It took eight years and 2000 miles of track to reach the Pacific

July 1, 1862

On this day, with the stroke of his pen, President Abraham Lincoln cleared a path to the Pacific.  It put an end to nearly a decade of searching, surveying and squabbling over how to get there.   

Congress had embraced the concept of a transcontinental system as early as 1853, creating the Pacific Railroad Surveys.  Under the aegis of the Department of War, then secretary Jefferson Davis, oversaw a two-year project that  produced 12 colorful volumes.  

The data included the flora, fauna, natural history and ethnography of more than 400,000 square miles of the West.  But it was missing any significant topographical research that might inform the builders where to lay 2,000 miles of track. 

Three companies were ultimately selected.  The Western Pacific was to cover 132 miles between Oakland and Sacramento and was the least ambitious.  The Central Pacific was assigned the challenging 690 miles of track over difficult desert and mountainous terrain from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah.  The Union Pacific’s 1,085 miles from Omaha, Nebraska Territory, to the Utah terminus presented equally daunting challenges including fierce tribal resistance across much of the plains and the Rocky Mountains.

Omaha was a muddy town of just 1,900 people in 1862

Not surprisingly, Californians were the most eager for a more efficient means of transport. The various overland trails all  too, six months of hardship and steam ship passage around South America’s Cape Horn bere both expensive, perilous and never shorter than six weeks.

Congress authorized a number of generous incentives to the railroads even though the nation was already  plunged into a costly Civil War.   The companies were loaned money at the rate of $16,000 per mile of track for prairie and $48,000 over mountains.   In addition, a 400-foot right of way on each side of the roadbed plus additional land for sidings, yards and stations was included. Any unused land could be sold by the railroad, often creating a windfall following construction.

Total cost, $100 million in 1860 dollars, a bargain at approximately $3 billion in today’s money.  The amount was eventually raised through government guaranteed bonds, other bonds sold by the railroads themselves and private investors.   Both the Western Pacific and the Union Pacific periodically floundered, however, and were forced to sell off assets to finance continued construction. 

Benson, WY, population 3,000; 25 saloons; existed 90 days.

Adding to the extraordinary expense at the time, the rails, spikes and other essential supplies for California’s Central Pacific had to be shipped around the Horn via steamboat.  All the companies  eventually faced delays, material and manpower shortages created by years of conflict between the North and South.  

Congress  hedged its bets early, however, passing the Homestead Act in May of 1862 to ensure a steady supply of passengers.  The promise of cheap land was sure to bring  eager emigrants to fill the vast spaces west of the Missouri River. 

While the myriad problems created by post-Civil War shortages, there were some unforeseen benefits.  The railroads had a ready supply of government and military engineers and surveyors experienced at constructing bridges and repairing track in the heat of battle.  

In addition Union general, John S. Casement – General Jack – (above) was finally at liberty in 1865.   When he took the reins of the Union Pacific, it was bogged down just 40 miles west of Omaha.  He quickly instituted a number of innovations including rolling bunk cars, a mobile kitchen and military escorts for survey teams that began pushing the tracks toward the Rockies.

It was nearly eight years later, on  May 10, 1869, that Central Pacific’s “Jupiter” engine and the Union Pacific’s Engine No. 119 came nose to nose at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, shortening the way West by five and a half months. 

Promontory Summit, May 10, 1869

Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad just linked Omaha to Sacramento.  But by 1904, the Central Pacific acquired a direct route to San Francisco by purchasing the original Western Pacific Railway.  Promontory Summit was bypassed by some four miles, relegating it to a siding 

Less than four decades later, those historic rails were pulled up and relaid at a military installation as part of the WWII effort.  The symbolic “golden spike”  which had been privately commissioned now resides in Palo Alto, California.  

In addition, the two engines shared an equally sad fate. The Jupiter was scrapped in 1903 and sold for just $1,000.  Number 119 followed in 1906 leaving the nation with only replicas.  They are on display at the National Park Service’s Golden Spike Historic Site.

The Golden Spike National Historic Park, 32 miles west of Brigham City, Utah, features steam demonstratons and re-enactments of driving the Golden Spike.  Ranger led programs are available during the summer.  The site, administered by the National Park Service, receives more than 45,000 visiitors each year and is pen daily  from 9 to 5, May to Columbus Day in mid-October. Reenactments are held daily from May 1 through mid-September, beginning  at 10 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.     

Private vehicle admission is $10 per vehicle, $5, individual admission.  Free “America the Beautiful” passes are accepted for active duty military and persons with disabilities.  For more information about the park and other fees and passes, go to nps/Golden Spike National Historical Park or call (435) 471-2209, Ext 29. 

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.