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Even before the Civil War, railroads had come to represent unity for a country divided by geography and culture. In 1862, at a crucial time for the Union, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act making possible America’s first transcontinental route. The Central Pacific Railroad set out to build a line eastwards from Sacramento, California, while the Union Pacific Railroad would go west from the Missouri River. Each company received generous federal loans and was given ownership of huge tracts of land — ten sections (each one mile square) for every completed mile.
Track was laid at a phenomenal rate, using mostly Irish or ex-army labor on the Union Pacific and Chinese immigrants on the Central Pacific. The thousands of workers from Kwantung Province imported by the CP became known as ‘Celestials’ after their ‘ Celestial Kingdom’ homeland. They were often lowered down sheer cliff faces in baskets attached to ropes to drill into rock, pack in explosives and light a fuse before making a rapid return up the rope. Many ‘basket men’ failed to make it to safety before the explosion took place. A total of 19 tunnels (15 of them on the Central Pacific) were blasted out of solid rock with black powder at the rate of 14 inches a day. Nitroglycerine was tried in 1867 but had to be abandoned when it was found to be dangerously unstable.
At ten spikes to the rail and 400 rails to the mile, it required approximately 21 million strokes of the hammer to complete the line. In 1867 alone, 235 miles of track were finished and Charles Crocker’s Central Pacific team won a $10,000 bet from Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific after workers each lifted more than 100 tons of steel to lay ten miles in a single day (still a record). At one time the Union Pacific employed 10,000 laborers and an equal number of working animals. Hunters slaughtered vast quantities of buffalo to keep the workers supplied with meat and ramshackle tent towns sprang up along the way. These ‘Hell on ‘Wheels’ settlements became notorious for land speculators, gambling, drinking and prostitution. Most collapsed as soon as the railroad moved on but some remained to become permanent towns.
Over 1,774 miles (2,860km) of track had been constructed by the time the two lines met ahead of schedule at Promontory Point, north of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Half a million people, including newspapermen, dignitaries and railway employees, gathered on 10 May 1869 to watch the Golden Spike ceremony complete one of the greatest engineering feats of the century. The ceremony was rather disorganized, due partly to the size of the crowd. Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific had brought four ceremonial spikes, the famed ‘Golden Spike’ being presented by David Hewes, a San Francisco construction magnate. It was inscribed with the names of Central Pacific directors as well as the words ‘The Last Spike’ and ‘May God continue the Unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great oceans of the world’.
A second gold spike was presented by the San Francisco News Letter, a silver spike by Nevada and a spike made from iron, silver and gold by Arizona. All four were dropped into a pre-bored laurel wood tie during the ceremony and at 12.47 the actual last spike — an ordinary iron one — was driven into a regular tie. The spike had been wired to send the sound of the strikes over the telegraph to the nation but Leland Stanford and the Union Pacific’s Thomas Durant frequently missed their aim as they took turns to drive it home. A single word, ‘done’, was telegraphed to the nation anyway, resulting in widespread celebrations. Meanwhile, construction supervisors actually drove in the final spike.
The Central Pacific’s Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s No 119 were present at the ceremony and replicas of both appear in the final scenes of John Ford’s excellent 1924 pictorial history The Iron Horse. Cecil B DeMille told the story less convincingly in Union Pacific. The original ‘Golden Spike’ is now on display behind glass at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The temporary town of Promontory remained as a ‘Hell on Wheels’ settlement for a few weeks but never became a permanent city
The first engines to cross the continent were the Central Pacific’s Success and Excelsior, built by Rogers and delivered by rail. The first trains to carry passengers and cargo along the route ran on 11 May 1869, with emigrants travelling west and a consignment of Japanese teas going east. The Jupiter was scrapped for iron in 1901 and the Union Pacific’s No 119 went the same way two years later. The Lucin Cutoff took most traffic away from Promontory in 1904 and the last tie of laurel was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The old rails over the 123-mile (197km) Promontory Summit line were salvaged in 1942 for the war effort in ceremonies marking the ‘Undriving of the Golden Spike’, when collectors picked over the area for ties and materials.
A re-enactment of the last spike ceremony took place in 1948, using miniature locomotives provided by the Southern Pacific, and in 1951 a monument to the event was erected at Ogden’s Union Station. Congress established a seven-acre (2.8ha) piece of land as the Golden Spike National Historic Site and the National Golden Spike Society was formed to promote it. The site was enlarged to 2,176 acres (880ha) in 1965 and is now administered by the National Park Service. To mark the centennial of the transcontinental railroad, the Golden Spike Monument was moved 150ft (46m) northwest and the National Park Service began the reconstruction of two railroad and telegraph lines, together with switches and siding connections.
