Great American Infrastructure: The Transcontinental Railroad

Posted by Infra on Thursday, September 1st, 2011

This is the sixth in a series of entries celebrating infrastructure achievements in the United States.

The Transcontinental Railroad

What: The Transcontinental Railroad was a railroad line built in the United States by the Central Pacific Railroad of California and the Union Pacific Railroad that connected the railroad network of the eastern seaboard to the Pacific Ocean.

When: Construction of the railroad began in 1863, with the “Last Spike” being driven at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10th, 1869.

Why: The railroad connected the established rail networks of the eastern United States to the developing West, connecting the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans by rail for the first time.

Cost: Both the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California and the Union Pacific Railroad companies did not keep accurate financial information, and value of land grants and railroad bonds varied greatly. It is estimated the construction costs for the Central Pacific Railroad Company were $46,989,320, while the costs for the Union Pacific Railroad Company were $77,559,370.61 for a complete total of $124,548,691.

– Total Length: 1,776 miles (690 miles built by the CPRR; 1,086 built by UPRR)
– Beginning point: Omaha, Nebraska (Union Pacific Railroad); Sacramento, California (Central Pacific Railroad)
– Meeting point: Promontory Summit, Utah

Interesting facts: In the winter, the railroad would often be forced to close when snow drifts of up to 40 feet would block the tracks. As a result, the Central Pacific Railroad Company built 37 miles of “snow sheds” covering the track. They used 65 million board feet of timber.

Despite the overwhelming success of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Union Pacific Railroad Company faced bankruptcy three years after completion. The circumstances surrounding UPRR’s bankruptcy would ignite a scandal that would carry on through the Presidential Election of 1872.

The Promontory Summit rails were pulled up in 1942 to be recycled for the war effort. The process included a ceremonial “undriving” of the golden spike.

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