On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah, a boisterous crowd gathered to witness the completion of one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century: the building of the transcontinental railroad. The electrifying moment marked the culmination of six years of grueling work. A telegrapher sent a simple, yet thrilling, message to the waiting nation: "DONE!"
Peopled by the ingenious entrepreneurs whose unscrupulous financing got the line laid, the brilliant engineers who charted the railroad's course, the armies of workers who labored relentlessly on the enterprise, and the Native Americans whose lives were destroyed in its wake, The Transcontinental Railroad is a remarkable story of greed, innovation and gritty determination.
As always, dreamers were ahead of the curve; and as always, their enthusiasm tended to get ahead of practical considerations. "It is in our power," wrote Samuel Dexter, editor of the Western Emigrant in 1832, "to open an immense interior country to market, to unite our eastern and western shores firmly together." It wasn't, as it turned out, in America's power for almost forty years.
The visionary who finally got the project underway was a practical man, a West Coast-based designer and builder of railways, Theodore Judah. In the summer of 1860 he picked a route through the wilderness of California's Sierra Nevadas and began looking for investors. A few years later the Central Pacific Railroad with four major private investors and some funding from Congress began the awesome task of laying track through the mountains. In bitter cold and blazing heat, workers built scores of bridges and trestles and drilled thousands of feet of tunnel while advancing 690 miles across some of the roughest terrain in America. Crucial to their success were the efforts of Chinese laborers who risked their lives to blast their way through granite cliffs.
Advancing from the east was the Union Pacific which built westward across plains and deserts, braving blizzards and raids by displaced Native Americans to complete the 1,086-mile journey from Omaha, Nebraska. As the tracks moved deeper into the wilderness, boomtowns sprung up to cater to the workers' appetite for whiskey, women and wagering. Hastily built, these settlements, known as "Hells on Wheels," flourished for a few weeks, then were deserted as the railroad moved on.
When it was completed, the railroad transformed America. It unleashed a tidal wave of growth as immigrants moved west. Thousands of towns materialized in the corridor created by the railway. Transcontinental trains fostered a new agricultural empire by bringing farming machinery to the West, and carrying crops and livestock to the coasts. And the line gave birth to other lines -- three additional transcontinental railroads in 20 years. The railroad also profoundly affected the national psychology, creating a new spirit of optimism and unity. Just as the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse affirmed the union of North and South, so the Golden Spike established an unbreakable link between East and West, a strong band of iron that bound America together, making it really and truly "one nation, indivisible."
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