Celebrating the Transcontinental Railroad

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Wednesday, May 15th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a national milestone.

Friday marked 150 years since the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The year was 1869. May 10th. Executives from the Union Pacific Railroad from the east and the Central Pacific Railroad from the west met at Promontory Summit, Utah. There they drove a golden spike into the last railroad tie.

BASHAM: Celebrations in American cities and around the world recognized the completion of the very first Transcontinental Railroad. It would quickly change the American West forever and become a point of national pride.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg attended the Golden Spike’s sesquicentennial celebration.

AUDIO: [Sound of train]

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: At precisely 8:15 a.m. replicas of two train locomotives arrive at Promontory Summit, Utah. The Union Pacific’s No. 1-19 from the east and the Central Pacific’s Jupiter from the west.

AUDIO: [Sound of train]

The brisk, high desert, spring morning hasn’t kept thousands from arriving early to witness the trains’ reunion.

When these two engines met here 150 years ago, it meant the completion of a monumental task: seven years of laying more than 1,900 miles of train tracks. Workers had to cross mountains and deserts. They tolerated scorching heat and blizzards. And they survived illness and homesickness.

Steven Dobberfuhl looks on at the locomotives’ arrival from the front row with a camera and excitement. He and his friend have traveled here by train all the way from Chicago. They were also here for the centennial celebration.

DOBBERFUHL: Well we were here 50 years ago as a senior in high school. One month away from graduating.

Dobberfuhl says it was important to celebrate the Transcontinental Railroad again.

DOBBERFUHL: It’s something that, it’s a really huge part of American history. Some can kind of compare that to landing on the moon. It just changed the world and the country at least.

Brad Westwood is the senior public historian at the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts. He says there’s a reason the Transcontinental Railroad inspires that kind of enthusiasm.

WESTWOOD: There’s something about the Transcontinental Railroad that makes us as Americans think we can do really hard things.

A nationwide railroad had been an American dream since the 1830s… but it took the Civil War to start the project.

WESTWOOD: The southern states wanted to have a railroad line that followed most of their major capitals. It wasn’t until after the South left the Union that Congress could say, okay, let’s do it.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. But the federal government needed one other thing to build the railroad: land. To do that, Westwood says Congress also passed the Homestead Act.

WESTWOOD: Ostensibly, we just basically said everything is federal and everything is owned by the U.S government. That was essential to the railroad act.

In the summer of 1862, railroad construction commenced. The Union Pacific Railroad set out from Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Central Pacific broke ground in Sacramento.

JOHNNY CASH: [I’ve Been Working On The Railroad]

Westwood says the work was backbreaking and didn’t pay well.

WESTWOOD: They were living in tents or dug outs, or in the case of the Irish, they were living in, bunkhouse cars. But it was strenuous work. It was backbreaking work. It was long hours.

The work separated laborers from their families for long periods of time.

Who would be willing to work under these conditions?

WESTWOOD: So when you look at who built the Transcontinental Railroad, it was tens of thousands of Chinese. Then Irish, also freed slaves. And even Native Americans.

AUDIO: [Sound of crowd and announcer]

Back at the celebration at Promontory Summit, ceremonies and speeches throughout the day acknowledged that history. Elaine Chao is the Secretary of Transportation, and the first person of Chinese descent to hold the position.

CHAO: I have the unique and moving opportunity to fully acknowledge and recognize the contributions and sacrifices of these laborers of Chinese heritage.

Historian Brad Westwood says Promontory Summit was not an ideal place for the two railroads to meet. It was in a high desert, far from any town. Few dignitaries actually attended the original ceremony.  

WESTWOOD: There’s probably a thousand people that get out there, but there’s like 26 reporters, there’s three photographers, there’s the telegraph. And so the idea is we’re going to communicate this to the world. That’s really the first time that we start looking at media as the way to communicate.

PATSY CLINE: [Life’s Railway To Heaven]

The Transcontinental Railroad brought more pioneers, immigrants and tourists West. It allowed farmers and ranchers to access markets on the coasts. Within three years of its completion, travelers could go from New York City to San Francisco in one week.

But there were also negative effects. As pioneers arrived, Native Americans were steadily and often brutally displaced.

Westwood says it’s possible to acknowledge the bad that came out of the Transcontinental Railroad’s creation while also celebrating its major achievement.

WESTWOOD: Let’s learn from the past. And let’s see if we can make some corrective actions in the future in relationship to that knowledge.

And as America celebrates the railroad’s anniversary, Westwood says it can still speak to us today.

WESTWOOD: When we do big things, when we gathered together, when we overcome our differences, some amazing things can happen.

JIM CROCE: [Railroad song]

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Promontory Summit, Utah.

(Photo/Getty Images)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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