NEXT to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century. Not until the completion of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century was it rivaled as an engineering feat.

The railroad took brains, muscle, and sweat in quantities and scope never before put into a single project. It could not have been done without a representative, democratic political system; without skilled and ambitious engineers, most of whom had learned their craft in American colleges and honed it in the war; without bosses and foremen who had learned how to organize and lead men as officers in the Civil War; without free labor; without hardworking laborers who had learned how to take orders in the war; without those who came over to America in the thousands from China, seeking a fortune; without laborers speaking many languages and coming to America from every inhabited continent; without the trees and iron available in America; without capitalists willing to take high risks for great profit; without men willing to challenge all, at every level, in order to win all. Most of all, it could not have been done without teamwork.

The United States was less than one hundred years old when the Civil War was won, slavery abolished, and the first transcontinental railroad built. Not until nearly twenty years later did the Canadian Pacific span the Dominion, and that was after using countless American engineers and laborers. It was a quarter of a century after the completion of the American road that the Russians got started on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the Russians used more than two hundred thousand Chinese to do it, as compared with the American employment of ten thousand or so Chinese. In addition, the Russians had hundreds of thousands of convicts working on the line as slave laborers. Even at that it was not until thirty-two years after the American achievement that the Russians finished, and they did it as a government enterprise at a much higher cost with a road that was in nearly every way inferior. Still, the Trans-Siberian, at 5,338 miles, was the longest continuous railway on earth, and the Canadian Pacific, at 2,097 miles, was a bit longer than the Union Pacific and Central Pacific combined.

But the Americans did it first. And they did it even though the United States was the youngest of countries. It had proclaimed its independence in 1776, won it in 1783, bought the Louisiana Purchase (through which much of the Union Pacific ran) in 1803, added California and Nevada and Utah (through which the Central Pacific ran) to the Union in 1848, and completed the linking of the continent in 1869, thus ensuring an empire of liberty running from sea to shining sea.

HOW it was done is my subject. Why plays a role, of course, along with financing and the political argument, but how is the theme.

The cast of characters is immense. The workforce—primarily Chinese on the Central Pacific and Irish on the Union Pacific, but with people from everywhere on both lines—at its peak approached the size of the Civil War armies, with as many as fifteen thousand on each line.

Their leaders were the big men of the century. First of all Abraham Lincoln, who was the driving force. Then Ulysses S. Grant and William T Sherman. These were the men who not only held the Union together north and south but who acted decisively at critical moments to bind the Union together east and west. One of these men was president, a second was soon to be president, the third turned down the presidency.

Supporting them were Grenville Dodge, a Union general who was the chief engineer of the Union Pacific and could be called America’s greatest railroad-builder; Jack and Dan Casement, who were also generals during the war and then the heads of construction for the line; and manyengineers and foremen, all veterans, who made it happen. Dodge and nearly everyone else involved in building the road later commented that it could not have been done without the Civil War veterans and their experience. It was the war that taught them how to think big, how to organize grand projects, how to persevere.

The financiers could move money around faster than anyone could imagine. The Union Pacific was one of the two biggest corporations of its time (the other was the Central Pacific). It took imagination, brains, guts, and hard work, plus a willingness to experiment with new methods to organize and run it properly. Many participated, mainly under the leadership of Thomas “Doc” Durant, Oakes Ames, Oliver Ames, and others. For the Central Pacific, the leaders were California’s “Big Four”—Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hop-kins—plus Lewis Clement and his fellow engineers, James Harvey Strobridge as head of construction, and others. Critical to both lines was the Mormon leader, Brigham Young.

The “others” were led by the surveyors, the men who picked the route. They were latter-day Lewis and Clark types, out in the wilderness, attacked by Indians, living off buffalo, deer, elk, antelope, and ducks, leading a life we can only imagine today.

The surveyor who, above all the rest, earned everyone’s gratitude was Theodore Judah. To start with, the Central Pacific was his idea. In his extensive explorations of the Sierra Nevada, he found the mountain pass. Together with his wife, Anna, he persuaded the politicians—first in California, then in Washington—that it could be done, and demanded their support. Though there were many men involved, it was Judah above all others who saw that the line could be built but only with government aid, since only the government had the resources to pay for it.

