The Transcontinental Railroad

Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here. According to my This Day In History Calendar, today is the 152nd anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (May 10, 1869), an event that had a profound effect on everything from commerce to the environment of this country.

So today I thought I’d share a bit of history and trivia around this event.

First a timeline of key events:

  • 1832 – Dr. Hartwell Carver made his first push for construction of a railroad to connect the east coast to the west coast. That proposal didn’t make it through, but Dr. Carver didn’t give up and over the next several years continued to write articles supporting his proposal.
  • 1853 – Congress commissions a survey of 5 possible routes. These were completed by 1855
  • 1862 – The Pacific Railroad Bill signed by Abraham Lincoln. The act offered government incentives to assist “men of talent, men of character, men who are willing to invest” in developing the nation’s first transcontinental rail line.
  • 1863 (Jan) – The Central Pacific Railroad breaks ground in Sacramento. They lay the first rail in October of that same year.
  • 1863 (Dec) – The Union Pacific Railroad breaks ground in Omaha. But because of the Civil War it isn’t until July of 1865 that the first rail on the eastern end is laid.
  • 1869 – Transcontinental Railroad completed

Now on to some other Interesting facts and trivia:

  • The railroad line followed a route similar to that used as the central route of the Pony Express primarily because this route had been proven navigable in winter.
  • There were two main railroad companies involved in constructing the historic line. The Central Pacific Railroad received the contract to construct the line from Sacramento to points east. The Union Pacific Railroad was awarded the contract  to forge the path from Council Bluffs, Iowa west. As noted above, construction began in 1862 and in the early days the place where the two legs would meet up and become one was not decided.
  • As the project neared completion, President Ulysses Grant set Promontory Point Utah as the place where the two rails would meet. On May 10, 1869, the final spike was driven and the Transcontinental Railroad was deemed complete.
  • The final spike driven is often called the Golden Spike. However the spike was actually gold plated, a solid gold spike would have been much too soft to drive into the rail.
  • The total length of the rail line was 1,776 miles. 1086 miles was laid by the Union Pacific crew and 690 miles by Central Pacific. At the time of its completion it was one of the longest contiguous railroad in the world
  • The chosen route required 19 tunnels to be drilled through the mountains. This was no easy task during this time period and it managed to push forward barely a foot per day. Even when  nitroglycerin was introduced to blast through the rock it only increased their progress to 2 feet per day.
  • When completed, the Transcontinental Railroad allowed passengers to cross the country in just one week as opposed to the four to six months it had taken before.
  • The fare to travel from Omaha to San Francisco was $65 for a third class bench seat, $110 for a second class seat and $136 if you wanted to ride first class in a Pullman sleeping car.

And there you have it, a short and sweet lesson on the Transcontinental Railway. So what about you, do you have any experience with trains and railways you’d like to share? If not, would you like to ride a train someday?

My only personal experience was on a vacation to the Grand Canyon – we road the train from Williams AZ to the south rim, a trip of about 2 hours. It was a really fun addition to our vacation experience.

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at or email her at

60 thoughts on “The Transcontinental Railroad”

  1. When I was a teenager, we took a trip to Cleveland on the Amtrack. It was an interesting ride. As a child, we went on the Cass Railroad in West Virginia. It was beautiful to see the mountains, but the smoke did not agree with me. Thank you for the opportunity.

  2. I’ve been on steam trains in MD, PA, NC, and CA; subways in NY, DC, and SF; I took the train from Wilmington, DE to Philly; train from NJ to NY; and I’ve taken the Autotrain from Lorton, VA to Orlando, FL.


    • And I have a really cool historical/family link to the last steam trains in Virginia. O. Winston Link, a famous photographer, was hired to photograph during the last days of the steam railroad system in Virginia in the late 1950s. He was known for his B&W photography. He took photos of my dad with my grandpa and great-uncle George in a corn field–they were using a horse and wagon. Several of these photos are in a book with his photography, and they are also in the O. Winston Link museum in Roanoke, VA. Plus, my grandparents met Link, and he sent them 8x10s of the photos.

      My dad has a radio from one of the last railroad stations in SW Virginia.


  3. This is such an interesting post! Thank you so much for sharing. We were on a cross country trip with my family two years ago when I was in school break during the winter, and an avalanche happened and our train was stopped. It was super scary. It happened during the night and everyone was jerked awake. It was a huge change in our plans and our train was literally stuck like that for more than 24 hours. We had everyone on the train, from people who were angry, to ones who were so calm about the situation. I, for one, enjoyed it so much! We got to get off the train as well for intervals while things were being fixed and it felt like I was in a movie!

    • Hello Daniyah.. Oh what an adventure! I imagine it was kinda scary at the time, but now you have a great, unique story to pull out whenever you like 🙂

  4. Hi Winnie! I just adore your books. I’m sorry this isn’t relevant to your post, but I just wanted to say your books give me so much comfort and I find such joy in them. Thank you so much for writing them, especially the ‘Journeys of the Heart’ series, they are my favorite!

  5. I have ridden on a train about six times, even on a sleeping car in India. I also live in a town that came about because of the railroad. Plans were made to run the tracks through the small town of Big Lick, but the town council refused, so the rail company moved a couple of miles south. The town of Oakboro sprang up because of the railroad, and Big Lick is no longer a town — just a small, almost forgotten, community.

  6. I would love to take a train trip one day. The only kind I have been on is the mass transit system in Dallas and it’s been years ago and I only rode it a couple of times.

  7. When I was a girl growing up in PA, my girl scout troup took the last train ride from Irwin to Pittsburgh, PA to see a play. It was so cool! When I met my husband, we traveled to Switzerland and rode many trains.

