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?