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The Iron Road poster image
Aired November 26, 1990

The Iron Road

Film Description

The Iron Road, produced by Neil Goodwin of Peace River Films, is the story of the building of the first railroad link connecting the East to the West.

Even before the Civil War, the nation had been divided. In the West, the rich and expansive territory of California was a continent's-length away from the existing United States. To reach California's fabled gold mines meant months of dangerous sailing around Cape Horn, or traveling 2,000 miles overland across mountains and deserts through Indian territories. Many believed that a railroad to the Pacific would be the key to westward expansion and the future of the country.

Regional tensions that would soon erupt in the Civil War complicated the congressional agreement on the location of the railroad-- southerners wanted a southern route and northerners a northern one. The outbreak of the war solved the problem. The South pulled out of the government, and the North was free to make the decision. In 1862, the Congress passed the first of several Railroad Acts, choosing a route which went from Omaha to Sacramento-- much of it an old pioneer trail-- and naming the two companies to be responsible for the construction of the railroad: the Central Pacific, building from the West, and the Union Pacific, building from the East.

The Central Pacific was founded by Theodore Judah, a brilliant young civil engineer who found a way to lay tracks across the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the traditional stumbling block to a transcontinental railroad. For financing, Judah teamed up with four shrewd Sacramento businessmen-- Charley Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Collis Huntington-- otherwise known as the "Big Four".

"The real sharp money man, Huntington, began to sense that it was conceivable that there could be some big money-- not from investing in it, not from dividends, not from hauling any freight-- but just by constructing the darn thing, or trying to, because they could be paid so much a mile for its construction," says railroad photographer and historian Richard Steinheimer in the film.

The Union Pacific was run by Thomas C. Durant, who got involved for the glory and the easy money. When the operation began, he was already accepting kickbacks from construction subcontractors. After three years under Durant, the Union Pacific had laid only 40 miles of track. To salvage the fortunes of the Union Pacific, Durant brought in Grenville Dodge, a civil engineer who, during the Civil War, had built railroads so fast they used to say of him, "We don't know where he is, but we can see where he has been."

The real heroes of the railroad, however, were the 20,000 men who labored to build the iron road with their bare hands. Most of the workers were immigrants. The Central Pacific employed almost 10,000 Chinese workers; Union Pacific laborers were mainly from Europe-- Irishmen, Germans, Dutch, and Czechoslovakians. Thousands of Civil War veterans also worked on the Union Pacific.

Conditions were harsh for employees of both companies. Union Pacific laborers endured brutal 12-hour shifts, searing summer heat, Indian attacks, and most dangerous of all, the lawless and violent end-of-the-track towns called "hell-on-wheels".

The Central Pacific Chinese crews endured equally long shifts made worse by extremely dangerous conditions: avalanches striking without warning throughout winter-- carrying whole crews over the mountainsides-- and premature explosions of black powder and nitroglycerine.

"One of the strongest images the Chinese-Americans have of working on the railroad is Chinese workers being hung over cliffs in baskets which they wove themselves," says writer and historian Connie Yu in the film. "They planted charges and had to scramble up the lines if the charges were short, or be pulled up very quickly by their comrades. Then they were lowered down to drill again. But when they were pulled up, frequently the explosions would be right under them."
As the railroad was nearing completion, competition grew between the two companies. There were no settlements between Sacramento and Omaha except for the prosperous Mormon communities of the Salt Lake Valley. It became clear that whichever company got to Salt Lake first could establish a depot and capture the lucrative Salt Lake business. There was no finish line to this race, so the Central Pacific and Union Pacific surveyed and graded right past each other across the high desert of Northern Utah. Congress finally intervened and forced the two companies to agree on a meeting point. They settled on Promontory, Utah, on the north rim of Salt Lake. It was here they finally met on May 10, 1869, six years after beginning the project.


Joseph Tovares
Series Editor, The American Experience

Associate Producer/Writer
Michael Azevedo

Photo Research/Production Assistant
Danielle Dell'Olio

Kate Pullano
WGBH Interactive

Coordinator of Online Services, WGBH Interactive
Rick Groleau

Web Spinner
Brian Lee

Photo Credits
Photos courtesy of: Union Pacific Musuem