SHIPS AND RAILS
CHAPTER 21

Before the building of a transcontinental railroad became imperative, maritime transportation continued to flourish. By the mid-1850s, the California Steam Navigation Company controlled traffic in and around San Francisco Bay and along the inland rivers. So powerful was “California Steam” in setting freight and passenger rates that some of the smaller companies actually welcomed the arrival of the monopolybreaking transcontinental railroad.

Meanwhile, the expense of getting from the East Coast to California by sea averaged $400, the trip taking as long as 120 days. Advocates of a transcontinental railroad pointed out that such a trip might be made by rail for as little as $150. But critics maintained that the cost of construction of the railroad would be both risky and prohibitive without huge government land grants and loans to the builders.

Nevertheless, the idea of building a railroad all the way to the Pacific gradually gained acceptance. The deeply rutted wagon trails were clearly inadequate. The country was straining to expand: moving mail, passengers, and freight more quickly was essential. While no one disagreed that a cross-country railroad should traverse the shortest possible distance, the exact route was debated for years.

Washington legislators had no experience with such colossal questions as: Should construction and operation of a transcontinental railroad be administered by the government? Or should a railroad system be built and operated privately? How far should federal and state governments go toward financial encouragement of and direct subsidies to the railroad construction companies?

As early as 1852, several rail routes were suggested. One of these swung southward from the Midwest through Texas, then westward by way of

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