Quick! What Event Changed America But Is Largely Forgotten Today?
Ok, maybe you didn’t say “Railroads?” Understandable.
I bring this up because yesterday, Tuesday, May 10th, marked the 153rd anniversary of the driving of the “Golden Spike” at Promontory Point, Utah, connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads.
It was the culmination of an earthshaking project astounding for its time, the equivalent in our 20th century of the moon landing, the Mars rover, and the Panama Canal all rolled into one. The Transcontinental Railroad arguably changed life in America far greater than any single event since the Revolution itself. And while interstate travel and commerce has evolved greatly since then, railroads got there first, and continue to transport us and our goods and services. Not to mention transporting our imaginations.
Consider what was accomplished 153 years ago —
As the Civil War was threatening to divide the country north and south, prominent businesspeople, east and west, in conjunction with the federal government, devised the plan to connect California, even then the breadbasket of the nascent U.S., with lucrative eastern markets. President Lincoln was himself a great supporter of the endeavor.
The Union Pacific laid track west from Omaha, Nebraska, while the Central Pacific forged east through the Sierras from Sacramento.
The project early on became a “race,” with the federal government granting the two railroad lines lucrative land adjacent to each mile of laid track.
The Union Pacific track crews were composed of Irish immigrants and “galvanized Yankees,” confederate prisoners offered freedom in exchange for railroad work.
The Central Pacific track crews were composed predominantly of Chinese workers who had initially come to California to search for gold. The task of dynamiting tunnels through the Sierra mountains was delegated to white railroad workers, until the Chinese pointed out that they were experts in explosives, having invented gunpowder some 500 years before.
The Transcontinental Railroad, which most experts at the time believed to be an impossibility, was completed in just six years, without the use of power tools, steam shovels, or tractors of any kind. What was train travel like back in the day?
Not the luxury travel, by rail or air, that we’re accustomed to today — more like putting a cinder in your eye and crawling onto the top shelf of a dark closet. But more than any single event, it brought on the industrial revolution in the US, and is widely held as the pre-eminent human accomplishment of the 19th Century.