- Historic Sites
The Big Road
Building the transcontinental railroad was the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century. Was it also the biggest swindle?
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
In a way, the personnel have changed less. The men who built the CP were mainly Chinese. For the most part, as individuals they are lost to history, but many of them stayed with railroad work. The Irishmen working for the UP also found jobs on other railroads. They too were discriminated against—“no dogs or Irishmen allowed”—but not so thoroughly as the Chinese. They and their sons and daughters and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren went on to participate actively and successfully in American life.
Firemen, brakemen, engineers, conductors, mechanics, welders, carpenters, repair-shop men, the clerical force, the foremen, directors, supervisors, and people in every job for either the UP or the CP stayed with the railroads for their careers, and so did their children, followed by the third generation and beyond. These are the people who run the modern railroad. They repair it, improve it, take care of it, make sure the damn things go. More than in almost any other profession, railroading is something a family is proud of and wants to remain a part of.
Railroad people are special. Like all the rest, they lose jobs, have to move, are underpaid, and otherwise have a lot to gripe about. But on the job, they love being responsible for all that fabulous machinery. Their spirit is a living tie to a momentous achievement.
The dreamers, the politicians, and the financiers; the surveyors, the soldiers, the engineers; the construction bosses, the railroad men, the foremen; the Chinese, the Irish, and all the others who picked up a shovel or a sledgehammer or a rail; and the American people who insisted that it had to be done and who paid for it: They built the transcontinental railroad.
Things happened as they happened. It is possible to imagine all kinds of different routes across the continent, or a better way for the government to help private industry, or maybe to have the government build a railroad and own it. But those things didn’t happen, and what did take place is grand. So we admire those who did it—even if they were far from perfect—for what they were and what they accomplished and how much each one of us owes them.