Vail Mountain SchoolGrade 8
The Transcontinental Railroad
Although many changes occurred in the mid 1800s in America, such as the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War, the Transcontinental Railroad profoundly changed the U.S. This tremendous project, partly funded by Congress, was one of the key factors that encouraged foreign immigration to America. The Transcontinental Railroad certainly instilled a sense of overwhelming pride in this nation, and it paved the way for the development of the West; however, the construction of the railroad relied upon slave-like labor and the usurpation of Native American lands. Indeed, the Transcontinental Railroad was a monumental accomplishment for the United States, but it came at the expense of many people.
Before 1845, the thought of a Transcontinental Railroad was absurd. In 1832, Dr. Hartwell Carver of Rochester proposed a railroad that would connect the East Coast to the West Coast, and lawmakers laughed at him. Again, in 1838, another man by the name of John Plum sent a petition to Washington asking the government to fund a Transcontinental Railroad. Congress said that, asking the government To build a railroad to the moon was impractical (Blumberg 11). In 1845, Asa Whitney changed the governments mind about constructing a railroad. He proposed a plan for the federal
government to fund a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Whitney was motivated by frustration. It took months to get American made goods to Asia. Therefore, a Transcontinental Railroad across the United States would increase trade with countries in the Eastern Hemisphere because it would take a substantially shorter time to reach Asia from the West Coast. In return, America would receive silk, spices, tea, and other foreign made goods. The settlement of the Oregon territory and the discovery of gold in California increased support for the massive project. In Whitneys argument he stated, Only a Transcontinental Railroad could develop the wilderness West of the Great Lakes (Blumberg 12). Although support for a Transcontinental Railroad was strong, Northern states opposed because a railroad in the Southern states would increase Southern revenue. The Northerners said that this would interrupt the balance of power.
On July 1, 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. The Act stated that two railroad companies would receive free of charge a 400 foot right away through public lands, and alternating grants of 10 square mile sections of land per mile of track (Faragher 683). The two companies would also receive mineral rights on adjacent land. The total land grant from the government amounted to over forty-five million acres. The companies were authorized to build a line Westward from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. Both sides would be built simultaneously toward each other. The names of the two railroad companies would be Union Pacific and Central Pacific; these were the companies chartered by Congress. The government would pay each company in government bonds: 16,000 dollars for each mile of track laid East of the Rockies and West of the Sierras, 32,000 dollars a mile between mountain ranges, and
48,000 dollars a mile in the mountains (The Columbia Encyclopedia 1). The government gave the companies a 30-year loan for each mile of track laid, but the railroad companies had difficulty finding support for the project. The government bonds would only take effect after the first 40 miles of track were built.
A man named Theodore Judah was nominated to find people who would invest heavily in the companies. On one of his crusades for investors, Judah gave a speech in Sacramento. In California he stated, You will have control of business interests that will make you fortune and fame (Blumberg 22). After his speech he had only convinced one person, Collis Huntington. Later, Judah gave another speech above Huntingtons store, which was the most prosperous hardware store in the West. Judah also managed to persuade Mark Hopkins, Huntingtons partner, Charles Crocker, who owned a grocery store, and Leland Standford, who operated a wholesale grocery business, to invest (Blumberg 22). These men became known as the Big Four; they became the men who operated the Union and Central Pacific Railroad Companies. Standford was appointed president of the Union and Central Pacific companies, Huntington became vice president, Hopkins became treasurer, and Crocker became construction supervisor. Although The Big Four were the key men involved in the progress of the Transcontinental Railroad, the manual laborers made the true accomplishments.
Because of the gold rush, it was difficult to find good workers. They were looking for cheap labor. Many people were needed to work in the harsh working conditions. The work force consisted of poor Americans, Indians, Irish, Chinese, and other foreign immigrants.The two main minorities, employed by Union Pacific and
Central Pacific were the Irish and the Chinese. At first the railroad companies focused on the Irish due to their strong appearance. But later the companies hired 1,000 Chinese immigrants as an experiment. Most Chinese had a fragile looking body, weighing an average of 110 pounds. Although they appeared weak, they were fearless and hard working. Another advantage of hiring Chinese workers was that they drank boiled tea instead of dirty ditch water, and as a result, were less likely to get sick. The Central Pacific made deals with shiploads of Chinese men for cheap labor. People hired by the Union and Central Pacific companies in large cities such as Beijing and Hong Kong recruited men. These men offered to pay the voyage if they would work on the railroad until their debt was paid. This resembled indentured servants of an earlier period in history. These ships could be smelled from miles away before they entered the ports because of unclean and crowded conditions. Once the weary ships had entered port, armored guards would defend the immigrants from protestors.
The Central Pacific Company labor force relied mainly on Chinese immigrants. Chinese people could not get good jobs because of persecution. An example of this occurred at the gold mines. Skilled Chinese miners would mine gold and ship it back to China. People said that they were taking away Americas wealth; they were not welcomed in the gold mines. The railroad companies took advantage of these people. In 1850, there were only 200 Chinese in the West, but by 1852 more than 20,000 Chinese inhabited the West. Central Pacific paid them close to nothing at 25 to 40 dollars a month for backbreaking labor. The Irish were paid at least 40 dollars a month. Yet, the
Chinese workers did not get drunk, fight, and they had good hygiene; the Irish said they, Smelled like little women, smelling of perfume (Blumberg 42).It was hard for the
two railroad companies to maintain harmony between both groups; tensions would rise between the Irish and the Chinese over little issues such as teasing.
