The transcontinental railroad was the first railroad

"Golden nail blow" in the desert

On May 10, 1869, the construction of the USA's first transcontinental railroad was completed. The 2600 kilometer long track connected the economic centers of the east with the gold rush towns of the west coast, opened up the lonely landscapes of the Wild West and brought two things above all to the two railway companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad: land and money.

The President of the Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford, awkwardly raised his heavy hammer in the air and started to strike: the iron fell to the ground; the photographers' flashes lit up. But the hammer had missed its target, the last nail in the sleeper. On May 10, 1869, a bizarre opening ceremony with a “golden nail” marked the end of a building of the century that symbolized the “American dream”: the first transcontinental railroad in the United States of America was completed.

The railways played an important role in the American economy as early as the mid-19th century. The many railway companies offered a wide field of activity for investors and speculators. The steam locomotive soon became a symbol of American progress. In the late 1850s, the United States built as many railways as the rest of the world combined. But up to this point in time, the construction of the railway was almost exclusively limited to the east of the continent. There was still no connection to the west coast.

The West had gone through a tumultuous development since the day in 1848 on which gold was discovered in California. Masses of gold diggers, settlers and farmers made their arduous journey to California every day. The construction of a transcontinental railroad connection between the Pacific and the Atlantic became a national task and determined the politics of the United States for a long time. But not only technical problems stood in the way of the construction of the century: the interests of the individual states were sometimes completely conflicting. One feared the downright astronomical cost. And finally, critics even questioned the practical value of such a long rail link, unprecedented anywhere in the world.

Against this background, the start of construction was a long time coming. Only after the war of secession broke out in 1861 and the strategic importance of the planned railroad became more and more apparent did President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) put an end to the discussion and in July 1862 signed the Pacific Railroad Act. Two large railroad companies were then given the concession to build the transcontinental railroad: The Central Pacific Railroad was to relocate its tracks from Sacramento in California to the east, the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha on the Missouri River to the west.

This marked the start of a gigantic project: 2,600 kilometers of sparsely populated wilderness between the Missouri River and the California coast had to be overcome. On this route, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, two mighty mountain ranges rose up, the peaks of which reached heights of up to 4200 meters. In winter, the snow piled up twelve or more meters on the passes. Even more terrifying, however, was the Great Basin, the dry and vast wasteland between the two mountain ranges that offered little water for people and locomotives. Cuts and dams, tunnels and bridges, building sites for locomotive sheds, freight halls and passenger stations were to be wrested from such an inhospitable landscape. Many contemporaries considered the success of this undertaking to be impossible.

Nevertheless, the financial incentive was not insignificant: Congress and the governments of the individual states transferred 16 kilometers of land on both sides of the route to the two railway companies for each kilometer of track laid, plus a grant of 10,000 dollars per kilometer of laid track on the plain, 20,000 Dollars in the Great Basin and $ 30,000 in the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. In this way, between 1850 and 1872, the railroads in the west were allocated no less than 480,000 square kilometers - an area twice the size of the entire state of Utah.

Five major land surveys were necessary to find the right route for the railroad: From Omaha, Nebraska, the route should first follow the course of the Platte River, overcome the Rocky Mountains, pass the Great Salt Lake to the north, cross the Nevada desert, at Donner Pass Crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains to finally reach Sacramento. Despite all government aid, raising capital was difficult for both the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific. It was only with all sorts of tricks and twists that the money came together so that at least the first work could be started.

Then the time had finally come: in Sacramento, on January 8, 1863, the groundbreaking for construction to the east took place. A little later, the Union Pacific also began construction to the west. Whole armies of workers created the way for the “steam horse” with little more than their muscular strength. It was a motley troop that fought its way forward meter by meter. Veterans from the civil wars were included as well as released slaves, Irish and German immigrants, Mormons and atheists, Indians from the Shoshoni tribe, Paiute, Washo and wiry Chinese who preferred to drink tea instead of water and brought their own cooks.

Under favorable conditions, the teams laid three to eight kilometers of track per day. They filled in ravines, erected wooden scaffolding pier bridges and built tunnels in the rock. But the work often came to a standstill: Blizzards, the dreaded snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, buried the route under drifts up to twelve meters high. Men were buried in avalanches, torn to pieces by self-made nitroglycerine during blasting work, or ambushed and scalped by Sioux and Cheyenne - until soldiers and patrols hastily summoned to kill or drive out defiant Indians.

The construction of the railway itself was organized in a factory-like manner. The top of the Union Pacific construction crew was formed by the surveyors. They were followed by the bulldozers who paved the route with horses, mules, dump carts, shovels and a lot of sweat. Then came the bridge builders and sleeper layers, often at a distance of up to 450 kilometers. Only then did the actual construction train follow, which always followed the freshly laid tracks. The rails were pushed up on platform wagons. Five men at a time packed a splint; 250 rails per kilometer, 30 nails for one rail, three hammer blows per nail. “A large chorus of hammer blows roars across the plains ... 21 million hammer blows, and this great work of modern America is complete,” a newspaper reporter cheered in October 1868 in view of the noisy construction sites.

In addition to the platform wagon with a field forge and tools, closed freight wagons with bunk beds for the workers in three rows were lined up in the work train. This was followed by a dining car with a single table over the entire length, at which 125 men could eat at one time. To make the dishwasher's job easier, the tin bowls were simply nailed to the table and simply rinsed out.

About every 100 kilometers a semi-permanent settlement emerged along the tracks. These provisional cities - including North Platte, Julesburg, Cheyenne and Laramie - quickly became playgrounds for adventurers, crooks and profiteers. It was not uncommon for railroad workers in these places to get their money out of their pockets faster than they could earn it. A Union Pacific site manager wrote to his wife from Julesburg: "Vice and crime paraded shamelessly in the light of day".

Markus Hehl

April 28, 2011