The completion of America’s first Transcontinental Railroad 150 years ago in 1869 significantly reduced the amount of time it took for people and freight to travel between California and the rest of the United States. For almost the first two decades of statehood, immigrants had to spend months onboard ships or traveling overland to reach California. The railroad that was built across what is today the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska made travel across the continent possible in a matter of days.
As far back as 1852, Californians were urging their elected officials to advocate for just such a railroad. In that year San Francisco mayor Stephen Harris wrote a letter (pictured) to California Governor John Bigler that “a Rail Road from the Pacific to the Valley of the Mississippi is of sufficient importance to command the respectful attention of all persons interested in the permanent prosperity of our State.” The following month the State Legislature approved a joint resolution (pictured) urging’s California’s congressional delegation to vote in favor of the “construction of a Railway, commencing at some point on the Missouri or Mississippi River; running thence westwardly to the Pacific Ocean at some central or convenient point in the State of California.”
The political discord between Northern free states and Southern slave states that plagued American politics during the decade leading up to the Civil War extended to the topic of the transcontinental railroad. Politicians ranging from the mid-western states to the deep South advocated that the railroad might be built in their states or regions. In 1853 Congress ordered several surveys to explore a number of different potential routes for the transcontinental railroad, including some that extended from the slave-holding south to California.
The following year a group of southern politicians and businessmen meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, sent a resolution to California Governor John Bigler regarding a “draft of a Charter of Incorporation for a Southern Pacific Railroad Company” which they hoped would be approved by the State Legislature (this group’s chairman, Albert Pike, would later serve as a Confederate general during the Civil War). That same year the United States acquired a large territory from Mexico known as the Gadsden Purchase which today forms a sizeable portion of southern Arizona and New Mexico, in part because the geography of this land was considered more suitable to railroad construction. The debates over the location of the transcontinental railroad would not be resolved until the secession of the southern states and the outbreak of Civil War.
The eventual route of the transcontinental railroad through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains was surveyed and promoted by a young engineer of singular determination and vision: Theodore Judah. After arriving in California in the 1850s Judah was involved with the Sacramento Valley Railroad, investigated potential routes for the transcontinental railroad, visited Congress several times and wrote a few pamphlets on the topic.
One of his pamphlets advocating the feasibility of constructing a railroad through the Sierra Nevada Mountains was published in 1860, and the State Archives’ copy of his pamphlet was sealed for almost 117 years in a time capsule originally placed in the cornerstone of the State Capitol Building. The pamphlet’s prediction about the impact of the transcontinental railroad is remarkably prophetic: “in regard to the benefit to the State and cities of California…it is almost impossible to calculate its extent. That it would make it the richest and most prosperous State in the Union there is not a doubt.” The summit of the mountain pass illustrated in Judah’s profile map is just under 6,700 feet in elevation. Some people thought that Judah was crazy for believing that such a daunting construction challenge was even possible.
In 1861 Judah convinced several businessmen from Sacramento, including Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, to form the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California. Known as the Associates or the Big Four, these men originally came to California like thousands of others to find their fortunes during the Gold Rush (Stanford ran a successful grocery store, while Huntington and Hopkins were partners selling mining supplies, for instance). Although none of these four men had any experience with building or running a railroad, the potential profits that could be generated by the transcontinental railroad inspired them to invest in Judah’s vision. Their signatures can be seen on these original articles of incorporation dated 1861. Stanford served as president of the railroad, while vice-president Huntington helped secure financing and construction supplies. Crocker organized the actual building of the railroad, and Hopkins served as treasurer of the company. Judah served as the first chief engineer of the Central Pacific. Tragically, he died of fever in 1863 without seeing the completion of his railroad.
The social, economic and political impact of the Central Pacific and other railroads on California’s future would be profound, and the legacy of wealth and influence accumulated by the Big Four and their families can still be seen today. In addition to a political career serving as Governor and US Senator, Stanford founded Leland Stanford Junior University in 1885. Crocker’s brother Edwin (an attorney for the Central Pacific) established the Crocker Art Museum, while Huntington’s nephew Henry founded the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains were the single greatest geographic obstacle confronting the Central Pacific Railroad’s chief engineer Theodore Judah. The first one hundred miles of track from Sacramento would have to ascend about 7,000 feet in elevation. Judah’s proposed route through the mountains’ summit roughly followed an emigrant pass known as the Dutch Flat Route over Donner Pass that was suggested to him in 1860 by Daniel Strong, a local druggist. The following year Judah created a hand drawn map of the proposed alignment of the Central Pacific Railroad (pictured) now in the collection of the California State Archives.
