May 2019 marked the 150-year anniversary of the “Golden Spike” that completed the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Join Active Minds as we review the rich history of railroads in the United States. We will explore the role they played in building a young country as well as the industry titans that emerged to build and control them. We will bring the story all the way up to the present, discussing current freight and passenger train issues and opportunities. All aboard!

Key Lecture Points

  • May 10, 2019 was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, one of the largest and most impactful construction projects undertaken in the United States (and even the world) in the nineteenth century. Once connected, the Transcontinental Railroad reduced the six-month overland journey between Chicago and San Francisco down to 1-2 weeks, making way for radical economic and demographic transformation of the Great Plains, Mountain West, and Pacific Coast.
  • The imperative of the Transcontinental Railroad was created by the acquisition of California in 1848 by the US and the discovery of gold therein.  After years of political wrangling, delayed by the conflict between north and south, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, modified subsequently, which created the funding for the Central Pacific line eastward from Sacramento, CA and the Union Pacific line westward from Council Bluffs, IA.
  • The railroad exhibited numerous engineering and technological achievements in its day, traversing thousands of miles of prairies, canyons, and desert. Perhaps most challenging was working through the rugged Sierra Nevada of northern California, which required numerous bridges over gorges and tunnels through ridges of solid granite.
  • One of the defining aspects of the Transcontinental Railroad construction was the composition of the labor force, especially for the western half. Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans formed the bulk of laborers on the Central Pacific line. They both experienced and challenged racist stereotypes in their work on the railroad.
  • The railroad was both a cause and effect of westward expansion in the nineteenth century. This grand achievement was one that came at the expense of native peoples in the western half of the country.  It also triggered irreparable environmental harm, most notably the near extinction of the American bison.
  • In recent years, the railroad industry has experienced a surge in growth spurred by deregulation and consolidation of the industry in the 1980s and by demand for transport in the energy sector.

Exploration Questions

  • How has railroad technology continued to develop in the past century-and-a-half? What, if any, of the technology used in the 1860s is still in use today? What new technology and methods exist?
  • What happened to the laborers who worked on Transcontinental Railroad after its construction? Where did many of the Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans who worked on the Union Pacific go? What did many of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the Central pacific do afterwards?
  • How are railroads being used today, and what can we expect from their surge in use in the years to come?

Reflective Questions

  • What might you have been seeking in moving westward in the mid-1800s?
  • Is there any way in which westward expansion could have been undertaken without harming Native Americans’ way of life and inflicting violence upon them? How might you have approached this challenge?
  • Native Americans still populate parts of the country. How might we promote reconciliation and justice? Does our use of railroads have any role in that today?

More to Explore

  • Building the First Transcontinental Railroad Click here
  • History of Building the First Transcontinental Railroad Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • David Haward Bain, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2000). 848 pages. Beginning 1842, this book captures the three decades in which the U.S. effectively doubled in size, fought three wars, and began to discover a new national identity.
    Click here to order
  • Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012). 720 pages. This well researched book shows the important role of the transcontinental railroads in the making of modern America, but also highlights the failures as well as the successes.
    Click here to order