The Central Pacific Railroad: Western Link of the First Railroad Across North America
The Western half of North American was vast, bigger than many people could imagine in the United States of the 1840s. It had taken two hundred years for European settlement to expand from a few villages tenuously clinging to the Atlantic shore, over the Alleghenies and into the Ohio Valley, and most folks thought that it would take another two centuries to occupy the gigantic tract of land acquired by Thomas Jefferson in 1803.
But despite differing beliefs about how long it was going to take, there was near unanimous agreement among Americans that development of the balance of North America was an entitlement, reserved for the United States. It was fundamentally evident that someday, sooner or later, the United States should come to own and settle the continent from Atlantic to Pacific. This was an article of unshakable faith. Towns, cities, farms, and factories were destined to fill this new territory, and the Americans were the elect under God who were ordained to make it happen.
The Pacific coast territories of California and Oregon symbolized the West. Oregon was the realm of fur trappers and Indians, nominally under the control of Great Britain. California was the northernmost province of Mexico, which had gained independence from Spain in 1821. American explorers, trappers and whalers visited California, bringing back romantic stories of a rich land ripe for Yankee development and where anything was possible if only the Indians and Mexicans could be gotten out of the way. Russia, England, France and the United States all had designs on the Pacific coast, but the idea that Americans should ultimately control the west was encouraged by accounts like Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast: "In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"
The words "Manifest Destiny," the catchphrase that defined American expansion in the 19th century, were first used in 1845. It was a shorthand way to describe a series of national actions geared toward acquiring, controlling and then imposing "American" culture and values over the entire continent from Atlantic to Pacific, and became a powerful motivator for national action in western matters.
The railroad was seen as the key agency that could make the notion of Manifest Destiny a reality. Asa Whitney, a New Yorker who became wealthy in the China trade, talked about a railroad from the Great lakes to the Pacific in 1845: "You will see that it will change the whole world.... It will bring the world together as one nation; allow us to traverse the globe in thirty days, civilize and christianize mankind, and place us in the centre of the world, compelling Europe on one side and Asia and Africa on the other to pass through us." The concept of the U.S. as a "land bridge" connecting Europe and Asia was vivid and appealing. The proposed line was called the "Pacific Railroad," and for the next two generations every self-respecting railroad company with transcontinental aspirations made sure it had "Pacific" in its name.
Even though there was no easy way to get there, the west had already demonstrated its appeal to a few adventurers looking for new opportunity. Following the routes of the beaver trappers, the first organized group to cross the Rockies with the intent of settling in California was the Bidwell-Bartleson party that arrived in the Sacramento Valley in the fall of 1841. Others followed, braving the hardships of a three or four month walk overland from the Midwest for the promise of good farm land and fair weather. Immigration to California was steady but extremely slow. In 1845 the annual total of immigrants from "the States" was 250, doubling the next year. The best known group of 1846—or any other year—was the ill-fated Donner Party from Springfield, Illinois. Eighty seven men, women and children began the journey to California in May, but delays and bad luck caused 40 to die along the route, most in the snows of the Sierra Nevada where the party was trapped near what is now Donner Lake between November 1846 and February 1847.
The notion of a continental nation prompted the United States to conquer what been the Spanish southwest. In response to a series of "provocations," the United States declared war on Mexico in May 1846 and triumphed in the first American war of expansion. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was concluded in February 1848, ceding to the United States a vast territory from Texas to Oregon and achieving the physical precondition for realizing the dream of Manifest Destiny. The United States indeed controlled the continent from coast to coast.
Unknown to the treaty negotiators, gold had been discovered along the American River in the central Sierra Nevada foothills on January 24, nine days before California was officially given up by Mexico. The results were stunning and unanticipated. History's largest worldwide voluntary mass migration, the California Gold Rush, transformed the new territory into a state almost instantly. Over 100,000 people traveled overland to California by 1851, perhaps 40,000 more by sea. Despite a Congressional deadlock over the future of slavery in the newly acquired lands, it became the 31st state under the compromise of 1850, being admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850. The census of 1852 counted 223,856 Californians, up from only 15,000 in 1848. Nearly all had trudged across the continent, braved the voyage in sailing ships around the tip of South America, or risked disease in the jungles of Central America. There had to be an easier way to get to California: the new state wanted to be connected to the rest of the Union with a railroad.
