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This May marked 150 years for the transcontinental railroad. Construction was completed in 1869.
The Central Pacific went through Nevada, but not easily. The track had to climb 7,000 feet to get over the Sierra Nevada at Donner Summit, and fast. The CP built the tunnels and rail lines, along with a wagon road to move people and freight. The railroad went south of Donner Lake and through the Truckee River Canyon. In June 1868, the Central Pacific reached Reno after building 132 miles of track from Sacramento. Then construction pushed east much more quickly, being on flatter land. But after Reno and the Truckee River came the Forty Mile Desert to the Humboldt Sink, where the Humboldt River drained. That’s an easy drive today, but not back then. The railroad route then pretty much followed the Humboldt River east. After Wells, the CP crossed Utah until reaching Promontory.
On May 10, 1869, a ceremony celebrated the railroad’s completion. Leland Stanford of the CP had the honor of driving the Golden Spike, now on display at a university in California. As you might have guessed, yes, Stanford University. But there were three other commemorative spikes. One was a silver spike from the Silver State.
That was fitting because Nevada felt significant effects from the transcontinental railroad. It led to the building of other railroads and feeder lines, most notably the Virginia and Truckee. The V and T carried ore from the Comstock to be shipped across the country … and around the world. It brought visitors to Virginia City and its environs, too.
The railroad played a role in politics. Its builders wanted as few taxes and regulations as possible. They didn’t want to give back their land. So they sought to control state legislatures. Since those bodies elected U.S. senators, that would give the railroad power in Washington, too. In Nevada’s case, mining magnates had plenty of power, but wanted similar government policies. So they mostly worked together. The leading Nevada politician in the late nineteenth century, Senator William Morris Stewart, was the top lawyer for mining companies. His campaign manager was C.C. Wallace, the Central Pacific’s agent for Nevada. You probably won’t be shocked to know there was a lot of corruption associated with them and the railroad.
The railroad affected Native Americans throughout the West. The government took extra interest in moving them onto reservations through treaties and force, and controlling them. They didn’t want Native Americans interfering with the railroad’s construction and, later, operations.
The Central Pacific also created several Nevada towns, including Reno, Winnemucca, and Elko. After the Southern Pacific took over the Central Pacific, it began a town for its maintenance yards that became known as Sparks. In 1900, the Union Pacific merged with the Southern Pacific. The UP was then under the control of Edward Henry Harriman, who was trying to gain a monopoly in the West. The Supreme Court eventually broke up his company. But before that happened, the Union Pacific made a deal with Montana copper baron William Andrews Clark. They built a railroad from Salt Lake to Los Angeles, and auctioned off downtown Las Vegas. You might say the transcontinental railroad built a lot of ties in Nevada.
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