Secrets of the Serial Set: The First Transcontinental Railroad

4 MIN READ

Today, one can easily get from New York City to Los Angeles in the span of a few hours. So it’s hard to imagine the days when traveling across the country didn’t take hours, or days, but rather months. Horses and boats are not the most efficient means of travel, but they are all Americans had—until the railroads. One particular railroad, the first transcontinental railroad, transformed America forever. In this edition of Secrets of the Serial Set, we look at how this feat was accomplished—and what it meant for the country—especially in light of the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Trails to Rails

In the 1840s, merchant Asa Whitney[1]“Asa Whitney’s railroad from Mississippi River to Pacific.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1849, pp. 1-118. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset20012&i=560. This document can be … Continue reading travelled from New York to China. It took more than 150 days. During his return to the States, he dreamt of a faster way to travel to Asia via a railroad that would connect the East and West coasts. He published his idea for a transcontinental railroad that extended from Chicago to California in 1848. However, it wasn’t until a few years later that the idea was considered in Congress—funds were allotted to survey routes for the railroad in 1853, and Theodore Judah, chief engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad, succeeded in devising a route through the Sierra Mountains and presented it to Congress in 1856.

profile map of the transcontinental railroad

However, tensions between the North and South and arguments over where the railroad should begin prevented the project for several years. Finally, in the midst of the Civil War, the Republican Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862,[2]To aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes., Chapter 120, 37 Congress, Public Law 37-120. 12 … Continue reading providing public land grants and loans[3]“Act to aid in construction of railroad from Missouri river to Pacific ocean.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1861, p. 1-12. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset20153&i=539. This document … Continue reading allowing the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies to create a line that stretched across the country.

screenshot of Pacific Railroad Act of 1862

Working on the Railroad

In 1866, work on the railroad officially began in Omaha from the east and Sacramento from the west. However, the work was not easy. Union Pacific workers on the eastern side of the line, most of whom were Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans, faced hot summers and bitter winters. Meanwhile, Central Pacific workers, most of whom were Chinese immigrants,[4]“Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1992, pp. 1-4. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset14139&i=210. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s … Continue reading suffered 12-hour workdays, and the difficult work of building across the Sierra Nevada included avalanches and accidental explosions that killed hundreds.

illustration of railroad workers in the Sierra Nevada
Illustration of railroad workers in the Sierra Nevada

Additionally, workers faced hostility from the Indigenous peoples, who had already been forced out West by the white settlers. Union Pacific workers killed off American bison in order to ward off the threat of the Plains Indians. As a result, the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains were nearly eliminated, as was the buffalo population.

By 1869, nearly 2,000 miles of railroad track[5]GOLDEN SPIKE 150TH ANNIVERSARY ACT. Washington, U.S. G.P.O. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.congrecreports/crptxabzg0001&i=3. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database. had been laid, ahead of schedule and under budget.

The Golden Spike

In what was potentially the first mass media event in American history, the railroad was completed in May 1869 when Central Pacific Railroad Company President Leland Stanford[6]“Eulogies on Senator Leland Stanford.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1893, pp. 1-[vi]. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset33050&i=108. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s … Continue reading hammered in the final “Golden Spike.”[7]“Commerce and navigation of U.S., 1890; internal commerce.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1890, pp. I-1176. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset33625&i=742. This document can be found in … Continue reading The spike and hammers were wired to telegraph lines so that they could be heard at telegraph stations across the country. Finally, a message that simply read “DONE” was transmitted across the nation to the East and West coasts. With the completion of the railroad, Americans could now travel across the country in just one week, rather than six months.

Today, the location of the Golden Spike is a National Historic Site.[8]GOLDEN SPIKE 150TH ANNIVERSARY ACT. Washington, U.S. G.P.O. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.congrecreports/crptxabzg0001&i=3. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.

photo of the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, Utah
Driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, Utah

Going Off Track

The transcontinental railroad facilitated rapid expansion by white settlers across America[9]“Authorizing Golden Spike National Monument in Utah.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1965, pp. 1-8. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset22121&i=1120. This document can be found in … Continue reading in search of land, gold, freedom, and Manifest Destiny. It also resulted in the demise of Indigenous culture across the Plains and the West, as native peoples were continuously forced out of their lands. The railroad also necessitated the creation of standardized time zones—in 1883, trains began operating in Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time.

