I don’t know how I missed this, but May 10 was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. It was celebrated in northern Utah, at Promontory Summit, which has been preserved as a national historical park.
This all started in 1862 with the Pacific Railway Act signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, providing federal support of land and bonds to the creation of a transcontinental railway. Our country was a little busy right then with the Civil War, but some people were thinking ahead. For context, the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle of Antietam, and the capture of New Orleans by Union forces were also in 1862.
There were already a series of railroads throughout the eastern part of the United States, and the plan was to start building the railroad from Sacramento in California going east, and from Omaha in Nebraska going west. They would meet somewhere in the middle.
Promontory Summit in northern Utah is not exactly in the middle, but the workers on the west had to blast their way through the Sierra Nevada mountains, which undoubtedly slowed them down. Like in the 2007 version of the movie 3:10 to Yuma.
It took a little over six years to meet almost in the middle. By the time it was finished in May 1869, the Civil War was over. Life in the United States had changed, and this transcontinental railroad was the structure that would facilitate even more change. This was the piece of infrastructure that would build and support a robust economy.
The major change was a matter of money and time. A trip that used to take months by stagecoach or wagon train would now take about a week and would cost much less. And this applied to goods as well as people. It opened unpopulated regions of the country to exploration and settlement. Towns appeared along the railroad lines to provides services to those travelers and to be close to supplies.
It wasn’t all good, of course. The new people exploring and settling the newly available regions pushed out the native peoples and animals that had been there for centuries. The Chinese who had such a major role in creating the western tracks had to find different jobs in a country that welcomed them even less than they had before.
Some good, some bad, but ultimately one more example that you can’t go back to the way it used to be.
So how did I finally hear about this anniversary almost two months late? When I was gathering links to peer-reviewed articles for my weekly list at Historical Research Update, I saw the current issue of California History: The Journal of the California Historical Society. The Summer 2019 issue, 96:2, is a special thematic issue about the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad.