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Transcontinental Railroad

This May marked the 150 th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Now, in fact, it wasn’t transcontinental. It started in Omaha and went to Sacramento. But its construction meant you could take the train across the United States. That was an important first, and important to Nevada.

The idea had been around for a while.. The Republican Party was born when Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois—as in the northern Nevada county—pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This 1854 law repealed the old Missouri Compromise, which limited the spread of slavery. Douglas was trying to get Kansas and Nebraska territories set up for building a railroad west from his own Chicago. Southerners would only go along if they could extend slavery. Otherwise, they wanted to build a railroad west from THEIR region. In other words, horse-trading. And it still didn’t produce a railroad.

For the rest of the 1850s, slavery dominated political discussion. Then, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the White House and soon the Civil War began. When the South left the Union, so did its members of Congress. That gave Republicans control. They had supported building the railroad across the northern tier. In 1862, they passed the Pacific Railroad Act. Lincoln signed it and strongly supported it. Remember, he had been a surveyor. He took a great interest in the construction.

Others were interested, too. It was a major public-private partnership. The Union Pacific would be built west from Omaha. The federal government partially controlled it, but stock was sold in it and it was privately operated. That’s one of the reasons its construction didn’t begin until 1865 … its stock didn’t do well and the Civil War sapped the labor market.

The Central Pacific would be built east from Sacramento. Theodore Judah had been the leading advocate of building a railroad across the Sierra Nevada. He got involved with four Sacramento merchants: Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford, who would end up owning the Central Pacific. Judah died while traveling to New York to seek financing to buy them out. The Central Pacific Big Four went on to build the railroad and become incredibly wealthy.

Not that the federal government didn’t help. It issued bonds to help with the financing. It provided land—enough of it that, in the West, only the feds owned more land than the Central Pacific did. The federal government also encouraged Chinese immigration to provide lower-paid laborers, although many of the Chinese workers already had migrated to California to work on the Gold Rush. Because more workers were available and it was privately financed, the Central Pacific began construction months after passage of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862.

To be fair, the whole process was a risk. The federal government and the railroad’s builders knew there weren’t a lot of people in the West to use the railroad. They hoped for growth, and the railroad owners would look for ways to make profits and keep them. They realized some of their hopes … and some of their fears. We’ll go into that more next time.