Government aid, which began with Lincoln, took many forms. Without it, the line could not have been built, quite possibly would not have been started. With it, there were tremendous struggles, of which the key elements were these questions: Could more money be made by building it fast, or building it right? Was the profit in the construction, or in the running of the railroad? This led to great tension.

The problems the companies faced were similar. Nearly everything each line needed, including locomotives, rails, spikes, and much more, had to be shipped from the East Coast. For the Central Pacific, that meant transporting the material through Panama or around South America. For the Union Pacific, it meant across the Eastern United States, then over the Missouri River, with no bridges, then out to the construction site. For much of the route, even water had to be shipped, along with lumber. Whether the destination was Sacramento and beyond or Omaha and beyond, the costs were heart-stopping.

Except for Salt Lake City, there were no white settlements through which the lines were built. No white men lived in Nebraska west of Omaha, or in Wyoming, Utah, or Nevada. There was no market awaiting the coming of the train—or any product to haul back east—except the Mormon city, which was a long way away until the lines met. There were problems with Indians for the Union Pacific, Indians who had not been asked or consented or paid for the use of what they regarded as their lands. For the Central Pacific, there was the problem of digging tunnels through mountains made of granite. That these tunnels were attempted, then dug, was a mark of the American audacity and hubris.

The men who built the line had learned how to manage and direct in the Civil War, and there were many similarities, but one major difference. Unlike a battle, there was but one single decisive spot. The builders could not outflank an enemy, or attack in an unexpected place, or encircle. The end of track, the place where the rails gave out, was the only spot that mattered. Only there could the line advance, only there could the battle be joined. The workforce on both lines got so good at moving the end of track forward that they eventually could do so at almost the pace of a walking man. And doing so involved building a grade, laying ties, laying rails, spiking in rails, filling in ballast. Nothing like it had ever before been seen.

Urgency was the dominant emotion, because the government set it up as a race. The company that built more would get more. This was typically American and democratic. Had there been a referendum around the question “Do you want it built fast, or built well?” over 90 percent of the American people would have voted to build it fast.

Time, along with work, is a major theme in the building of the railroad. Before the locomotive, time hardly mattered. With the coming of the railroad, time became so important that popular phrases included “Time was,” or “Time’s wasting,” or “Time’s up,” or “The train is leaving the station.” What is called “standard time” came about because of the railroads. Before that, localities set their own time. Because the railroads published schedules, the country was divided into four time zones. And it was the railroads that served as the symbol of the nineteenth-century revolution in technology. The locomotive was the greatest thing of the age. With it man conquered space and time.

IT could not have been done without the workers. Whether they came from Ireland or China or Germany or England or Central America or Africa or elsewhere, they were all Americans. Their chief characteristic was how hard they worked. Work in the mid-nineteenth century was different from work at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Nearly everything was done by muscle power. The transcontinental railroad was the last great building project to be done mostly by hand. The dirt excavated for cuts through ridges was removed one handheld cart at a time. The dirt for filling a dip or a gorge in the ground was brought in by handcart. Some of the fills were enormous, hundreds of feet high and a quarter mile or more in length. Black powder was used to blast for tunnels, but only after handheld drills and sledgehammers had made an indentation deep enough to pack the powder. Making the grade, laying the ties, laying the rails, spiking in the rails, and everything else involved in building the road was backbreaking.

Yet it was done, generally without complaint, by free men who wanted to be there. That included the thousands of Chinese working for the Central Pacific. Contrary to myth, they were not brought over by the boatload to work for the railroad. Most of them were already in California. They were glad to get the work. Although they were physically small, their teamwork was so exemplary that they were able to accomplish feats we just stand astonished at today.

The Irish and the others who built the Union Pacific were also there by choice. They were mainly young ex-soldiers from both the Union and the Confederate armies, unmarried men who had no compelling reason to return home after Appomattox (especially the Confederates). They were men who had caught the wanderlust during the war, that most typical of all American desires, and who eagerly seized the opportunity to participate in the stupendous task of building a railroad across a wilderness.

It is difficult to get information on individuals in the workforce. The workers didn’t write many letters home, and few of those that were produced have been saved. They didn’t keep diaries. Still, their collective portrait is clear and compelling, including who they were, how they worked, where they slept, what and how much they ate and drank, their dancing, gambling, and other diversions.

They could not have done it alone, but it could not have been done without them. And along with winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, what they did made modern America.

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