But where would a railroad to the Pacific begin? Where would it end? Anti-slavery interests in Congress feared that a railroad which started in a slave state would result in this "peculiar institution" being carried into the new states which would inevitably arise along the route. Similarly, those who favored slavery were worried that free states would develop along a railroad which commenced in a free state. Either way, the balance of power between free and slave states in Congress would be upset, and most people believed that the enormous costs of building such a railroad made government involvement essential. The issue was thoroughly discussed, the idea was favored by many, but North-South conflicts deadlocked Congress and any possibility of action on a Pacific Railroad.
Unable to agree on the vexing issue of sectionalism, Congress nevertheless chartered a series of Army surveys to explore possible railroad routes to the West Coast. These were published in 1855 as The Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853-55 in 12 lavish volumes, and identified five feasible railroad routes but made no recommendations.
While Congress debated, the new citizens of California were making their own destiny. The first locomotive in California was used to level sand dunes along San Francisco Bay. In 1854, a small group of Sacramento businessmen proposed a railroad from the Embarcadero—gateway to the gold fields for the thousands of Argonauts who streamed off the steamboats in the capital city—17 miles east into the foothills. A New York firm was hired to plan and construct the new line, and a young civil engineer, Theodore D. Judah, came west to superintend the project.
Judah was a brilliant, energetic, capable and difficult man. The Sacramento Valley Railroad, first railroad west of the Mississippi, was completed to the new town of Folsom on February 22, 1856, and Judah turned his attention to the fabulous idea that a railroad could be built from near sea-level in Sacramento over the 8,000-foot summit of the Sierra Nevada only 100 miles away, and then across Nevada and Utah Territories to a connection with the railroads of the east. Practical minds had declared the idea foolish and impossibly expensive, and Judah found no encouragement in San Francisco's business community. Theodore Judah was not about to have his idea rejected, and became a forceful and single-minded advocate for a railroad over the mountains to the east. He pursued the matter with disturbing intensity in the face of scorn and derision, and became known as "Crazy Judah" for the depth of his beliefs. He made trips to Washington D.C. to lobby for a Pacific Railroad, and spent nearly every waking hour planning ways to convince others to support his efforts.
The issues of slavery and states' rights were straining the very fabric of the nation when Judah made a presentation to a group of Sacramento businessmen in November 1860. The most prominent of these, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, were members of the new Republican Party and saw possibilities in Judah's idea. They all supported the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, who had been elected sixteenth President on November 6, and combined patriotism with an equally strong sense of enlightened self-interest. A railroad along the central route east from California would bind the state to the Union in the event of civil war—and war looked like a certainty—and a line into Nevada would capture lucrative traffic to the Comstock mines of western Nevada. Lincoln's election triggered the secession of eleven southern states, with the final rending of the national tapestry occurring early on the morning of April 12, 1861, as Confederate guns fired on Union Fort Sumpter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, commencing formal hostilities between North and South. Back in California, the time to carry out Judah's plan had arrived, and an organizational meeting for a new company, the Central Pacific Rail Road of California, was held on April 30, with the company being incorporated on June 28. Stanford became president, with Huntington vice president, Hopkins treasurer, and Judah as chief engineer.
The undertaking before them was daunting, but there could not have been a more favorable moment to launch the enterprise. The Union Congress no longer had a reason to argue the route of a railroad to the Pacific: the line would clearly be in northern territory. Construction of the road was now a matter of national urgency. However the Union, fully engaged in a war for its very survival, was in no position to build such a railroad. Said Lincoln, "Private enterprise must build the Pacific Railroad. All the government can do is aid, even admitting its construction is a political as well as a military necessity."
Judah and his associated occupied the summer of 1861 with surveys over the mountains. A Sacramento newspaper crowed that "when the Pacific Railroad next comes up in Congress, Californians will be able to say to members: We are now prepared to lay before you a perfectly reliable report of a competent engineer. The problem as to crossing the Sierra Nevada has been solved." That summer Stanford campaigned for the governorship of the state, winning election in September to a two-year term.