The engines used in the 1969 ceremonies were modified to resemble the originals and from then until 1980 the annual re-enactment used vintage locomotives on loan from Nevada. In 1980, with water from Liberty Island in New York harbor and Fort Point in San Francisco Bay, two replica locomotives, built by Chadwell O’Connor Engineering of Costa Mesa, California, were introduced. Costing $1.5 million, these were the first steam engines to be manufactured in the United States for a quarter of a century and today they operate from May until August and from Christmas to New Year’s Day. Visitors can also walk and drive along the old grades and see exhibitions relating to the railroad’s construction.
Elsewhere, the Southern Pacific linked southern California to New Orleans in 1883 and two years later the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe line ran from Kansas City to Los Angeles along the Southern Pacific route. Cross-country travel now took five days instead of a month. When the Santa Fe first reached Los Angeles only 10,000 people lived in southern California, but more soon arrived as competition brought fares from New York down to as little as $1. Many farmers in the south returned from the Civil War to find themselves homeless and impoverished and so took the only jobs they could find — building railroads. Being farmers, they were often referred to as ‘hoe boys’ or ‘hobos’. Unable to settle, many later went on to wander the country riding on the same rails they had built.
The Iron Horse began to open up the west and create rapid development in cities along the way. Colonization agents were employed to recruit people in the east or from abroad, urging them to settle where the air was clean and the land dirt cheap. Some immigrants travelled west free, sharing a wagon with their personal belongings, livestock and machinery Educational trains up to ten coaches long were sent out to teach farmers how to grow more and better crops — the Poultry Train featured a famous talking rooster. In a remarkably short time the railways transformed America’s heartland into one of the most productive food-growing areas on earth.
Tourists also began to arrive. The Santa Fe railway cleverly publicized its route along the Santa Fe Trail by naming its trains the Chief and Superchief and using the slogan ‘see Indian country by train’ on calendars and posters. Native Americans were recruited to present a romanticized picture of the west and artists were commissioned to paint both landscape and people. Detours were made, allowing urban Americans to see the outback for the first time and feel a sense of adventure as they overcame their fear of the west.
Other railways tried different means to attract passengers, selling or giving away such items as ashtrays, letter openers, match safes, spoons and scissors. Almost anything which could be stamped with a name or slogan was tried, including paperweights in the shape of locomotives or, in one instance, an Idaho baking potato. Such promotional items are now greatly sought after by rail fans, as are early books, posters, timetables, railroad songs and train recordings. Some people collect hardware such as destination signs, lanterns, silverware, locks, keys, telegraph instruments and hand brakes, or even bricks from demolished stations.
The Northern Pacific Railroad opened up the northwest in the 1880s and James J Hill built a similar transcontinental route, the Great Northern, between St Paul, Minnesota, and Seattle. Born in Rockwood, Ontario, Hill arrived in St Paul by steamboat in 1856 and started working for the Mississippi River Steamboat Company, fixing freight and passenger rates. After the Civil War he joined the St Paul & Pacific Railroad, which he later bought. He also advised on the construction of the Canadian Pacific but resigned when he saw that it would become a competitor to his own transcontinental line, which he built without government funds or loans.
Construction of the Great Northern reached Great Falls in 1887, the fast rate of laying track being ensured by excellent planning and the use of 8,000 men and 3,300 teams of horses. Immigrants were carried west for $10 provided they agreed to settle along the route and farmers were offered free imported cattle. More than six million acres of Montana were settled in two years and the line reached Puget Sound in 1893. The success of his railroad meant that Hill was able to take over the Northern Pacific in 1896.
Unlike the Northern Pacific, most railroad construction west of the Mississippi received federal land grants, eventually totaling 131 million acres. Rail companies charged reduced rates for government traffic in return. As well as the four great transcontinental routes, many smaller lines were built throughout the west and by
1890 a network of 164,000 miles (264,000km) covered virtually the whole country. Few Americans then lived more than 25 miles (40km) from the track. Large, often grandiose, new stations opened at South Street, Boston (1890), St Louis (1894), Washington, DC (1907) and New York (Pennsylvania 1910, Grand Central 1913).
