Science and Invention


On May 10, 1869, the last tracks of the United States’ first cross-country railroad were laid, making North America the first continent to be spanned from coast to coast by a rail line. The event was the fulfillment of a great national dream to knit the vast country closer together. Short-run rail lines had been in use since the 1840s, but the nation lacked a method for transporting people, raw materials, and finished goods between distant regions. In the early 1860s U.S. Congress decided in favor of extending the railroad across the country. The federal government granted land and extended millions of dollars in loans to two companies to complete the project. After a long debate that had become increasingly sectional, the legislature had earlier determined the railroad should run roughly along the 42nd parallel—from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. This route was settled on for its physical properties: The topography of the landscape would best allow the ambitious project.

The Union Pacific Railroad was to begin work in Omaha and lay tracks westward; the Central Pacific Railroad was to begin in Sacramento and lay tracks eastward, crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Work began in 1863; and six years later the two projects met at Promontory in north-central Utah, northwest of Ogden. The Central Pacific Railroad laid 689 miles of track eastward from Sacramento, while the Union Pacific Railroad laid 1,086 miles of track westward from Omaha. Six hundred workers, including numerous Irish, Chinese, and Mexican immigrant workers, attended the May 10, 1869, ceremony celebrating the accomplishment. The last steel spike that was driven into the railroad was wired to a telegraph line; when the spike was pounded, a signal was sent around the world to announce the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. By the end of the 1800s, 15 rail lines crossed the nation.


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