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 iron rails.

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.