The Building of the Overland Railroad in California
by Ella M. Sexton
The army of emigrants and gold-hunters who crossed the plains to
California found it was a long and tiresome trip by wagon-train or on
horseback. The oxen or mules would sometimes get so tired that they
could go no farther; and because the food often ran short, there was
much suffering from hunger.
The longest way of all to California was by sailing vessel from New
York round Cape Horn, nearly nineteen thousand miles to San Francisco.
The passengers paid high prices and were six months on the way. Those
who came by the Panama route had trouble crossing the isthmus, where
it was so hot and unhealthy that many died of fevers and cholera. The
Pacific mail steamers connecting with a railroad across the isthmus
at last shortened the time of this trip of six thousand miles to
twenty-five days. For ten years all the Eastern mail came this way
twice a month.
It was thought a wonderful thing when the "pony express" carried mail
twice a week between St. Joseph, Missouri, where the Eastern railroads
ended, and Sacramento. To do this a rider, with the mail-bag slung
over his shoulder, rode a horse twenty-four miles to the next station,
where a fresh pony was ready. Hardly waiting to eat or sleep, the
rider galloped on again. Five dollars was often charged at that time
to bring the letter railroads carry now for two cents.
So you will see that a railroad to join California to the Eastern
states was a great necessity and had often been talked of. Several
ways to bring the iron horse puffing across the plains and up the
mountains with his long train of cars had been laid out on paper. The
emigrants had found that the best highway from the Missouri River
to California was to keep along the Platte River in Nebraska to Fort
Laramie and the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, then by Salt Lake,
and along the Humboldt and Truckee rivers, crossing the Sierras
at Donner Pass. Other roads were talked of, and Senator Benton of
Missouri favored a nearly straight line between St. Louis and San
Francisco. Some one, in objecting to this, said that only engineers
could lay out a railroad, and such men did not believe a straight line
possible. The senator answered: "There are engineers who never learned
in school the shortest and straightest way to go, and those are the
buffalo, deer, bear, and antelope, the wild animals who always find
the right path to the lowest passes in the mountains, to rich pastures
and salt springs, and to the shallow fords in the rivers. The Indians
follow the buffalo's path, and so does the white man for game
to shoot. Then the white man builds a wagon-road and at last his
railroad, on the trail the buffalo first laid out."
For two or three years surveyors and explorers tried to find the
easiest way to build this great overland road. Several railroad acts
or bills were passed by Congress, and the California Legislature gave
the United States the right of way for a road to join the two oceans.
The first railway in the state was opened in '56 from Sacramento to
Folsom, a distance of twenty-two miles. This was built by T.D.
Judah, an engineer who had thought and studied a great deal about the
overland road so much needed to bring mail and passengers quickly from
East to West.
A railroad convention, made up of men from the Pacific states and
territories, was held in San Francisco in '59, with General John
Bidwell, a pathfinder of early days, as the chairman. Here Mr. Judah
gave such a clear and full account of the central way he had
planned, that the convention sent him to Washington, D.C., to see the
President, and to try to get Congress to pass a Pacific Railroad
Bill. He had very little help in the East, but at last four men
of Sacramento, Leland Stanford, C.P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and
Charles Crocker, took an interest in Judah's plans, and in '61 the
Central Pacific Railroad Company was formed. Mr. Judah went back
to the mountains and studied the pines in summer and the winter
snowbanks, to make sure of the easiest grades and the shortest and
best way for the track-layers. He found that to follow the Truckee
River from near Lake Donner to the Humboldt Desert, would mean the
least work. The tunnels would be through rock, and he believed that
snow might easily be kept off the track with a snow-plough.
His report pleased the company, and they sent him again to present the
case at Washington. In '62 President Lincoln signed an act or bill to
allow the Union and Central Pacific companies to build a railroad and
a telegraph line from the Missouri River to the Pacific. In California
the land for fifteen miles on each side of the way laid out was given
to the railroad company, and two years was allowed them to build the
first hundred miles of track.
Ground was broken for the Central Pacific the next year in Sacramento,
and Governor Stanford dug up the first shovelful of earth. Then the
work went steadily on, but it was hard to raise money. Stanford
and his company carried the line forward as fast as possible. More
land-grants were given, which doubled the company's holdings, and in
'65 the road was fifty-five miles past Sacramento and had climbed over
much difficult work.
The steamship owners, the express and stage companies were all against
the railroad, and tried in every way to make people think that an
engine could never cross the Sierras. Yet the grading went on, while
an army of five thousand men and six hundred horses was at work
cutting down trees and hills and filling up the low places. A bridge
was built over the American River, and slowly but surely the track
climbed the steep mountain-sides. Most of the laborers were Chinese,
as white men found mining or farming paid them better.
In '67 the iron horse had not only climbed the mountains but had
reached the state line, and the Union Pacific, which had been laying
its tracks over the plains of the Platte River, began to hasten
westward. The two railroads were racing to meet each other, and the
Central sometimes laid ten miles of rails in one day.
Ogden was made the meeting-point, though at Promontory, fifty miles
west of Ogden, the last spike was driven. A thousand people met at
that place in May, '69, to see the short space of track closed and the
road finished. A Central train and locomotive from the Pacific came
steaming up, and an engine and cars from the Atlantic pulled in on
the other side. Both engines whistled till the snow-capped mountains
echoed. The last tie was of polished California laurel wood, with
a silver plate on which the names of the two companies and their
officers were engraved. It was put under the last two rails, and all
was fastened together with the last spike. This spike, made of solid
gold, Governor Stanford hammered into place with a silver hammer. East
and west the news was flashed over the long telegraph line, that the
overland railroad had been finished and that two oceans were joined by
Now, while flying along in the cars so fast that the trip from Chicago
to San Francisco takes but three days, it is hard to believe that
little more than thirty years ago travellers in the slow-moving
"prairie-schooner" took over five months to cover this same distance.