Judah was sent east in October as the accredited agent of the Central Pacific Company of California, to lobby for appropriations of land and bonds from the government. This was his fourth attempt to induce Congress to support a railroad, and he was better prepared than ever with surveys, the support of a company ready to actually build the line, and the pressure of a national emergency to lend urgency to the matter. A cautious Congress, its attention focused on the war, debated a railroad bill through the winter and spring of 1862, finally passing the House on May 6. The Senate approved the matter on June 20, with President Lincoln signing the Pacific Railroad Act on July 1, 1862.
The act empowered the Central Pacific to build from California toward the east, and chartered a new company, the patriotically named Union Pacific Railroad, to build west from Nebraska Territory into Nevada. The railroads were granted right of way over federal lands, and ceded alternate sections—6,400 acres—of public lands for each mile of track completed. The lines would also receive a construction subsidy in the form of United States bonds in varying amounts for each mile of track. This was actually a loan, as the bonds were to be repaid with interest at 6% within thirty years, and the federal government was given a first mortgage on the entire undertaking. The railroads were required to be completed within twelve years.
The idea of land grants dated from 1850, when the Illinois Central-Mobile & Ohio Railroads received support for their route from the Great Lakes to the Gulf coast. Land grants were eventually made available to about eighty railroads, and four of the first five transcontinental lines received federal lands. The government considered most of the lands in the west essentially valueless without transportation, so exchanging unclaimed land—about 130 million acres in total—for the benefits of railroad development seemed to be good federal policy.
Judah returned to California in August, while Huntington, who had gone east to participate in the final stages of the Congressional debate, journeyed to New York City to manage the company's fundraising activities and purchase rails, locomotives and cars. Charles Crocker received the contract to build the first section of line from the waterfront in Sacramento toward the foothills in December.
Groundbreaking occurred on January 8, 1863, at the foot of "K" Street in Sacramento. It was a rainy, muddy day, with bundles of straw being spread around to provide dry footing for the participants. A speaker's stand decorated with bunting and flags furnished the backdrop for the ceremony. In his speech, Governor Leland Stanford, said "We may now look forward with confidence to the day, not far distant, when the Pacific Coast will be bound to the Atlantic Coast by iron bonds that shall consolidate and strengthen the ties of nationality, and advance with giant strides the prosperity of the State and Country...."
With materials beginning to arrive from the east, grading and track construction progressed northeasterly into the foothills. The work was much slower and more costly than anticipated, and the government bond subsidy would not be available until the first forty miles were completed. By early summer 1863 things were not going well. The railroad was running out of cash, and a widening rift had developed between Judah and Stanford, Huntington, Crocker and Hopkins—who were now becoming known as the "Big Four." Judah disliked the fact that Charles Crocker was given the contract to build a section of line, and wanted to use the completed part of the railroad as collateral for loans to stay afloat until the government bonds became available. The Big Four favored going deeper into personal debt to support the railroad rather than lower the line's credit rating by borrowing against it. There were other disagreements: soon Judah and his supporters on the board were excluded from important decisions. Matters came to a head at the end of September when both camps adopted a put-up-or-shut-up compromise. The Big Four agreed to buy out Judah's interest in the railroad for $100,000, and in turn offered to let him buy them out on the same terms if he could raise the funds. If Judah wanted to run the railroad here was his opportunity, otherwise he could take the money and leave. He boarded ship for New York giving the impression that he was about to secure financial backing sufficient to buy out his partners and take over the enterprise. Whatever his plan, Theodore Judah did not live to carry it out. While crossing the Isthmus of Panama he contracted yellow fever, and died in New York City on November 2, 1863.
The Big Four now had complete control of the Central Pacific. In an irony of history, the railroad's first locomotive, the Gov. Stanford, arrived by schooner from San Francisco on October 6, four days before Judah departed on his final, fatal trip east. It was difficult and costly to secure equipment for the railroad. All the rails, locomotives, and other supplies—literally everything except timber and the few iron castings which could be made locally—had to be sent on an 18,000 mile, five-to-eight-month voyage by sailing ship around Cape Horn from Atlantic coast ports. With the nation embroiled in Civil War, the Union had first call on railroad equipment, and scarcity drove up prices. Only small, obsolete locomotives were available; larger, more modern engines went to the war effort. Confederate privateers preyed on the shiploads of valuable supplies, and while few shipments were lost the cost of insurance became astronomical.
Construction was slow, but things began to look up in 1864. Additional locomotives arrived, and the road began hauling paying passengers in March. Another cash crisis occurred in the spring, and Congress was induced to pass an amended Pacific Railroad Act in July that increased the amount of land available and let the railroad borrow more money. The financial situation was stabilized by January of the next year and construction really took off. Gangs of surveyors and location engineers ranged out ahead of the end of track, refining Judah's survey and establishing the final location for the line. Graders followed, making cuts and fills and preparing the roadbed. Giant timber trestles were constructed, stations, water tanks and engine servicing facilities built, yards and terminals constructed.
The line moved east. Tracks were completed to Colfax, 54 miles from Sacramento, on September 1, 1865. The long, difficult, dangerous task of blasting a ledge for the roadbed a thousand feet above the American River at Cape Horn was not completed until May of the following year. The line reached Alta, 69 miles from the start, in July. Alta remained the railhead that fall and winter as enormous cuts and the railroad's many tunnels were prepared ahead. The work was grueling and endless, and was all done by hand.
In the fall of 1866 the Central Pacific reported that "The construction work is also progressing at several of the most difficult points on the line; among which are included a tunnel at the summit of the Sierra Nevada mountains 1,600 feet in length, and one 800 feet, seven miles east of the summit, on which laborers are working night and day." Tunneling was the most arduous and dangerous part of the work. Holes were drilled by hand in the rock face of the bore with drill steels and mauls, and black powder was the explosive most commonly used. Said one engineer later: "When mountain construction was at its height more than 500 kegs of powder a day were used. When the work began, powder cost $2.50 a keg. During the period that the greatest quantity was being used, the price advanced to $15.00 a keg.
"In the vicinity of Cisco, the rock was so hard that it seemed impossible to drill into it a sufficient depth for blasting purposes. Shot after shot would blow out as if fired from a cannon. A nitroglycerine factory was established near the summit tunnel. Some of the nitroglycerine was used on the summit tunnel and the two tunnels to the eastward. Its use was abandoned after a disastrous explosion, and Charles Crocker ordered them to 'bury that stuff.' Dynamite was invented in 1866, but was never used on the Central Pacific."
The majority of the Central Pacific's workforce was Chinese, who with pick, shovel, wheelbarrow and one-horse dumpcart literally moved mountains. Between 7,000 and 12,000 Chinese, mostly from the southern province of Canton, worked on the C.P. About 20,000 Chinese lived in California in 1864, most drawn by the Gold Rush but soon excluded from mining by prejudice and discriminatory laws. This same prejudice caused a reluctance to hire Chinese for railroad work, but a labor shortage in 1865 prompted Charles Crocker to overcome his admitted bias and experiment with a gang of fifty laborers. They proved to be excellent and skilled workers, and ultimately made up 80% of the C.P.'s labor force. Capable and hard working laborers were essential, because the railroad was built without the use of mechanized equipment. There were no steam shovels to excavate cuts, and no power drills to bore holes in the granite rocks for blasting. Everything was accomplished by hand, making the Central Pacific the last, and largest, of the nation's great civil engineering achievements of the pre-mechanized era.
The winter of 1866-67 was one of the harshest on record, and caught the crews of the railroad in the midst of drilling eleven tunnels at the highest elevations. Work was rushed in the fall to ensure that each of the tunnels had a good start. The tunnels were worked from both ends, and an intermediate shaft was placed in the middle of the summit tunnel to give four working faces. A civil engineer later recalled "By the time winter had fairly set in, the headings were all underground. The work was then independent of the weather, except as storms would block the tunnel entrances, or avalanches sweep over the shanties of the laborers." There were forty-four storms that winter, some depositing as many as six feet of snow, with drifts of forty feet and more. The workers lived a curious mole-like existence in tunnels under the snow where debris from blasting could be deposited.
The problem of snows would plague the Central Pacific for years. There was no way that men with shovels or the simple snowplows of the time could be relied upon to keep the railroad open in the winter once regular service was inaugurated in the mountains. Judah had assumed that the line could be kept clear by the simple expedient of running plow-equipped locomotives back and forth during storms, but he never actually experienced how harsh the winters could be in the Sierra. Leland Stanford is reported to have conceived the idea of building wooden sheds over the track. Experimental snowsheds were built in the summer of 1867 and tested the following winter. The initial designs were not satisfactory, and were modified for the first permanent snowsheds built in 1868. Eventually, 34 miles of tunnels and snowsheds protected the Sierra crossing from the effects of winter, giving the Central Pacific the reputation of a "railroad in a barn."
While work progressed at the summit, a crew of about three thousand graders had pushed ahead toward the state line. All the tunnels were passable by August 1867, and even before tracks were completed through them three locomotives, seventeen cars and twenty miles of rail were hauled on sledges to the east side of the mountains, 119 miles from Sacramento, so work could continue uninterrupted through the winter. Grading crews were nearly 300 miles ahead of the end of track by spring.
The Central Pacific was not building toward the east in isolation: the Union Pacific Railroad was moving just as inexorably toward the west. The Union Pacific, chartered by the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, was formally organized in October 1863 to construct west from the Missouri River and across the Great Plains and Rockies until it met the Central Pacific coming the other way. The place of meeting was originally intended to be the California-Nevada state line, because it was believed that the Central Pacific would take years to successfully surmount the Sierra Nevada.
The Union Pacific was to receive the same land grants and government bond loans as the Central Pacific, but got off to a much slower start than the CP because of the Civil War raging literally in its backyard. Lincoln had decided that the line would begin at Omaha, Nebraska Territory, on the Missouri River: 100 miles from the nearest railroad connection. Ground was broken on a bitterly cold December 2, 1863, but it would be a year and a half before any track was built.
Although it was half a continent farther away, the Central Pacific's oceanic supply routes were easier than the UP's. Everything the UP needed, even timber for ties, had to secured in the east at war economy prices, transported by rail to St. Joseph, Missouri, and then steamboated north to Omaha. The Missouri River, described as too thick to swim in but too thin to walk on, was fickle, treacherous and only navigable a few months of the year. The war meant that there was no labor force—most young men either being in the army or working hard to avoid being in the army—and the UP couldn't easily tap immigrant groups like the Chinese. The UP's executives, General John. A. Dix as president and Thomas C. Durant as vice president, initially weren't as clever as the Big Four in raising investment capital.
The situation was dramatically improved by the end of the Civil War in April 1865. Thousands of young men released from the armies of both North and South swarmed west looking for adventure. Many were recent immigrants from Ireland, northern Europe and England. In addition to manpower, sources of investment capital opened up and supplies became more available. The Union Pacific took off like a shot.
Like the Big Four, who made a deal with one of their own, Charles Crocker, to build much of the line, and later incorporated the Contract and Finance Company as their captive contractor, the Union Pacific's promoters created a complex financial apparatus, the Credit Mobilier of America, to build most of the Union Pacific. The railroad company's officers and directors were secretly owners of the Credit Mobilier, and essentially paid themselves at inflated rates to build the railroad. Durant, the shovel-making brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames, George Train and Sidney Dillon all invested in this company. Oakes Ames, an influential member of Congress for the decade prior to 1873, sold Credit Mobilier stock at a discount to fellow legislators and even Vice President Schuyler Colfax (for whom the CP had named the town of Colfax) in order to secure favorable political treatment. The scheme unraveled in 1872 when the New York Sun accused Colfax and other prominent federal officials of accepting bribes from the Union Pacific's promoters. The scandal widened, and Oakes Ames and fellow Congressman James Brooks were censured early the next year. Discredited and broken, both men died soon after
Financial shenanigans aside, the Union Pacific marched across the plains. General Grenville Dodge of the Union Army became superintendent of the work on the first of May 1866, and built 293 miles of track by the end of the year. The effort had the logistical precision of a military operation. Gangs built two or three miles of track a day in a carefully organized campaign involving graders, tracklayers and lining gangs.
The ever-advancing end of track was followed by a sort of portable town whose primary residents were saloon keepers, gamblers, prostitutes, toughs and sharks. Any vice could be fulfilled, and whiskey, gambling and the gratifications of the flesh became payday staples for the legion of trackworkers who flocked to the tents and shacks of this ad hoc city. This rough travelling Gomorrah was given the apt moniker "Hell on Wheels." Most of these temporary settlements vanished without leaving even memories, but a few survived the experience to become respectable, upright communities. Cheyenne began as such a Sodom-at-the-end-of-the-line, prompting this description of its early days: "When it was known that this was to be the winter terminus of the road, there was a grand hegira of roughs, gamblers and prostitutes from Julesburg and other places down the road to this point, and in the fall of that year  and the winter of '68, Cheyenne contained 6,000 inhabitants. Habitations sprang up like mushrooms. They were of every conceivable character, and some were simply holes in the ground.... Every nation on the globe, nearly, was represented here. The principal pastimes were gambling, drinking villainous rotgut whiskey, and shooting." Obviously not every worker succumbed to vicious opportunity, otherwise the general level of dissipation would have been so great as to completely paralyze the railroad. Progress continued across Wyoming and into the mountains of eastern Utah, while at the same time the Central Pacific railhead moved rapidly through the Nevada deserts.
Both railroads crossed lands occupied for thousands of years by Indians. In California a century of Spanish, Mexican and American occupation had decimated their numbers and relegated the few survivors to the status of ranch hands and fugitives. The Washoes and Piutes of Nevada had been considerably reduced by intermittent warfare with settlers earlier in the 1860s. Minor conflicts attended the passage of the Central Pacific through their lands—mostly grading crews shooting at the Indians—and the company was careful to distribute food, liquor, free passes, small amounts of money and a few jobs among tribal leaders to ensure their tractability. Tradition holds that the Central Pacific allowed Indians to ride freight trains at no cost for years after the line was completed as a sort of reward for leaving the railroad to its own affairs. The Central Pacific considered the Indians a picturesque nuisance.
Matters were different on the Union Pacific. The horse tribes of the Great Plains, the Northern Cheyenne and the Sioux, were well organized, mobile, and able to resist the encroachment of the railroad onto their land. These groups had been engaged in almost constant conflict with overland emigrants and settlers since the start of the California Gold Rush, and the Army often found itself in the position of trying to stop the Americans from exterminating the original inhabitants of the land.
Indian anger was strong, and the coming of the railroad made matters much worse, but actual attacks against railroad construction workers or trainmen were uncommon. The few real instances were wildly magnified in the eastern press and have become the stuff of legend. The most celebrated incident—told and re-told as a key part of Union Pacific's mythology—was on August 6, 1867, when a party of Cheyenne derailed a freight train between Plum Creek and Willow Island, Nebraska. Although scalped, a telegraph repair worker named William Thompson survived the attack and walked four miles back to Plum Creek, scalp in hand, to report the incident. A surgeon tried to re-attach Thompson's scalp after it had been rejuvenated in a bucket of brine but without success. Several railroaders were killed in the attack, and Thompson's sensational story elevated it from a tragic but limited skirmish to a major atrocity perpetrated by ruthless savages. This, of course, prompted the customary equally ruthless retaliations against the Cheyenne by the Army. Other successful attacks against trains in April, September and October 1868 culminated in the Army's summer 1869 campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne and the killing of more than two hundred Indians. In the end, the destruction of the buffalo—twelve million killed during the 1860s and 1870s—and the growing permanent American settlements of the upper Plains doomed the Indians. Deprived of their means of subsistence, decimated by disease and warfare, their land occupied, and with no political support, the Indians ultimately had no power to prevent their forced and incomplete assimilation into the culture that sought to eliminate them, all in the name of progress.
The Central Pacific's Chinese track gangs crossed the California state line in May 1868, and spiked down 305 miles additional of track by the end of the year. Work progressed at the rate of three miles a day, and the two roads suddenly found themselves in a race to be the first into the rich Salt Lake valley. By the spring of 1869 competing grading crews had passed each other by a hundred miles, and it seemed absurdly possible that the two companies might keep building parallel lines forever unless they were forced to connect. Under considerable pressure from the public and Congress, a deputation led by General Dodge met with C.P. Huntington in Washington on April 9 to agree where the railroads should be joined. It was decided that Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake, would be the place of final meeting. The next day a joint resolution of Congress ratified that this would be the spot "...at which the rails shall meet and connect and form one continuous line."
The Central Pacific had one final burst of timeless flamboyance on April 28 when a crew of Irish and Chinese tracklayers built ten miles and 56 feet of track in one day. The carefully prepared effort was in response to a wager of $10,000 between Crocker and Durant, a bet which Crocker had no intention of losing. The men put down ties and rails at the pace of a walk. Six miles went down before lunch, with the rest completed by 7:00 p.m., setting a record that has never been bettered. It was perhaps not an accident that the Union Pacific's end of track was less than eight miles from Promontory.
