The Joining Of A Country

pat2 “How The West Was Won” is one of my all time favorite western films. There’s not really a plot. It’s mostly stories within a story, vignettes of great turning points in the development of the west.

One of my favorites ‘stories’ was the scenes involving the building of the Union Pacific. The “boss” of the forward thrust of the railroad, played by Richard Widmark, was a ruthless martinet who lied and cheated not to lose one second in building tracks west. It was probably pretty accurate. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the building of the coast to coast railway. It’s considered the great physical achievement of 19th Century America. It was also a great drama of two great antagonists, two companies racing toward each other in bitter rivalry, one from the east, one from the wet, to meet somewhere in the wilderness. Since there were great financial rewards for every mile laid, each sought to out build the other, and sometimes to undo the other’s work.

According to the American Heritage History of Railroads in America, “The hordes of workmen are like two armies – in fact they are armies, as great as most in antiquity – and different races contend as well; white men against red men on one hand, Irish tracklayers for the Union Pacific against Chinese for the Central Pacific on the other. And while this heroic cast struggles in the field, other more powerful and occasionally sinister figures who direct the armies or profit from them scheme and battle for advantage in the background. There is wealth for some and poverty and death for others, and the rewards are not necessarily given to the deserving.

The prize? The empire of the west.

The railroad was made possible by Congressional action in 1862 and work began in 1863 from Omaha west by the Union Pacific and from Sacramento east by the Central Pacific. Because of the war, though, progress was slow in the first two years. But starting in 1866, it was full speed ahead. Tracks were laid at the rate of a mile a day and later as fast as two or three a day. A moveable city accompanied the rails, a Gomorrah of gamblers, saloon keepers and painted women who went to work almost as the first train appeared. “Hell-On-Wheels,” it was called.

The competition between the two railroads lay in the financing. Each railroad was to receive 6,400 acres of federal land laid out in checkerboard parcels on either side of the tracks for every mile completed, plus vast loans from the U. S. Treasury as they went along – $16,000 per mile of level track, $32,999 across the plateaus and $48,000 per mile across the mountains. It was a big incentive to sabotage the opposition, fight Indians and work day and night to lay tracks.

The iron men, the clampers and the spikers had their own assembly line, and they carried guns as well as tools. The Union Pacific hired men in Confederate gray who worked next to those in Union blue. There were freed slaves, hordes of Irishmen from eastern cities, Germans, English adventurers and, again according to the American Heritage History of Railroads in America, “tight-lipped characters who tend to join foreign legions and any moderately well-paid enterprise that promised adventure.”

The Central Pacific, on the other hand, hired gangs of Chinese. Tired of hiring Americans who seemed to hire on only as a cheap trip to gold and silver mines, where they departed, Charles Crocker, one of four men who basically controlled the Central, hired a group of fifty orientals. They worked so well that before long, ll,000 of them were at work on the Central Pacific. They proved industrious and strong, chipping away at tunnels at a rate as slow as eight inches a day (seven tunnels in one two-mile stretch) laboring under vast falls of snow, hanging over precipices in baskets to drill holes for explosives, and erecting the long snowsleds necessary to make it across the Sierra Mountains.

Since no meeting place had been fixed, the two competing railroads pushed past each other on parallel lines for hundreds of miles, and the Irish and Chinese often fought each other. Washington finally said enough and on May 10, 1869. The railroads met at Promontory, Utah, and the presidents of the two companies drove a ceremonial spike of gold.

Bret Harte wrote a poem for the occasion. It begins:

“What was it the engines said,

“Pilots touching – head to head,

“Facing on a single track,

“Half a world behind each back.

To travel the very first intercontinental railroad today will take you 1,780 miles through long tunnels, high bridges, deep cuts and spectacular mountains. It makes you wonder why today it takes a minimum of twenty years to build a north-south interstate with all the materials and machines we have today. It’s mind-boggling to realize bare hands laid these long ribbons of metal in little more than five years over a century and a half ago.

