Skip to main content

Building the Transcontinental Railroad

May 2019

Completed 150 years ago this month, the railroad's construction was one of the great dramas in American history, and led to a notorious scandal.

While the Civil War raged on battlefields in the East, two armies fought a very different kind of war in the West.  The men working for two corporations that were said to be the wealthiest in America struggled to see who could finish a greater part of the transcontinental railroad before the two lines met. The Central Pacific raced to build the line from Sacramento over the high passes of the Sierra Nevada, while the Union Pacific steamed across the western plains from the Missouri River.

Several of our greatest historians have told of this epic struggle in the pages of American Heritage. You might want to check out these great essays:

The Iron Spine, by Henry Sturgis. April 1969.

     The Union Pacific met the Central Pacific at Promontory—and the nation had truly been railroaded

The Big Road, by Stephen E. Ambrose. October 2000.

     Building the transcontinental railroad was the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century. Was it also the biggest swindle?

The Transcontinental Railroad, by Dee Brown. February 1977.

     What it was like for the first travelers

Pandemonium At Promontory, by Lucius Beebe. February 1958.

     The actual event was a wild celebration lasting several days. The official painting is full of dignity and decorum absent in an actual photograph of the ceremony.

How Railroads Forever Changed the Frontier, James P. Ronda. Spring/Summer 2008 

     They created towns and became the center of Western life, enabling wheat, cattle, and minerals to flow out of the West

It Was Bad Last Time Too: The Crédit Mobilier Scandal of 1872, by Roy Hoopes. February/March 1991.

     In a model of government corruption, the railroad promoters placed the company's stock “where it will do most good"—in the pockets of key Congressmen

Railroad in a Barn, by Fitzhugh Turner. December 1958  

     Snowshed crews on the Central Pacific, battling blizzards and snowslides, built “the longest house in the world”