Both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies were acquired and merged into several various companies over the years. In the 1990s, Union Pacific acquired the Southern Pacific Rail Corporation and is now the largest railroad company in the states. However, rail workers continue to face perilous working conditions. President Biden recently signed legislation that blocked a national railroad strike[10]Administration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., 2022 Statement on the Tentative Agreement Between Railroad Industry Employers and Workers , Daily Comp. Pres. Docs. 1 (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library. threatened by rail workers angry at their low pay and lack of paid sick days. Railroad companies have cut jobs and other costs, which most recently has resulted in the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, creating an environmental and public health disaster. You can research other similar disasters and responses in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library, with articles such as:

Help Us Complete the Project

Secrets of the Serial Set is an exciting and informative blog series from HeinOnline dedicated to unveiling the wealth of American history found in the United States Congressional Serial Set. Documents from additional HeinOnline databases have been incorporated to supplement research materials for non-U.S. related events discussed.

If your library holds all or part of the Serial Set, and you are willing to assist us, please contact Steve Roses at 716-882-2600 or sroses@wshein.com. HeinOnline would like to give special thanks to all of the libraries that have provided generous contributions which have resulted in the steady growth of HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set.

HeinOnline Sources

HeinOnline Sources
1 “Asa Whitney’s railroad from Mississippi River to Pacific.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1849, pp. 1-118. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset20012&i=560. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.
2 To aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes., Chapter 120, 37 Congress, Public Law 37-120. 12 Stat. 489 (1862). This act can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large database.
3 “Act to aid in construction of railroad from Missouri river to Pacific ocean.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1861, p. 1-12. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset20153&i=539. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.
4 “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1992, pp. 1-4. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset14139&i=210. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.
5, 8 GOLDEN SPIKE 150TH ANNIVERSARY ACT. Washington, U.S. G.P.O. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.congrecreports/crptxabzg0001&i=3. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.
6 “Eulogies on Senator Leland Stanford.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1893, pp. 1-[vi]. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset33050&i=108. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.
7 “Commerce and navigation of U.S., 1890; internal commerce.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1890, pp. I-1176. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset33625&i=742. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.
9 “Authorizing Golden Spike National Monument in Utah.” U.S. Congressional Serial Set, , 1965, pp. 1-8. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset22121&i=1120. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.
10 Administration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., 2022 Statement on the Tentative Agreement Between Railroad Industry Employers and Workers , Daily Comp. Pres. Docs. 1 (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library.
You Might Also Like
photo of radiation warning signs posted on a gate
Secrets of the Serial Set
Secrets of the Serial Set: The Three Mile Island Disaster

During the mid-20th century, nuclear power was one of the fastest growing areas of science and technology. However, in 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island put the health and safety of employees and nearby civilians at risk.

photo from William McKinley's final address at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901
Secrets of the Serial Set
Secrets of the Serial Set: The Assassination of William McKinley

It was none other than HeinOnline’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, where the third assassination of an American president took place on September 6, 1901. In this month’s Secrets of the Serial Set, we explore William McKinley’s violent death.

photo of radiation warning signs posted on a gate
Secrets of the Serial Set
Secrets of the Serial Set: The Three Mile Island Disaster

During the mid-20th century, nuclear power was one of the fastest growing areas of science and technology. However, in 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island put the health and safety of employees and nearby civilians at risk.

photo from William McKinley's final address at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901
Secrets of the Serial Set
Secrets of the Serial Set: The Assassination of William McKinley

It was none other than HeinOnline’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, where the third assassination of an American president took place on September 6, 1901. In this month’s Secrets of the Serial Set, we explore William McKinley’s violent death.

photo of Chinese flag
Secrets of the Serial Set
Secrets of the Serial Set: The Chinese Exclusion Act

The United States has a dark history regarding its immigration policies. One example of these laws was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted immigration from China for decades after its passage in 1882.

Like what you see?

There’s plenty more where that came from! Subscribe to the HeinOnline Blog to receive posts like these right to your inbox.

By entering your email, you agree to receive great content from the HeinOnline Blog. HeinOnline also uses the information you provide to contact you about other content, products, and services we think you’ll love.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to the blog!