How many wonderful stories can be told of this adventure. I’m putting them in line now.

In the meantime, one of my goals is to take a train across country, including through some of those routes carved out by hand so many years ago. Have any of you taken a train lately?

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16 thoughts on “The Joining Of A Country”

  1. Hi Patricia! What a wonderful post. I love trains. Last fall we rode on an antique railroad line with restored engines and passenger cars to take our toddler old grandson to a pumpkin patch. Oh it was such fun…even more so seeing everything through his eyes. I’ll always remember him saying, “choo choo move” when we started leaving the station.

    I would love to take the train cross country.

  2. Wonderful blog, Pat. Haven’t taken a train in decades unless you count the commuter rail that goes downtown from where I live. But I love and miss the old steam trains.
    The golden spike ceremony is commemorated on the Utah 25 cent coin. At the ceremony, the man driving the spike actually missed on the first blow, but somebody made a sound so people would think he’d struck true. After the ceremony, the gold spike was taken out and replaced with a steel one so it wouldn’t be stolen.

  3. Hi, Patricia. I love railroad stories, it’s a fascinating chapter in American history.

    Here’s something that I’ve always wondered about.

    The Chinese are treated terribly by the railroad. I’ve read some stuff that will curl your hair about the deaths and suffering, little or no pay.

    So here’s my question, they weren’t slaves but they were treated as bad or worse than slaves. So, think of the Civil War. Why did the South fight that whole monstrous war when they could have just ‘freed’ the slaves and put them under terrible oppression like they did the Chinese?

    Do you see my point?

    Think of those Southern Plantation owners, sending their SONS to die so they wouldn’t have to free their slaves…it boggles the mind. I know it was about states rights to them and freedom…to a point…but still, about the time their sons started dying, you’d think they’d have wised up–freed their slaves–put them into what was virtually slavery–the concept was already in full existance on the railroad–and had about the same end result…without their sons having to die.
    That would have led to better treatment for the freed slaves, too, certainly no more slowly than a better life came to them with all the Jim Crow laws.

    I know it does no good to refight the battle of Gettysburg at this late date, but it is such a tragedy and to me was so avoidable. I just keep thinking about sending my child off to possible death and can’t believe they didn’t put a stop to it.

  4. How the West Was Won is also one of my favorite movies. Not too long ago, I found out my husband, who has watched hundreds of westerns, had never seen the movie. It was definitely a trip to the video store to find it! He enjoyed it, too.

  5. Hi Pat – I love going to railroad museums and walking through those old cars. Sacramento has a great one, where the whole scene is set and you really get the feeling of how it was to ride in one of those “fancy” cars. But I know the ride was horrible if you hadn’t the money to pay for a luxury train.

  6. Very interesting. I have a special place in my heart for trains, especially the old steam engines. They’re neat. It does boggle your mind when you think of how difficult it was to lay all that track by hand. And to think it only took 6 years! Wow! Like you said it takes almost that long today with all the newfangled equipment.

  7. Patricia, Thanks for the interesting post. This will probably sound pitiful, but the only train that I have ever been on was at Disneyland and Disneyworld. And I’m not so sure those trains are to scale…I think they are smaller. I’ve ridden the incline railway up Pikes Peak which was waaay cool and I’ve ridden another narrow guage in Cripple Creek, CO. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to travel by train. When you tour the old train cars the seats are so small..and they sit up so tall and straight, and many of them face the seats in front of you and your knees would be knocking into someone else. It would be so exhausting.

    I don’t know if anyone else has seen this one, but I really really liked, “Into the West” that 6 part mini-series, I think it aired on TBS. It is all about the great Western Migration (my favorite time period) and has an entire 2 hour episode called “Hell on Wheels” about the Railroad. It was incredible and for me, it really opened my eyes and made me feel so ashamed and sad about the way that the whites treated the Indians, the Chinese and well, everyone who wasn’t White. I highly recommend this series. Amazing!

