Transcontinental Railroad

transcontinental railroad, in U.S. history, rail connection with the Pacific coast. In 1845, Asa Whitney presented to Congress a plan for the federal government to subsidize the building of a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific. The settlement of the Oregon boundary in 1846, the acquisition of western territories from Mexico in 1848, and the discovery of gold in California (1849) increased support for the project; in 1853, Congress appropriated funds to survey various proposed routes. Rivalry over the route was intense, however, and when Senator Stephen Douglas introduced (1854) his Kansas-Nebraska Act, intended to win approval for a line from Chicago, the ensuing sectional controversy between North and South forced a delay in the plans. During the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress enacted legislation (July 1, 1862) providing for construction of a transcontinental line. The law provided that the railroad be built by two companies; each received federal land grants of 10 alternate sections per mile on both sides of the line (the amount was doubled in 1864) and a 30-year government loan for each mile of track constructed. In 1863 the Union Pacific RR began construction from Omaha, Nebr., while the Central Pacific broke ground at Sacramento, Calif. The two lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah, and on May 10, 1869, a golden spike joined the two railways, thus completing the first transcontinental railroad. Others followed. Three additional lines were finished in 1883: the Northern Pacific RR stretched from Lake Superior to Portland, Oreg.; the Santa Fe extended from Atchison, Kans., to Los Angeles; and the Southern Pacific connected Los Angeles with New Orleans. A fifth line, the Great Northern, was completed in 1893. Each of those companies received extensive grants of land, although none obtained government loans. The promise of land often resulted in shoddy construction that only later was repaired, and scandals, such as Crédit Mobilier (see Crédit Mobilier of America), were not infrequent. The transcontinental railroads immeasurably aided the settling of the west and hastened the closing of the frontier. They also brought rapid economic growth as mining, farming, and cattle-raising developed along the main lines and their branches.

See J. Grodinsky, Transcontinental Railway Strategy, 1869–1893 (1962); R. W. Howard, The Great Iron Trail (1962); L. M. Beebe, The Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads (1963); G. Hogg, Union Pacific: The Building of the First Transcontinental Railroad (1967, repr. 1970); C. E. Ames, Pioneering the Union Pacific (1969); J. J. Stewart, The Iron Trail to the Golden Spike (1969); D. H. Bain, Empire Express (1999); S. E. Ambrose, Nothing zLike It in the World (2000).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The First Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific, Union Pacific
John Debo Galloway.
Simmons-Boardman, 1950
They Built the West: An Epic of Rails and Cities
Glenn Chesney Quiett.
D. Appleton-Century, 1934
FREE! The Railroad Builders: A Chronicle of the Welding of the States
John Moody.
Yale University Press, 1919
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VII "Penetrating the Pacific Northwest"
The Union Pacific Railroad: A Case in Premature Enterprise
Robert William Fogel.
Johns Hopkins Press, 1960
Facing West: Americans and the Opening of the Pacific
John Curtis Perry.
Praeger, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Twelve "The Great Transcontinental Pacific Railroads"
The Story of the Western Railroads
Robert Edgar Riegel.
The Macmillan Company, 1926
The Old Northwest as the Keystone of the Arch of American Federal Union: A Study in Commerce and Politics
A. L. Kohlmeier.
The Principia Press, Inc., 1938
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VI "The West Engages in the Wrangle over Building a Railroad to the Pacific, 1854-1857"
Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936
Roy M. Robbins.
Princeton University Press, 1942
Librarian’s tip: Part II "The West Welcomes the Corporation"
The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War
Heather Cox Richardson.
Harvard University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "'It Was Statesmanship to Give Treeless Prairies Value': The Transcontinental Railroad"
Stagecoach West
Ralph Moody.
University of Nebraska Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of the transcontinental railroad in multiple chapters
Kansas City and the Railroads: Community Policy in the Growth of a Regional Metropolis
Charles N. Glaab.
State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Prophets of Railroad Destiny" and Chap. 2 "A Town and Its Railroad Plans"
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