U.S. Railroad History Essay

U.S. Railroad History

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America expanded as a nation in the early 19th century that increased pressure on American people. The increase in population led to huge in migration pushing many Americans further west to the newly open land.  Small trails were incapable to accommodate this huge amount of passengers. Nor did the existing transportations; stagecoaches, pony express, mule teams and steamboats. The stagecoaches were slow and clumsy closed vehicles (8-14 passengers) on wheels drawn by 4-6 horses. They have been operating in US from since 18th century; however the growing population needs were getting bigger. These coaches would normally  travel about 12 -18 hours a day hardly  covering 40 miles in summer, and 25 miles in winter. 

There were alternative ways of transportation that were swift; such as Pony express; the US relay mail service. It operated 2000 miles in about eight days; however the problem with Pony express was the distance between the stations. The American economy was dependent on a transportation system that too slow making the economy sluggish as well. The idea of a railway has always been in the air  “as early as 1812 Stevens had been telling all who would listen, a rather select company, that it would be better to build a railway than a canal” (American Association for State and Local History, 2006).

Amerian railway development began by 1830 when America responded to the urgent need of its transportation problem and embarked on a transcontinental railroad construction across North America (linking the railway network of the Eastern United States with California on the Pacific Coast). The plan was to build railroad from Sacramento, California to Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific laid 690 miles of track from Sacramento, California that continued through Newcastle, Truckee and Nevada. The railroad was to meet the Union Pacific line at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory.

The discussion of a transcontinental railroad started in 1830; however the debate was about the route. The debate continued; with the choices ranging from Rocky Mountains route through Nebraska and Rockies route through Texas and Los Angeles (southern route). Asa Whitney came up with a route from Chicago and the Great Lakes to northern California. He and his team surveyed the route’s capabilities, and gathered support from businessmen and politicians and submitted proposals to Congress on his own expense. Finally the construction of central route was complete without Whitney being formally involved.

During the construction, snow was a concern; as a result US purchased the northern most part of Mexico acquiring 29,640-sq/m region of Mexico (now New Mexico and Arizona). Ironically the congress was still unclear; which route should proceed. The Northerners wanted a northern route and southerners wanted a southern route. The Congress could not agree to any idea and partly this route also added fire to the American Civil War issue.

In 1853 Congress sent five teams to explore the accessible routes to California. The financial help arrived from businessmen; one of which was Huntington; who raised money from three business partners; each of them invested $1,500 to form a board of directors. This railroad was called the Central Pacific Railroad. On January 8, 1863 Governor Leland Stanford ceremoniously broke ground in Sacramento, California, to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad.

It was under the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 and 1864 that led to the formation of   two main lines; the Central Pacific from the west, and the Union Pacific from the east. Robert (1960) has mentioned  “Judged solely on the basis of the speed of construction and the technical soundness of the Union Pacific, the Acts of 1862 and 1864 were extremely efficacious. Each line was to be built 50 miles in the first year with additional 50 miles every year. The Pacific Railway Act also gave alternate sections of public land on each side of the track for each mile of tracks built to the Transcontinental Railroad.

On the other side; the Union Pacific Railroad Company was founded in Chicago in 1862; however the two companies often fought with each other sabotaging each other most of the time treating railroad as their own. “Their rivalry for the control of railroad, corporation and insurance was often bitter” (Stanley, 1963) The central Pacific track was mainly built by Chinese and Irish labourers who worked in hundreds as construction workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, engineers and cooks. The railroad construction slowed down; as the track entered Indian-held lands; who often invaded the construction sites; however improved security strengthened the track progress. And “by 1870, over 52,000 miles of line had been built and placed in operation” (John, 1950).. It was due to these railroads that rapidly expanded American nation.

In 1869 the ceremony of first transcontinental railroad was held. Both roads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, after six years of work. The fare at that time was expensive for common man. For example the cost of the trip at transcontinental train was $111 for first class, which would take four days and four hour to reach its destination. Despite being expensive and full of many woes; the railroad construction for the first time provided not only easy travel from cost to coast to all Americans, but it also pushed the US economy in the coming centuries to new heights.


Robert William Fogel, (1960). The Union Pacific Railroad. Johns Hopkins Press.

Stanley Arthur, (1963). University of Michigan.

American Heritage, (2006). American Association for State and Local History,

Stanford University.

John Debo Galloway; Simmons-Boardman, (1950). The First Transcontinental Railroad.

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