A Grand Anvil Chorus
great Pacific Railway is commenced... Immigration will soon pour into
these valleys. Ten millions of emigrants will settle in this golden land
in twenty years... This is the grandest enterprise under God!
Railroads had already transformed life in the East, but at the end of the Civil War they still stopped at the Misssouri River. For a quarter of a century, men had dreamed of building a line from coast to coast. Now they would attempt it -- one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five miles of track from Omaha to Sacramento.
It would have to be cut through mountains higher than any railroad-builder had ever faced; span deserts where there was no water anywhere; and cross treeless prairies where anxious and defiant Indians would resist their passage. They knew from the start that if it could be completed, Americans would have accomplished something no other people had ever even attempted.
In the ripeness of time the hope of humanity is realized... This continental railway... will bind the two seaboards to this one continental union like ears to the human head; to plant the foundations of the Union so broad and deep... that no possible force or stratagem can shake its permanence.
The West couldn't be settled without railroads. And a railroad across the West couldn't be built without the government. The distances were too great, the costs too staggering, the risks too high for any group of businessmen.
"It was only through the Government's help that anything this gargantuan in size could be accomplished, much as landing on the Moon. It was not rugged individualists who built the railroad, it was rugged corporations who formed and financed themselves as entities. It was the rugged federal government that came up with the federal loans, and the land grants, that enabled it to be built. Amid all the romance of building the railroad we tend to forget that it was one of the major industrial enterprises of its age."
In 1862, Congress gave charters to two companies to build it. The Central Pacific was to push eastward from Sacramento, over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Union Pacific was to start from the Missouri, cross the great plains and cut through the Rockies. Both companies were to receive vast loans from the treasury as they went along -- $16,000 per mile of level track, $32,000 in the plateaus, and $48,000 in the mountains. Lobbyists got the rates doubled within a year.
Leland Stanford, governor of California and president of the Central Pacific Railroad, persuaded a malleable geologist, Professor Josiah Whitney, to declare the gently sloping Sacramento Valley a mountainous region so that the Central Pacific could collect the highest possible rate for laying track across it. A grateful California legislature later named its highest peak Mount Whitney in the professor's honor.
Congress also promised each company 6,400 acres of federal land for every mile of track it laid.
railroads got the right of way and along the right of way miles and miles
of what was then the government's land. When you added it all together
it was a gift of roughly the size of California plus most of Montana.
It was incredible.
The Union Pacific and Central Pacific were soon locked in a race to see who could lay the most track -- and therefore get the most land and money. Somewhere in the West -- no one knew exactly where -- the two lines were supposed to meet.
It is a Grand Anvil Chorus that these sturdy sledges are playing across the plains. It is in triple time, three strokes to a spike... Twenty-one million times are they to come down with their sharp punctuation before the great work of modern America is complete.
In Nebraska, some 10,000 men were at work on the Union Pacific -- heading west. Most were immigrants from Ireland. But there were also Mexicans and Germans, Englishmen, ex-soldiers and former slaves -- an army of workmen moving across the plains with military precision.
There was no time for rest. A twenty-car work-train housed and fed the men, who rose at dawn. A supply train carried everything needed that day -- rails, ties, spikes, rods -- all of which had to be loaded onto flatcars and run up to the railhead where the "iron men" were already waiting.
Each rail weighed 700 pounds. It took five men to lift it into place. Two or three miles a day. Every day. Six days a week. Week in and week out.
As the Union Pacific crews worked their way westward across the prairie, hundreds of prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, saloon-keepers, gunmen followed right behind -- "a carnivorous horde," one man recalled, "hungrier than the native grasshoppers," and eager to devour the men's weekly pay.
The succession of base camps the Union Pacific built roughly seventy miles apart all had different names -- Elk Horn, Fremont, Oglalla, Laramie, Green River, and Cheyenne.
you're in Wyoming, say you're at Citadel Rock on the Green River in Wyoming,
and you're looking into the distance and there's nothing -- and behind
you there is track going all the way to Omaha. The donkey engines coming
in and getting out, hauling in materials, the clatter and the bustle and
the work around you at all times, the clanging, the clanging of the sledgehammers
on the rails echoing in the wilderness that had never known anything like
this, ever. The sounds of the locomotives belching smoke into a previously
pristine sky. There had never been a sound like this ever before.
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© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA