On this day in 1869, the transcontinental railroad opens for through traffic when Central Pacific Rail Road President Leland Stanford ceremonially drives the gold “Last Spike” (later often referred to as the “Golden Spike”) with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit, UT. The coast-to-coast railroad connection revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West, brought the western states and territories into alignment with the northern Union states and made transporting passengers and goods coast-to-coast considerably quicker and less expensive.
Since at least 1832, both Eastern and frontier statesmen realized a need to connect the two coasts as a “modern” part and parcel of manifest destiny. It was not until 1853, though, that Congress appropriated funds to survey several routes for the transcontinental railroad. The actual building of the railroad would have to wait even longer, as North-South tensions prevented Congress from reaching an agreement on where the line would begin.
One year into the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, guaranteeing public land grants and loans to the two railroads it chose to build the transcontinental line, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. With these in hand, and the war finally over, the railroads began work in 1866 from Omaha and Sacramento, forging a northern route across the country. In their eagerness for land, the two lines built right past each other, and the final meeting place had to be renegotiated.
Harsh winters, staggering summer heat, Indian raids and the lawless, rough-and-tumble conditions of newly settled western towns made conditions for the Union Pacific laborers–mainly Civil War veterans of Irish descent–miserable. The overwhelmingly immigrant Chinese work force of the Central Pacific also had its fair share of problems, including brutal 12-hour work days laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On more than one occasion, whole crews would be lost to avalanches, or mishaps with explosives that would leave several dead; reliable studies count not less than 1,200 souls lost in the project.
Continuing a fine American tradition, the various speculators and “leaders” of the project were often an amalgam of scoundrels and con-men coming into clover. One such man, Thomas Clark Durant, had made his stake money by smuggling Confederate cotton with the aid of Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, Ulysses Grant’s intelligence chief for the West.
Durant was one of the founders of the Credit Mobilier company, enmired in the scandal of 1867, which came to public attention in 1872. It involved the Union Pacific Rail Road and the Crédit Mobilier of America construction company. The massive scheme was laid in two parts; the construction company charged the railroad far higher rates than usual, and cash and $9 million in discounted stock were given as bribes to 15 powerful Washington politicians. These included the Vice-President, the Secretary of the Treasury, four senators, the Speaker and other House members; all-aboard indeed.
Ed. Note: Any similarities to events and personalities currently appearing in the headlines are purely coincidental, and not the intention of the author.