The Central Pacific reached Promontory Summit two days later and waited for the Union Pacific to arrive. Plans were made for a ceremony on May 8, a Saturday, and the telegraph wires, which followed each railroad, carried the news back to the respective coasts. A trainload of Central Pacific dignitaries appeared on schedule, only to learn that a washout and a labor dispute (the UP owed money to some of its workers, who delayed Durant's train until they were paid) would keep the Union Pacific contingent away until Monday the 10th. While the CP officers and guests enjoyed the limited pleasures to be had in the tent-town of Promontory and took an excursion to Ogden courtesy of the Union Pacific, some segments of the expectant nation had already begun to celebrate. San Francisco's party was a triumph of mass civic inebriation. It started on the 8th as scheduled and was of three day's duration, the intensity and destructive power of which would not be exceeded until the famous earthquake 37 years later. Most other towns waited until the formalities in Utah were officially concluded.
On May 10, 1869, literally in the middle of nowhere on the desolate Utah uplands, at about 12:45 p.m., the dream of Manifest Destiny was symbolically achieved and the continent spanned at last by iron rails. One thousand onlookers, mostly soon-to-be-unemployed laborers, gathered to commemorate the completion of the Pacific railroad. The day was breezy and cool, with a threat of rain earlier in the morning. Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant represented their respective companies in ceremonies that will forever be a part of the saga of the opening of the trans-Mississippi frontier. A.J. Russell's picture of the Central Pacific Jupiter and the Union Pacific No. 119 facing each other is possibly the most widely recognized photographic image of the 19th century, and the driving of the Gold Spike established a pattern for the completion ceremonies of nearly every other railroad of the next 50 years.
California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft described the setting: "The spot where the joining of the Atlantic to the Pacific took place was a grassy plain sunken between green hills. The horizon was bound on the east by the silver-rimmed summits of the Wasatch, whose rosy-violet atmosphere was in harmony with the iridescent hues of the Great Salt Lake on which they looked. In the immediate vicinity were a few canvas tents. Moving about the ground, mingling in a picturesque confusion, were people from the Occident and the Orient—Mongolian, Celt, full-blooded aborigine, and half-caste Mexican, garbed in national costumes, or innocent of any, mixing freely with American citizens and soldiers, each regarding only the significant preparations. At 11 o'clock a train from the west drawn by a decorated engine approached the gap left between the rails. Soon another train from the east, with no less elegant appointments, drew up on that side of the breach, each debouching some principal actors on the scene.
"The 'Last Tie,' of California laurel, handsomely finished, and having a silver plate, bearing the names of the officers of both companies, was placed beneath the connecting ends of the rails, and a spike of gold placed in a cavity made to receive it, was driven home by a silver hammer in the hands of President Stanford of the Central Pacific. Other significant and precious articles were displayed, the gifts of neighboring territories. There followed addresses of which everyone will be able to conjecture the import. Congratulatory telegrams were read from cities east and west. Cheers, music, and banqueting followed, and the royal marriage was consummated."
Overshadowed by Bancroft's eloquence is the fact that numerous special spikes—silver, copper, iron-silver-gold, and other gold spikes in addition to the famous one—were driven, or more likely ceremonially tapped, into the last tie. The real last spike appears to have been a regular iron spike, the driving of which was transmitted by telegraph in the first coast-to-coast broadcast of an electronic media event.
The signal "Done" flashed from Staten Island to the Golden Gate, igniting a national celebration of unprecedented magnitude and emotion. Speeches, parades, band concerts, bonfires, prayers of thanks and rejoicing, unguent editorials in principal newspapers and congratulatory banquets in every city attended the joining of the rails. A one hundred gun cannon salute was fired in New York's Central Park. The Liberty Bell was rung. Completing the Pacific railroad (it wouldn't be commonly called the "transcontinental railroad" for another year or two) had the same effect on the popular imagination as would man's walking on the moon one hundred years and a couple of months later. America saw itself as paramount, and a long-sought national goal of a continental nation had been at last, heroically, achieved.