Linking America Together, 150 Years Ago

“East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail, 1869” shows the celebration of the completion of the intercontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869. (Courtesy Andrew J. Russell/Oakland Museum of California/Handout via Reuters)

An unimaginable feat that connected America to the Pacific

Amidst all the talk of the country splitting apart, we just passed one of the great anniversaries that helped make America one nation. On May 10, 1869, crews from the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads met at desolate Promontory Summit, in northern Utah, and completed the Transcontinental Railroad. As the famous Golden Spike was driven into place, a nation that merely four years previously was ending a war that nearly tore it apart, was now celebrating the linking of the vast continent by rail. The biggest celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad’s sesquicentennial, not surprisingly, was over the weekend at the Golden Spike National Historical Park, which remains nearly as desolate as it was fifteen decades ago. Well worth the two-hour drive from Salt Lake City, Promontory Summit is one of the most iconic places in America. And the golden spike itself? You can see it in the Cantor Arts Museum, on the campus of Stanford University; Central Pacific’s chairman was Leland Stanford, Sr., former governor of and U.S. senator from California, who drove in the famous spike, and two decades later would found a university in memory of his only child.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Transcontinental Railroad in American history, yet it must stand near the top of the achievements that helped define the country as one capable of the greatest of endeavors. It also was in some ways the most important event in bringing American into permanent contact with the Pacific world. Begun in the depths of the Civil War, in 1863, it was driven forward not only by the foresight of President Abraham Lincoln, but the near-messianic fervor of men like Theodore Judah, the main architect of the endeavor. The unprecedented undertaking was completed by three railroad companies in just six years, stretching 1,900 miles from Omaha Nebraska, on the Missouri River, to Oakland, Calif., on the San Francisco Bay. The Transcontinental Railroad did not, therefore, actually stretch across the entire nation, but since the eastern half of the continent had already been linked by a web of rail lines, once Omaha was connected to Chicago, the entire country was spanned by iron rails.

It was by no means assured that the path of the railroads would cover the lands they ultimately did. Many argued for lines farther south or north, and the great bulk of the Rocky Mountains had to be avoided. Meanwhile, the challenge of passing through the Sierra Nevada Mountains was considered by some to be near insurmountable, given the terrible trials of the covered wagon pioneers who had struggled up and down those granite chasms just a few decades before. It is mind-boggling to remember that the entire line was constructed without nearly any mechanical machinery: laborers used dynamite to blast through solid rock, and wielded picks, shovels, axes, and hoes to level the ground, lay the beds and ties, and connect the rails. The conditions faced by the Central Pacific’s Chinese laborers (referred to as Celestials) were especially hazardous, and despite the racism they faced, they also won the admiration and respect of many on the project for their skill, bravery, and ability to withstand the brutal work.

As much as the Transcontinental Railroad helped knit together the country, it also was the vital element in America’s expansion into the Pacific. It was the lure of nascent trade opportunities with Asia that led to the great growth of Pacific coast cities during the 19th century, especially in the decade after California joined the Union in 1850. In 1869, a decade before the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the population of San Francisco stood at nearly 57,000 persons. The year after the railroad was finished, it had almost tripled, to just under 150,000.

The flow of internal immigrants into California may have been driven initially by reports of its almost unparalleled agricultural potential, but Americans had already begun coastal trade up and down the North and South American Pacific shoreline, out to Hawaii, and even all the way to Japan and China. American ships were regularly whaling in both the North and South Pacific, and while Great Britain maintained a strong presence in the same waters thanks to its control over Canada on one end of the ocean and Hong Kong on the other, it was clear that a reunited America would quickly become a far greater presence. The railroad would ensure a continual supply of sailors to man those California ships and of missionaries to set sail to the South Seas, as well as the finished goods that American merchants would ship now from the West Coast, as opposed to hauling around Cape Horn. And equally, the riches of Asia would flow far more quickly to communities throughout the country, and not just to the great coastal cities; by the end of the 19th century, green tea from Japan and China would be the drink of choice in many Midwestern homes.

With those trading and missionary links came political interests in protecting American-flagged ships and communities abroad. The U.S. Navy had reached the Pacific during the War of 1812, and had deployed a regular squadron in Pacific waters starting in 1818, but with the steady increase in trade with China and Japan, oiled by the ease of continental transport at home, American policymakers began to embrace the idea of America’s destiny in the Pacific during the three decades between Promontory Summit and Manila Bay. When Commodore George Dewey opened fire on the Spanish navy in the Philippines in May 1898, leading to America’s first overseas colonies, it was in some ways the culmination of an era that had begun three decades before, on the windswept Utah high country, with the driving of the Golden Spike that linked America together.

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