Crossing America

THEODORE JUDAH WAS A DRIVEN MAN, determined to realize his dream: he believed that the United States needed a railroad running across its vast landmass to connect east and west. The restless, dark-haired son of a clergyman, Judah played the organ as a hobby and came across as rather earnest. Nicknamed “Crazy Judah” in his day, “he was never considered an entirely normal man,” according to Oscar Lewis in The Big Four. Judah was, however, an experienced railroad engineer who had laid out the route for the spectacular Niagara Gorge Railroad in New York and the Sacramento Valley Railroad, the first in California.


Judah was not the only dreamer: building a transcontinental US railroad had been the ambition of various railroad promoters ever since the first train had chugged down the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830 (see The First American Railroads). Such a railroad was seen not only as economically beneficial but also as a way of bringing together the different regions of the US, which stretched across a land mass of nearly 3,000sq miles (5,000sq km); without the railroad, it is possible that the US might not even have remained united.

It was Judah, however, who almost singlehandedly persuaded Congress to pass a law creating a railroad that would link the existing tracks in the east with California, 1,800 miles (3,000km) away. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act—an act all the more remarkable given that the Civil War was in full swing and Washington in a state of war. The legislation came with a generous bonus: to ensure the railroad was built, the companies that built it would receive government subsidies of between $16,000 and $48,000 for every 1 mile (1.6km) completed, depending on the difficulty of the terrain. Moreover, they would be granted all the land extending 10 miles (16km) to one side of the track.


Once he had seen the legislation passed, Judah traveled to California to survey a possible route through the Sierra Nevada, a rugged mountain range that reaches 14,500ft (4,420m) above sea level. Many doubters argued it would be impossible to traverse the range. Moreover, despite the government funding, Judah still needed more money to finance to project. His breakthrough came at a meeting in the upstairs room of a modest grocery store in Sacramento, where Judah had organized an event to attract potential investors. A group of four enterprising and ultimately very lucky men—Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington, all small-town merchants with ambition—decided to back his crazy endeavor. The Big Four, as they became known, founded the Central Pacific Railroad company, which won the contract to build the line heading eastward from California.

Sadly, like many railroad pioneers, Judah did not live to see the fruits of his labors. He fell out with the Big Four over their efforts to extract as much money as they could from the project by fraudulent activity, and headed back to New York. At the time, the only route back to the east coast was via Panama (see The Panama Railroad: A Deadly Rush for Gold), where Judah unfortunately contracted yellow fever and died at the age of 37.

Meanwhile, the Central Pacific encountered difficulties, from winter snow to a lack of funds caused by the corrupt activities of the Big Four. Few local people were willing to work for the company because mining and gold-digging were more lucrative, so thousands of Chinese laborers were shipped across the Pacific to provide manpower. Progress was slow at first, but by 1867, the railway over the Sierra Nevada at the Donner Pass (7,085ft/2,160m) was completed. This was the toughest engineering challenge of the railroad, and subsequent progress on the plains was far easier. When the Civil War ended, in 1865, the Union Pacific Railroad, which had the contract for the other end of the track starting in Council Bluffs, Iowa, began to make good progress. Boosting the Union Pacific’s construction, many ex-Civil War soldiers joined the teams of railroad-builders, providing a disciplined workforce supplemented by freed slaves.

Like the Central Pacific, the Union Pacific was deeply corrupt and became a vehicle to enrich its backers, notably Thomas C. Durant, the company’s vice-president, and his cronies. Both companies came up with a simple scheme to purloin the public purse: they created separate construction companies, which were given contracts to construct the line at inflated prices, creating vast profits for these companies, which in turn paid out generous dividends to their proprietors—who just happened to be the owners of the railroad companies. In this way, all the main railroad backers became multimillionaires at the government’s expense.

Building a railroad in the sparsely populated west of the US required a remarkable level of organization, and as many as 10,000 workers at its peak. The railroad was constructed in stages: first, an advance party surveyed the route; then graders smoothed out the route, shifting huge amounts of rock and earth, laying the embankments and building the bridges; these were followed by the tracklayers, who put down the ties and rails.

The workers lived in camps that moved forward with the railroad. These virtual towns became known as “hells on wheels.” They were infamous for their spartan accommodation and saloons—the original of those later portrayed in so many Westerns. Fights were frequent, both with fists and with guns, and the danger of shoot-outs in these townships was constant. The workers also risked attack from Native Americans justifiably incensed at the land grab. The railroad men responded with force to the raids and massacred countless Sioux and Cheyenne people, including women and children, in reprisals, although they established a better relationship with the Pawnee, allowing them free rides on the railroad and establishing an alliance with them against the Sioux.