The greatest challenge and possibly the highest amount of risk took place in the Sierra Mountains. These mountains separated California from the East. Here the Chinese workers were lowered in baskets over cliff faces higher than 1,400 feet. Then they had to complete the task of drilling holes in the cliffs, putting dynamite in the holes, and lighting a fuse and being pulled up before the charge ignited. In order to speed up the process of blasting through the mountains, a new type of explosive was adopted. It was called nitro-glycerin; this compound was extremely explosive and unstable to transport. A Scottish chemist was hired to mix the formula near the workers. Although this would speed up the construction, it came at a heavy price. Workers were often killed by debris that would fly into the air when the explosives went off. The debris included trees, rocks, and dirt. About 1,200 Chinese workers were killed during the railroad construction, mainly because of unstable explosives.
While the laborers were in danger constantly on the job, the conditions that they lived in also proved hazardous. When the railroad progressed so did the towns where the workers lived. These porta-towns were dubbed Hell on Wheels (Klein 76). Those hardy enough to visit the place came away with the feeling they had glimpsed a suburb of hell (Klein 77). They were basically boxcars that made up a small town, and the cars moved on the train tracks. Bad air circulation almost made them uninhabitable. If the
weather permitted, the laborers would sleep outside in makeshift tents. When winter approached, small houses were built along the track. The boxcars were not suitable for
the harsh winters. Once winter came and the snow covered these houses, chimneys had to be extended for warmth and ventilation. The connection of tunnels in the snow enabled them to work in the harshest conditions. During that winter the railroad companies learned how difficult it was to get supplies to people. In order to get supplies they had to build a gigantic snowplow that took twelve wood burning locomotives to push. After winter passed, covered areas of track were constructed where the snowdrifts existed.
When the railroad moved deeper into the West, more problems arose. Almost unbearable heat struck when the railroad crossed the Humbolt desert, and temperatures reached over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The dust was so bad that inhaling it drew blood from the lungs (Klein 76). Water was used sparingly since it was more expensive than whiskey! In order to feed the workers in these barren lands buffalo and herds of cattle were slaughtered. Workers dealt with the constant threat of Indian attacks. Problems also occurred between the two railroad companies laborers. The Union Pacific workers, made up mainly by Irish, would throw frozen dirt clods at the Central Pacific laborers, who were mainly Chinese. The Irish later set explosives in Central Pacifics camp. In retaliation, the Chinese set off a blast that buried several Union Pacific workers.
Finally on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah a golden spike linked the Union and Central Pacific railroads. It was considered a triumph for American society. The Union and Central Pacific railroad companies had completed the first Transcontinental Railroad; they needed to pay off the debt incurred to the national government and other
private investors. This massive structure took a significant amount of money and it needed to be paid back! The companies cashed in by advertising sightseeing excursions.
One of the highlights of the trip was a buffalo hunt. During these hunts, buffalo would be shot at through open train windows. If shot, the animal was left to die and to decay. They also made elaborate brochures that circulated in America and Europe. The brochures promoted the settling of the West along the railroad track by publicizing fertile soil. To increase land sales, the companies invited 200 newspapermen from all over Europe and America to come on one of their expeditions. They treated them as if they were royalty. The trip included buffalo hunts, stops at prarie dog towns, and performances. After the expedition, 200 happy reporters applauded the Transcontinental Railroad with articles in their local newspapers.
Once that the railroad was built, the land along side it became valuable. Along the railroad tracks, small towns were constructed and overrun with saloons, traders, squatters, and gamblers. It was important to maintain good relations with the Indians because reports of Indian attacks would lessen the value of land. Inevitably with all of these new settlers, tension rose between the Indians and the Americans.
One newspaperman wrote, Wild Indians held back our countries development (Blumberg 91). Another representation of what Americans felt towards Indians was expressed in Samuel Bowles writing, We know they are not our equals: we know that it is our right to the soil, as a race capable of its superior improvement is above theirs (Blumberg 91). The Native American tribes were often unfairly treated because treaties would be signed without even knowing what they said. The Indians trusted the American
officials. At Fort Laramie, Wyoming Native Americans discovered how corrupt American officials could be. A group of chiefs signed a treaty that allowed the U.S. to
build roads, and military outposts. The treaty also designated hunting grounds for each tribe. For compensation, each tribe would receive 50,000 dollars a year for food and supplies. But dishonest federal officials pocketed the money. The Indians had other reasons to dislike our nation. The trains ran through hunting grounds and scared away prey. Workers also killed buffalo, which was a sacred animal to the Indians. This was the main food source for the plains Indians. Buffalo would cause damage to roadbeds and would uproot telegraph poles trying to scratch their winter fur off. Most importantly, buffalo hides were valuable so hides would be taken and the rest of the animal left to rot.
Threatened with starvation, relocation, incarceration, and extinction, Native Americans felt the need to fight back (97 Blumberg). The Cheyenne Indians learned how to uproot train rails. Now the slaying of the iron horse began. Causing trains to crash was not only for destruction, but to get supplies such as clothing, food, and liquor. A result of the train attacks, Indians were forced to move to reservations.
In the end, the Transcontinental Railroad was one of the greatest accomplishments of America. When the last spike was laid, factory whistles sounded, fireworks crackled, and crowds converged to party in the streets (140 Blumberg). The Union and Central Pacific had opened up a new West; their race became part of an American legend, and it set the stage for a new era (141 Blumberg). This triumph for America proved that neither mountains, nor snow, nor deserts could hold back the countrys development. At the time of construction, however, people failed to acknowledge the pain and suffering
the laborers endured, and that other nations, such as the Cheyenne Indians faced extinction over what the United States called a triumphBlumberg, Roda. Full Steam Ahead. Washington, D.C: National Geographic Society,
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