that the Central Pacific should stop when it reached the California Border
(Congress was full of Easterners). In 1865, after much argument about the aid
the government was providing to the two companies, the actual construction of
the transcontinental railroad was started. Then in 1866, Congress decided that
two companies should build as fast as possible and meet wherever they came
First, the Union Pacific sent out location parties, tracing the line and
clearing the path by killing the Sioux and the buffalo in the way of the
railroad. Then came the construction gangs who, working in shifts, graded
(flattened) the land by as much as a hundred miles a stretch. Behind them came
the track-laying crews, each consisting of ten thousand men and as many animals.
For each mile of track, the government was loaning the railroad from $16,000,
for flat land, to $48,000, for mountainous land (“Railroad” 86). The supplies
needed to lay a single mile of track included forty train cars to carry four
hundred tons of