    Mary – what an interesting thought about the Civil War. I had never thought of it that way, but now that I have I totally agree with you. I always thought it was interesting too, that the majority of the Rebels who fought in the Civil War couldn’t afford slaves anyway, so what the heck were they fighting for? Were they just standing on pinciple?

    Off Topic – We went to Cavalia by Cirqu du Soleil on Saturday night. It was incredible. I highly recommend it if it comes to your town. You can see pics and a video on my blog if you want to.

  8. Hi Patricia, I loved the blog today. My husband’s brother works on the railroad laying that wonderful track. I’ve never really thought about all the people it took to build this wonderful railway system. Never been on a train. Would love to take a trip out west on one though.

    Have a great day.

  9. I haven’t ridden a train lately but have fond memories of riding with my grandparents often.

    My grandfather worked on the railroad and he knew all the conductors. When I was about 5 or 6 Mom would put me on the train from Houma, LA to Lake Charles – wouldn’t DARE dream of doing that with a child now days, but it sure was fun back then. And of course EVERYONE knew my grandfather’s wrath LOL so they watched out for me very well. 🙂

    Wonderful, interesting post.

  10. Interesting topic. I road a train as a child and it was just a short little trip. Someone I knew did one of those month long trips on a train – I think it was partly through Canada. I think we did a lot better when we used trains instead of trucks as we do today.

  11. Stephanie. . . I think those incline trips qualify. When I was in college, I used to take the train home. I could have ridden the 180 miles with someone else, but I always chose the train. It was wonderful. Then when I first went to the Atlanta Journal, I was assigned to cover the Spelling Bee. As a reward for going to all the county matches, I went with the state champion to Washington. It included a train trip from Atlanta to Washington. A private compartment at that. I spent much of the time in the club car where I met the author of No Time For Sergeants. He had dinner with my Spelling Bee Chamption and her mother. We were all in awe. I have great train memories, but have yet to take to the really long one that I covet.

  12. Our last traiin trip, was many, many years ago! It was a Santa Special and we took all three of our children who were five and younger. The Special took us from downtown into North Houston and circled back to the station. The only train trip before that: our high school arranged five or six rail cars to carry the band, cheerleaders, drum & bugle corps and members of the student body to Beaumont for an out-of-town game. We got to parade to the stadium in the early twilight for the game. This was back in 1953/1954. Talk about fun times!!!

    Pat Cochran

  13. Welcome, Patricia. Have enjoyed your historicals. Still have some on my to be read shelves. Stephanie, did see “Into the West” and thought it was probably a pretty accurate depiction of the events. It certainly didn’t glamorize the life of the western settlers or native americans. Have been on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and the cog railroad up Mt. Washington, NH. We took the Durango to Silverton train in Colorado. They are all lovely trips. In college (many, many years ago), I took the train from my home in Plattsburgh, NY to St. Johns, Quebec for some college research. Also took it to and from NYC for my student teaching. When we lived in Sacramento, CA, we took the train over the mountains to Nevada City. My husband and I would love to take the Trans-Canadian from the east coast to west, however, it doesn’t run all the way across anymore. It is really too bad trains don’t run very many places in the US anymore. It is a pleasant way to travel. My dad is on oxygen and they will not let him fly (the anti-terrorist laws prevent him from bringing his tanks). Long car trips are hard on him. The train would be perfect, but the closest he can get to us is 3 hours. The tracks are there – the library where I work is in an old train station adjacent to a very active train yard. Private passenger trains do come through occasionally. We live in Northeast Tennessee now and there are several fall excursion trips in the area. Haven’t made one yet. Tried to catch the one in West Virginia last October, but all trips sold out very fast.

  14. hi Patricia. . .

    I live in Memphis, so we’re neighbors. How lovely to have a library in an old train station. I envy you that Durango to Silverton trip. It’s one I’ve always wanted to take.

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