The Transcontinental Railroad


Although passage through the Sierra was their introduction to California, most westbound travelers did not feel that they had truly reached that golden land until their iron horse brought them down into the blazing sunshine and balmy air of the Sacramento Valley and the flowers and orchards of the Queen City of the Plain. “We seem in a new world,” said one. “The transition was sudden and the transformation magical,” said another. “The sun descended in a flood of glory toward the Pacific Ocean.” In Sacramento they were still more than a hundred miles from the Pacific, and like inspired pilgrims most decided to travel on to that legendary Western sea. Until 1870 they transferred to the cars of the California Pacific, which took them to Vallejo—where again they had to change, this time to a steamboat running down the bay to San Francisco. After the Central Pacific completed its subsidiary Western Pacific to Oakland in 1870, the journey was easier, although they still made the final crossing by boat before reaching San Francisco and the Pacific shore. After a week of noise, dust, and locomotive smoke the first act of those travelers who could afford it was to register at the magnificent Palace Hotel and seek out a quiet room and a warm bath.

And what were the feelings of travelers after they had completed their first journey by rail across the American continent? Those from other countries were impressed by the grandeur of the Western land, and of course they made comparisons with their own nations, sometimes favorable, sometimes unfavorable. They found travel by train across the West less tedious because they could walk about in the cars and stand on the platforms to enjoy the passing landscapes, yet at the same time they complained of the lack of privacy. They praised the comforts of the Pullman cars, but deplored the necessity for constantly changing trains. They confessed that before the journey they had feared the rumored American defiance of rules and regulations and recklessness in regard to speed, but they were pleased to find that American railway men held human life in as high regard as it was held in their native lands.

American travelers on the other hand were more concerned with feelings of national pride. After crossing the vastness of the American West, the endless unclaimed fertile lands, the prairies and forests, the broad rivers and towering mountains, they felt that they had seen a new map unrolled, a new empire revealed, a new civilization in process of creation. In the first years after the Civil War, the salvation of the Union was still a glorious promise of destiny. “I felt patriotically proud,” wrote one traveler to California. He saw the transcontinental railroad as a force binding the Union together “by links of iron that can never be broken.” Although Americans were aware that private corporations had built this first railroad to the Pacific, they rejoiced in the belief that California was a rich prize of empire which had been won for them by those connecting links of iron. In their first flush of triumphant pride, they viewed the railroad as a cooperative venture shared by the builders and the people. The disillusionment would come later, as would their doubts in an everexpanding empire.

For Americans and foreigners alike, there was a deepening sense of wonder at this final link in the encirclement of the earth by steam power. From San Francisco they could now journey to China and Suez by steam-powered vessels, from Suez to Alexandria by rail, from Alexandria to France by water, from France to Liverpool by rail and water, from Liverpool to New York by water, and from New York to San Francisco by rail. In reaching the Western sea, the iron horse had shrunk the planet.