  8. When I was in second grade we took a school trip and road to Lexington Ky. by bus and came back to Wilmore by train. That is about the only train trip I can remember.

  9. I’ve read that riders on the railroad were amazed to be going at an unbelievable speed of 25 mph.

  10. I had the pleasure to take a train ride when I was in grade school and again on a steam locomotive when my daughter was in grade school/girl scouts – see here in Indiana the old train runs from Laurel, IN to Metamora on a daily basis and I would love to take the grands someday for a ride! Thanks for the history lesson!

  11. So interesting Winnie. all those tunnels must’ve been on the western end of the railroad. It took them so long to meet the eastern end coming from Union Pacific.

  12. Towns along that railroad are a story of America! We see towns that were almost completely German (Ft. Hays) when immigrants were sought overseas, to others that even today have Czech words on their street signs (Wilson)! It was a great national effort to unite the country

  13. I live in Santa Barbara and I have fond memories of my grandfather taking my brother and I to the freight depot, buy us a coke out the the old machine and we would spend the day watching the trains pass through town. We also had a round house for the trains to turn around. My brother and I developed a great love for trains. I have taken many trips via rail and my brother just retired from Amtrak as an engineer. My nephew currently works as a conductor for Amtrak as well.

    • Hi Venetia, and oh what wonderful memories! What a great, loving grandfather you had. And how cool that his love of railroads lives on in new generations

  14. I would love to take a train ride! There’s one in Canada that I’d love to go on, and one in Alaska, too!

  15. I have ridden a train several times from Arizona to Colorado. It is definitely a different way to travel

    • Hi Joye. I can’t tell if you think different is good or bad . In either case I imagine you go to see things on your travel that you never would have if you’d traveled by car or plane.

  16. On my bucket list is a rail ride across Canada. My friend did and said the country was beautiful.

  17. I love riding the train and that is how I saw a lot of the country. In 1995, my nephew and I got on the train in Seattle, rode across the northern part of the US to Chicago, then onto NYC, down to Washingto DC, then to Florida. We spent a day in Washington sightseeing, then a week in Florida at Disney World. The train from DC to Orlando was a sleep room that included a toilet, a governed sink, a if the beds were made up no room to move with the luggage around. But very fun. From Orlando, where we were joined by my sister and another nephew, we then rode west, stopping in New Orleans for a short time, so we got to see a very small part of the city, but the train provided a guide on the train that told us about the area we were going through outside of New Orleans to the next town. Didn’t see any wildlife, but sure saw things we had never seen before. We stopped in Houston to see family, then got back n on the train heading to LA. Our plan was to take the train up the coast of CA to Portland, but because our train was stopped by an unground gas leak in AZ, we were put on a bus to Bakersfield just after we crossed the CA border. Then bussed up to Sacramento where we rejoined the train to Portland. From Portland we went east to Nampa Idaho.
    I also did a family trip, with my brother getting on the train in Portland, in Boise, my parents, another brother, wife, 2 kids, and myself got on the train heading east to Missouri then Texas at Christmas time. My dad hated it, my mom and I loved it.
    I want to take the train up to Niagara Falls then down along the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Hopefully someday I will do that. And would love to ride a train across Canada. Just a great way to see the country.

    • Oh wow Veda, you are definitely a pro when it comes to train travel – and it sounds like you have something of an adventurous streak in you too 🙂
      Good luck on planning that Niagara trip!

  18. I remember hearing and memorizing this poem from childhood:

    The railroad track is miles away,
    And the day is loud with voices speaking,
    Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
    But I hear its whistle shrieking.

    All night there isn’t a train goes by,
    Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
    But I see its cinders red on the sky,
    And hear its engine steaming.
    My heart is warm with friends I make,
    And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
    Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
    No matter where it’s going.

    Edna St. Vincent Millay

  19. I’ve ridden the Grand Canyon Railway twice – once on my honeymoon and once when my son was five in 2017. We also rode the 1880 Train in Keystone, South Dakota when we visited Mount Rushmore two years ago. They’re such fun rides for a tourist experience, but I sure am glad we don’t have to do all of our traveling that way these days.

  20. Rats, this is the second time in a week I have deleted a comment instead of posting it.
    In college I road the train into Canada from my Northern NY college to do some research for a history class. An easy and inexpensive way to travel. I also took the train from there to NYC for my student teaching in the Fall of 1967. We have taken the cog railroad up Mt. Washington, Vermont a a couple of times. We have taken the Durango to Silverton, CO steam engine train a couple of times. It is a spectacular trip. In 2019 we took a trip to Alaska and took the train from the coast to Denali. A nice trip through beautiful country in dome top cars. We have taken on train trip through the Appalachians in TN which was nice, but the scenery wasn’t as spectacular as it is out West. My husband wants to take the Trans-Canadian railroad from the East Coast to West Coast. Maybe some day. If we ever get to Europe, we will be taking the trains frequently.

    • Good evening Patricia. Sounds like you’re another one with a lot of train riding experience. Goodluck with all of your plans for future train trips, especially the European ones!

  21. Hi Winnie – Enjoyed your very interesting post on the trains back in the 1800’s. Yes, I have been on a train that took my family from Chicago thru Donner pass to Sacramento, Calif. The train had a dome car where you could see the Awesome country side & mountains thru Donner Pass. We have pictures that we took to show our other family members & friends. I enjoy reading your books & your P&P post.

    • Hi Lois. That sounds like a really great trip. And it also sounds as if it followed the same path as the Transcontinental Railway did which makes it doubly cool.
      Thanks for those kind words about my work!!.

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