“Completion of the Pacific Railroad …”

May 29, 1869

artist unknown

“Completion of the Pacific Railroad …”

American Indians; Business, International Trade; Business, Railroads; Transportation, Railroads;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American West;

No caption

This double-page cartoon celebrates the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States and the Western Hemisphere.   The strategic isolation of the train running on its newly laid track draws the viewers' attention as the intended focal point of the cartoon.  Through this image the technological feat of building a transcontinental railroad literally and figuratively bridges the cultural gap between the railroad workers (left) and American Indians (right).  But the anticipated consequences of that interaction are presented ambivalently.  The two groups are separated pictorially and symbolically by a river chasm; the workers cheer the arrival of the train, while the Indians watch in silence or turn to depart their land.

Harper's Weekly, through its illustrations and text, emphasized the economic advantages of this transportation milestone.  In this cartoon, the large central illustration rests over a banner reading "COMMERCE" and dwarfs the smaller image below it of a steamship--the only previous mode of transit for trade between the coasts and the continents.  The artist frames the main picture of the transcontinental railroad with representations of economic abundance and prosperity.  Europeans (left) and Asians (right) travel with goods to trade and meet at the top, where they are introduced to one another by Columbia, the personification of the United States.  The sentiment expressed along the cartoon's borders is one of international cooperation and harmony facilitated through trade. 

As early as the 1830s, the successful use of railroads in the eastern portion of the United State combined with hopes for the westward expansion of the nation to produce the desire for a transcontinental railroad.  This goal gained feasibility in the 1840s when the American government secured claims to the Oregon Territory (1846) and won an enormous amount of western territory, including California, (1848) from its war with Mexico.  America's boundary now stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the Gold Rush of 1849 increased interest in a quicker transportation route to California.

In 1850, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri introduced a bill to finance a series of railroads that would link together to reach the west coast.  In 1853 and 1854, Congress appropriated nearly $350,000 for the War Department to oversee nine surveys of possible railroad routes to California.  The issue became a political football when Northern and Southern congressmen maneuvered for the transcontinental railroad to begin in their respective regions.  

In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, chairman of the Committee on Territories, introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill establishing territorial governments in the hope of making a northern route more likely.  In order to gain the support of Southern Congressmen, his bill opened those territories to slavery.  The controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act became a major source of sectional tension that ultimately culminated in the Civil War.

In 1860, Theodore Judah and Daniel "Doc" Strong founded the Central Pacific Railroad Company, with the aim of building the transcontinental railroad eastward from Sacramento, California.  The venture got a financial jumpstart the next year from the investment of $15,000 worth of stock each by railroad moguls Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker.  In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War and heated debate on the question of a route, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act.  It chartered the Union Pacific Railroad Company to build the road westward from its eastern terminus in Omaha, Nebraska, the Central Pacific to build the road eastward, and provided the two companies with land grants, loans, mortgages, and other governmental privileges for building the transcontinental railroad. 

Construction began in 1863 in Sacramento and Omaha, but early efforts were slow, both in the laying of the rails and in generating sufficient finances, which suffered from the inflation of the Civil War years.  Bribery ensured Congressional passage of a supplementary Pacific Railroad Act in 1864 that transformed the Central Pacific Railroad into a land-holding company with 33 million acres of federal real estate adjacent to the route. That same year, the Union Pacific created a holding/construction company, the Credit Mobilier. The board of directors then overcharged on building costs to reap enormous profits, revelations of which produced a major political scandal in 1873.

The pace of construction on the transcontinental line picked up considerably after the Civil War ended in 1865, even though the workers labored under difficult and dangerous conditions—blizzards, desert heat, hostile Indians, meager supplies, and dynamite blasts.  The two companies originally relied on Irish immigrant workers, but in 1865 the Central Pacific Railroad first hired Chinese immigrants.  The 10-14,000 Chinese who worked for the company generated praise in the press for their skilled workmanship.  The Chinese laborers, however, were not allowed to attend the Central Pacific’s ceremony in Sacramento that honored the completion of the line, nor did the Union Pacific hire them until 1870. 

As this cartoon reports, the linking of the nearly 2000 miles of track was accomplished on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah.  Leland Stanford, representing the Central Pacific and California's current governor, and Thomas Durant, representing the Union Pacific, both attempted to strike the symbolic golden spike but missed.  The Union Pacific's chief engineer, Grenville Dodge, fulfilled the task by hitting the target, and then champagne bottles were broken on two train engines.  Other business, government, and military dignitaries and their guests attended the ceremony, listened to speeches, and later attended a banquet, ball, and torchlight parade.  Train service began five days later, with ticket prices of $111 for first class, $80 for second class, and $40 for third class.  

Over the next few decades, four more transcontinental railroads were built across the West.  James Hill's Great Northern was the final one to be completed (1893), and the only one not to receive federal funding and not to be involved in a major scandal.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Completion of the Pacific Railroad …”
July 14, 2024

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