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Iron Rails to the Pacific
 

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During President Lincoln's lifetime, Americans who wished to visit California had to endure months of difficult and sometimes dangerous travel, either across the continent by horseback or wagon, or by ship across the sea.  Even within the state, rough landscapes between widely scattered communities hindered communication and commerce.  Starting in the late 1850s, this desperate need for better transportation was answered by development of the railroads.

California's first railroad began operating in 1856, but widespread rail transport did not appear until the 1860s.  Most significantly, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, authorizing the construction of the transcontinental railroad. 

The Union Pacific Railroad began work on the eastern half of the transcontinental railroad, but the western half of the work fell to the Central Pacific Railroad.  Incorporated in 1861 by the "Big Four" (Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins) among others, the Central Pacific Railroad began laying track for the western portion of the transcontinental railroad in 1863.  President Lincoln took a great interest in this project, both as an asset to the nation and also from a personal perspective – he expressed an interest in visiting California by rail after he left the presidency.

In July of 1864, Lincoln appointed three men, including California Governor Frederick Low, as commissioners to report to the President on the progress of the railroad’s construction.  The upheaval of the Civil War delayed progress somewhat, but by 1865 the pace of laying track had increased and over two hundred of miles of track had been built in California.  By this time, the Central Pacific relied in large part on the labor of over five thousand Chinese immigrants.  Chinese crews forced the rail lines through the difficult terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and to Promontory Point by 1869.  Over the next two decades, rail networks spread throughout the state, forever transforming California, its population, and its economy.


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This map illustrates the vast distances that confronted any attempts to improve transportation and communication.  Visible are the routes of the famous Pony Express, the transcontinental railroad through Nevada and a proposed alternate railroad route though southern Arizona. "Johnson’s California, with Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona," published by Johnson & Ward, 1864, Ephemera Collection, California State Archives.

This map illustrates the vast distances that confronted any attempts to improve transportation and communication. Visible are the routes of the famous Pony Express, the transcontinental railroad through Nevada and a proposed alternate railroad route though southern Arizona. "Johnson’s California, with Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona," published by Johnson & Ward, 1864.

Ephemera Collection, California State Archives.



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