Transcontinental Railroad created more than Hell on wheels
■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
Competition between rail and canal was as bitter as that between bus and streetcars in the early 1900s. Railroads also had bitter competition in their own ranks.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway blocked The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from laying track through the narrow gorge of the upper Potomac. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway held the rights, and along with it, the right to prevent another railroad from entering their territory in that part of Virginia.
The State of New York stood by the Erie Canal and refused rail lines the right to carry freight. Eventually, the railroads won the battle. J. W. Scott, editor of the Toledo Blade, helped the railroads when he wrote, “No nation can maintain its position among the foremost in civilization without fully exploiting this new means of transportation.”
Hell bound for the Mississippi and points west
As business boomed during the 1850s, entrepreneurs were anxious to move west—where their products were becoming more and more in demand. By 1855, the Chicago and North Western Railroad laid track to the Mississippi opposite Clinton, Iowa, but still, no bridge to cross the mighty Mississippi. The Rock Island Railroad opened the first bridge across from Illinois to Council Bluffs in 1869. Soon, other bridges followed, and more railroads reached out towards the west as far as Fort Kearney, Neb.
Communication between the east and the trans-Mississippi west were critical. Voices were being heard about the idea of a transcontinental railroad. The Great Plains were considered to be an American desert and of no value to commerce. Still, the idea grew. Northerners were for Chicago as an eastern junction point while southerners preferred St. Louis, Memphis, or New Orleans (slave states). The battle between the North and the South was on.
Abraham Lincoln and his former political competitor, Stephen A. Douglas, mutually agreed that the best round would be through Council Bluffs-Omaha and South Pass. Lincoln shrewdly obtained land at Council Bluffs.
Where, oh where shall we connect
Surveys of a railroad route across the plains were stymied because the parties involved did not understand the word “compromise.” No one agreed. The engineers were operating at a standstill, which meant they weren’t getting anywhere fast.
Southerners wanted to take the 32nd parallel, and northerners preferred the 48th parallel. Neither side would budge. For five years the government poured more than a million dollars into publishing 13 volumes of explorations and surveys for a railroad to the Pacific Coast. None of the information gained was ever used in plotting the route west.
The publications did point out the geology and dangers from both nature and native tribes, who were not happy to have their territories invaded by the white man from the East.
In 1853, President Franklin Pierce asked Commissioner of Indian Affairs George W. Manypenny to confer with the various tribes in an attempt to negotiate a safe route and secure their concession to a territorial government and giving up rights and title to the lands in whole or in part.
Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads
In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act, leading to the creation of the Union Pacific, which would lay rails west from Omaha. The Central Pacific would begin in Sacramento and move east. Congress allocated each road 20 alternate sections of land for each mile of completed track. They also granted loans of $16,000 for each mile of flat prairie land track, $32,000 per mile for hilly terrain, and $48,000 per mile in the mountains. The government quietly created competition between the two companies in order to expedite the process. The object being, each would want to lay the most track, in order to receive the most money.
A fair amount of mayhem took place during the race to connect railroads. In order to rake in more mileage money, Union Pacific sometimes built winding roads to accumulate more mileage, used cheap wrought iron rails, and raided tree stands for railroad ties to satisfy the need of 2300 ties per mile of finished track. When farmers complained that Union Pacific was denuding their forests, the company argued that since Nebraska was unsurveyed, the farmers were squatters with no right to the lands in the first place. Following continued violence, Thomas Durant, vice-president and manager, decided it wasn’t worth the bad publicity and ceased the raids on farmers’ lands.
If there were problems, they became disasters with the onset of winter with snow, ice, sleet and freezing temperatures. Union Pacific’s management, anxious to outdo the Pacific Road, laid track on snow and ice without the thought of any consequences. By spring, it had all been for naught and the work done through the winter had to be rebuilt. Additionally, spring flooding of the Platte River washed out rails, bridges, and telephone poles at a cost of more than $50,000 during the first year, increasing the cost three times.
Natives, unhappy with their treatment by the white man’s government, attacked the workers, causing the loss of hundreds of lives and adding to the costs already beyond the original estimates. The Cheyenne and Sioux scalped workmen and disrupted the slow progress even more. Troops were ordered in to dispel these attacks. The Pacific Line had no such problems. They made agreements with the Paiutes and Shoshones employing both male and females to work alongside the Chinese coolies.
As the UP and CP entered Utah in 1869, the competition became more intense and costly. As the two railroads neared the junction where they would unite, all hell broke loose. The mostly Irish workers with the UP attacked the Chinese workers of the CP. Attacks and counter-attacks involved boulders and gunpowder. More lives were lost. Miles of track were destroyed. Both Presidents Johnson and Grant became involved in the feud and an agreement was finally forged to find a meeting place acceptable to both sides: Promontory Point, Utah.
The longer it took, the higher the cost and the more lives lost. Ruthless leaders mistreated the workers. Accidental deaths were also high. The coolies and native Americans with C.P. lost close to a thousand workers due to unsafe working habits forced upon them by greedy men at the top who thought only of money. Men died at the hands of outlaws in “Hell on Wheels” towns. Medical facilities were inadequate. It was a win at any price contest between the two railroads.
The Union Pacific tracks arrived at the hook-up site on April 30. The Union Pacific did not arrive until May 1. When the Central Pacific’s president Leland Stanford’s special train arrived for the celebratory event he was advised that there would be a delay because heavy rains had washed out part of the Union Pacific tracks in Weber Canyon. The train with Durant and other railroad dignitaries would not be able to proceed west until the rails were repaired.
There were other reasons not immediately known. At Piedmont, Wyo., an armed mob of railroad workers switched Durant’s car to a side track, chained the wheels to the rails and informed the President of the Union Pacific that he wasn’t going anywhere until the men were paid overdue wages they had earned. The amount raised to pay the workers was never revealed, however it was estimated somewhere between $12,000 and $235,000. After the money was wired, his car was allowed to hook up with the engine and continue on to the junction.
A golden spike unites east with the west
On May 10, 1869, a day filled with bright sunshine, a crowd gathered at Promontory Summit to await the arrival of the Durant Union Pacific entourage to arrive. An American flag flapped from a telegraph pole. Tents were set up to accommodate whiskey vendors, who were already doing a healthy business. Banners were abundant. A rousing clamor arose as the first Union Pacific engine pulled up to face the Pacific Central’s Engine. A construction train delivered to unload construction gangs. The train was sided to make way for two Union Pacific trains. The first, a three-car special, carried Durant and his guests. The second train brought with it four companies of infantry and a military band, along with a delegation of important Utah citizens, plus a brass band from Salt Lake City.
A special wire was attached from a telegraph pole to a key on a table facing the gap between the two railroads’ engines. Stanford and Durant brought down the first sledge-hammer to drive the golden spike and missed. The crowd roared its amusement.
At 12:45 PM, a telegrapher named Shilling tapped out his one word message to the world, a simple “Done.”
That message and the golden spike that connected the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads to form the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States was the beginning of a new era in American history.