Groups of workers fought among themselves too. The government contracts had been set up in such a way that the two companies were competing to build the most track, as no meeting point had been specified. At one stage, the two lines passed each other on a mountainside: the Irish laborers of the Union Pacific were blasting rock, which tumbled down on the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific below. Enraged, the Chinese started a fight that was only ended by negotiations between the companies. The Central and Union negotiated a truce over where their respective tracks should meet. This was at Promontory Summit in Utah, where, on May 10, 1869, Stanford and Durant took turns to bang in a golden spike. A momentous occasion, it was marked by celebrations across the US as the news spread rapidly by telegraph. In Chicago, a 7-mile (11-km) parade jammed the streets, while in New York, the event was marked by a 100-gun salute. In Sacramento, 30 locomotives that had been assembled for the occasion tooted their whistles in a tuneless concert. Despite the corruption and construction problems, it had taken only six years for the line to be completed, rather than the expected ten years—although, in fact, the tracks were not quite continuous across the US until the bridge over the Missouri River between Council Bluffs and Omaha was completed in 1872.


The “railroad wedding” at Promontory Summit is still celebrated today in American history as the day on which the country was united. The importance of the achievement cannot be overestimated. A journey that would have taken six months on precarious wagons through a harsh climate—sweating in the summer, freezing in winter—could now be achieved in a few days. It triggered the settlement of the West, and immigrants flowed westward.


Soon, other transcontinental railroads were under construction, both in the US and in Canada. The next two lines opened in 1883—the Southern Pacific (the name of the ocean was used by nearly all the companies), which ran to Los Angeles in California, and the Northern Pacific, which terminated at the other end of the western seaboard in Seattle, Washington. Generous government grants of land stimulated this intense bout of railroad construction, as well as a conviction that the lines would bring profits through the anticipated influx of immigrants.

A fourth line was built without any government support, thanks to the tenacity of a remarkable one-eyed frontiersman, James J. Hill. Known as the “Empire Builder,” he was probably the greatest North American railroad-builder. Hill was a strange-looking fellow, lithe and short with a huge nose, a small mouth, and deep-set eyes, one of which he had lost in his youth in an archery accident. He was also a remarkable wheeler-dealer, who for 30 years pursued his vision of building a line that would open up the vast prairies of Montana to settlers and made it possible to export grain to the Far East. Moreover, his line the Great Northern Railway—which in 1893 linked St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington—was built to a higher standard than those of his rivals, with gentler grades and without the tight curves that make trains slow down.


To complete the “set” in the US, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway crept quietly westward, funded by real estate offices that sold the land that had been granted to it by the government. The railroad, which linked up with existing California lines in 1884, became the most successful of the transcontinental lines by carrying freight through to the port at Los Angeles. Indeed, freight was the mainstay of most of these lines. However, the flow of immigrants proved profitable too, and the lines competed to attract them to the areas served by their routes. The railroads promoted themselves to potential settlers, even opening offices in Europe to attract new migrants so that they could cash in on their vast land holdings. All kinds of dubious claims about the fertility of the land and the mildness of the climate were made to entice desperate people seeking a better life—many of whom gave up after their first winter of heavy snowfall or summer of drought.

Canada, then a British colony, was determined to build a transcontinental line too. This was for commercial reasons, but also to unify the disparate parts of the country—notably British Columbia, which had threatened secession. If anything, the achievements of the builders of the first Canadian line, the Canadian Pacific Railway, were greater than those of their rivals south of the border. As ever, the man in charge, William Cornelius Van Horne, was a remarkable character who took a hands-on approach. He traveled from site to site and was not averse to walking over rickety trestle bridges to show his workers that they must be equally fearless.

It was 2,700 miles (4,300km) from the developed regions of Ontario to the Pacific Ocean, half as far again as the distance covered by the first US transcontinental, and the terrain was certainly no easier. The route of the Canadian Pacific ran to the north of the Great Lakes and, although the initial sections were relatively flat, the granite shelf of the Canadian Shield required considerable blasting through hard rock. There were also two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Selkirks. The line was initially built at a very steep grade of 1 in 22 (4.5 percent) to reach the mountain heights, but these steep stretches were later replaced by spiral tunnels. The tough conditions took a high toll on the 15,000 workers, half of whom were Chinese, and at least 800 men died through want of basic safety measures. It took 13 years to complete the line, which opened without fanfare, on Van Horne’s instructions, in 1885.


It was another 30 years before the opening of the next Canadian transcontinental, the Canadian Northern Railway, which took a more northerly route through the mountains. It was built gradually, in sections, with the aim of attracting settlers to the vast prairies of western Canada. The rivalry between the first two lines then prompted the decision to build a third, the Grand Trunk Pacific/National Transcontinental Railway, built in two sections east and west from Winnipeg. This was the hardest of the three to build, and was in many ways unnecessary, since for hundreds of miles it ran parallel to the first Canadian transcontinental.

As a result of all this frenzied construction, there were no fewer than five transcontinental routes across the US by the end of the 19th century, and the three Canadian transcontinental railroads were all completed by the end of World War I. However, Canada had overreached itself, given its sparse population, and its second two railroads were declared bankrupt soon after their completion—a fate also suffered by several of the American transcontinentals. Nonetheless, these lines continued to operate, providing vital links within their respective countries, and were instrumental in stimulating population growth and economic development: the railroads had conquered the West. Most of the tracks still survive today, playing a vital role in transporting freight.

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