Standard-gauge track and Standard Time (adopted in 1883) helped integration. Railroad timekeeping became so good that farmers set their clocks according to passing trains. Safety innovations included air brakes and automatic coupling. Trains became longer, faster and more efficient as coal-burning engines replaced less powerful wood burners. ‘American’ types gave way to heavier Atlantics ( 4-4-2) and Pacifics ( 4-6-2). Refrigerated wagons were introduced to ship beef from Chicago and oranges from Florida as the railways brought increasing control over nature.
Compressed gas and electricity superseded candlelight in passenger carriages and hot-water heating replaced wood-burning stoves after the Civil War, with corridors and steam heat arriving by the turn of the century The paint on these new 85ft-long (25m) coaches was varnished to make it shiny, and the word ‘varnish’ is still slang for a first-class passenger car. Express services for passengers and special freight were introduced as the economy grew at an ever greater pace.
Sleeping and dining cars, rarely seen before the Civil War, afterwards became much more common. George Pullman’s $20,000 Pioneer sleeper boasted thick carpets, chandeliers, polished walnut, crimson plush upholstery and marble wash- stands. Pullman, originally a cabinet maker by trade, instructed his craftsmen to build ‘palaces on wheels’ in which the wealthy would wish to travel. The owner of the Penn Railroad was one of the first to buy a lavishly equipped private coach complete with drawing room, dining room and private galley. Delmonico dining cars, introduced in 1868, meant passengers no longer had to snatch hurried meals at scheduled stops along the way. Parlor cars, forerunners of present-day lounge and club cars, also went into service at about this time. The rich could buy their own lavish private vehicle or hire an entire ‘hotel train’, complete with barber shop and dance floor.
Railroads became America’s first big business, dominating economic life for three-quarters of a century, but the golden age had its less appealing aspects. Unionization brought better pay, at least for train crews, but a dispute on the Baltimore & Ohio in 1877 spread to other companies and resulted in riots. Following wage cuts, a strike at the Pullman factory in 1894 led to sympathy action throughout the Midwest. Rail traffic in America came to a halt as the dispute turned violent. People were threatened, property burned and at least 34 people died when the government sent in 12,000 troops to break up the strike. Union leader Eugene Debs was jailed.
Fraud, corruption and coercion became commonplace. The huge profits attracted a profusion of crooks and bribery sometimes appeared the only way to get business done. Owners often bought up newspapers, politicians and even the law. Jay Gould, ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt (‘the public interest be damned’) and the Central Pacific’s ‘scrupulously dishonest’ Collis Huntington were famous for their ruthlessness. ‘Jubilee Jim’ Fisk defrauded Erie Railroad stockholders of $64 million. Competition increased in some places but the railways too often exploited their monopoly and public opinion turned against them. The Interstate Commerce Commission was set up in 1887 to control their excesses and the financier Pierpoint Morgan, whose business fortune was said to total more than the combined value of all other property in the 22 states west of the Mississippi, was surprised and hurt when forced to break up his railroad empire.
Nevertheless, the country had reason to be grateful for the railroads. They brought prosperity; opened up the west, carried the mail and helped turn the United States into a major world power. Railroads made many people rich and gave even penniless hobos a means of transport they could afford. Trains became an indelible part of national culture, inspiring countless stories and featuring in folk songs, blues and gospel music. ‘ Midnight Special’ was one of many songs in which a train symbolized the American desire for escape. ‘Bound For Glory’, ‘Heavenbound Train’ and ‘Downbound Train’ made the railway journey a metaphor for life. On ‘The Black Diamond Express To Hell’, Sin was the engineer, Pleasure the headlight and the conductor was the Devil, and it was down by the railroad track that Johnny B Goode learnt to play guitar so well.
The first American narrative film, The Great Train Robbery, was directed in 1903 by Edwin S Porter. Its action-packed plot was inspired by a real-life robbery that took place in August 1900, when four members of the ‘Hole in the Wall’ gang led by George Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy) held up the No 3 train on Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Table Rock, Wyoming. They made the conductor uncouple the passenger cars from the rest of the train, blew up the mail car safe and escaped with $5,000 in cash. Instead of the ten-minutes-long film being made in Wyoming, it was shot at Thomas Edison’s New York studio and on part of the Lackawanna Railroad. The Great Train Robbery starred the world’s first cinematic cowboy hero, Gilbert M ‘Bronco Billy’ Anderson, along with Billy Whiskers, Marie Murray and George Barnes.
Trains have featured in countless movies in the century since, including classics such as Double Indemnity, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and 2004’s state-of-the-art IMAX 3D animation, The Polar Express.