Promontory, Utah. May 10, 1869
By the mid-1840s, America had become a nation divded not only from North to South by the oncoming Civil War crisis, but also a country divided East from West by the scarcity of transportation. As a result of the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo with Mexico, the document that ended the Mexican-American War and ceeded all of Mexico's northern land claims to the US, and the earlier settlement of the Oregon question with Great Britain, the United States now had control over California, Oregon, and much of the interior of the continent. Seeing the need to connect the massive area, Congress charged Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, to conductsurveys for a transcontinental railroadin 1853. After years of debate on the best route, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act on July, 1 1862, and one of the greatest adventures in American history began.
The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, two railroad companies, were authorized to construct the railroad and telegraph line that would span the American continent. The Union Pacific was to build westward from the 100th meridian (near Omaha, Nebraska) across the Great Plains, and the Central Pacific was to build eastward from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada.
The competition between the two railroads was fierce. The leader of the Central Pacific, Charlie Crocker, was rutinely upset by the lack of publicity afforded his company--the Union Pacific was getting much more publicity than him. In order to capture the public's attention, he declared that April 28, 1869 would be "Ten Mile Day." To guarantee success, Crocker used his best working men and promised them four days' wages for one day's work. The press was there in force, along with the Central Pacific's competion, hoping that his stunt would fail miserably. Croker's stunt worked. With the screech of a train whistle at dawn, the marathon began. By noon six miles of track was laid, and workers were given a one-hour lunch break. By 7 p.m. they had set a new record: 10 miles and 56 feet in 12 hours. The Central Pacific recieved its desired publicity.
In addition to large land grants, the government promised funds to each of the railroad companies, depending on how much track was laid. This touched off a fierce competition between the two. Soon the desolate lands that had seen only the government of Native Americans, and the occasional visit of fur traders and explorers saw the bustle of surveyors, graders, trestle builders, tunnel blasters, and spikers. Thousands of workers, including Civil War veterans and immigrants--especially the Chinese, all of whom sang to help them in their back-breaking work.
Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad in California. The Chinese, at first considered too small to do the backbreaking labor of laying track, made a great contribution toward completing the transcontinental railroad. Many workers were killed in blasting accidents or died from exposure during the harsh winters in the Sierra Nevada.
As the tracks from the Central Pacific and Union Pacific approached each other, the two railroads could not agree on a meeting point; as a result, they surveyed and graded a parallel roadbed 320 kilometers long. Finally, they chose a meeting point -- Promontory, Utah -- and on May 10, 1869, a telegraph key clattered out a message indicating the line's completion.
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