Judah’s map is the longest map in the archives, measuring 794 inches long and 30 inches wide and having a scale of 400 feet to the inch. When fully unrolled, the map (dated October 10th, 1861) depicts the proposed route in four segments: 1) Barmore Station to Clipper Gap, 2) Rattlesnake Bluffs to the summit of the Sierra Nevada, 3) from the Sierra Nevada summit to the Truckee River, and 4) Dutch Flat to Rattlesnake Bluffs.
Accompanying the famous Judah map is another of his maps with the same date (October 10th, 1861) showing the profile of the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento to the Truckee River complete with grades and elevations (pictured). According to Judah’s report on the preliminary survey, cost of construction, and estimated revenue of the railroad published in October 22nd, 1862, an almost identical set of maps were filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
According to this report, Judah writes “that the elevation in crossing the summit of the Sierra Nevada is greater than that upon any other line of (rail)road in the United States is true. But it is no less true that the grades employed in reaching the summit, are less than the maximum grade employed on important (rail)roads in the United States.” Judah’s confidence in the practicality of his proposed route was absolute.
The Pacific Railroad Act passed by Congress in 1862 authorized the building of a railroad from the Missouri river near Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. The Central Pacific Railroad would construct the western portion of the line at roughly the same time that another company, the Union Pacific Railroad, would build the eastern portion. Congress provided financial support in the form of bonds as well as through grants of some public lands adjacent to the new railroad made directly to the two companies (these lands could then be sold to settlers, among other people).
The California State Legislature also passed a series of laws promoting the Central Pacific Railroad, including one (pictured) which authorized the company to locate “the line and route of their railroad from the navigable waters of the Sacramento River, at or near the City of Sacramento, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to the eastern boundary line of the State of California, through such places and such counties, and to such points on the said eastern boundary line, as the Board of Directors of said company shall deem expedient, and as they shall deem the cheapest and best route for the construction.” Furthermore, the new law stated that the “company shall file the proper maps and profiles of their railroad…in the office of the Secretary of State.”
America’s first transcontinental railroad was built, owned and operated by private corporations. Although the railroad would eventually generate immense profits, some form of financial assistance from the government was essential to cover the substantial construction costs (Theodore Judah estimated a final price of $150,000,000). Most of this financial assistance came from the federal government, including subsidies paid for every mile of track laid, depending on the terrain. The subsidy eventually rose as high as $48,000 per mile of track laid over mountains.
California also provided financial assistance to the Central Pacific Railroad. This Act (pictured) passed by the legislature in 1863 authorized payments to the Central Pacific Railroad of “ten thousand dollars per mile for each mile of said railroad thus completed and equipped…with all necessary bridges, drains, culverts, viaducts, crossings, sidings, turnouts, watering places, depots, locomotives, cars, equipment, furniture, and all other appurtenances of a first class railroad…from the City of Sacramento, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to the eastern boundary line of the State of California.”
The ceremonial groundbreaking of construction by the Central Pacific Railroad was held in Sacramento on January 8, 1863. Among the invitees were the members of the California State Senate (pictured). Among the politicians and other dignitaries speaking that day was a large banner showing two large hands reaching across North America with the phrase “May the Bond be Eternal.”
According to a period newspaper account, US Senator Newton Booth remarked: “what does the symbol upon that banner mean? Those grasped hands? What do they signify…yes; ‘May the bond be eternal!’ Eternal between the Pacific and Atlantic…this, then, inaugurates a new era in civilization – a new era in trade and commerce. Its beginning is small, but nature and art always work from small beginnings, through laborious means, to magnificent results.”
Construction commenced on the railroad after the death of Chief Engineer Theodore Judah. Judah’s replacement as chief engineer, Samuel Montague, along with Superintendent of Construction James Strobridge forged ahead with the difficult task of carving fifteen tunnels through the mountains.
The actual work itself, however, was performed by thousands of Chinese immigrant laborers. The Central Pacific Railroad’s first known Chinese employees were working at the beginning of 1864. By the end of 1865 approximately 4,000 Chinese laborers were engaged and shortly thereafter, they represented more than 80 percent of the Central Pacific's workers. Injuries and even death from accidents, falling rocks and avalanches in winter confronted the workers as they laid track, dug and blasted through rocky mountainsides, and built bridges to create a path for the railroad. This map of the western division of the Central Pacific Railroad (pictured) also dates from 1865.
Alfred A. Hart, the official photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad, produced over 300 photographic stereoviews of the transcontinental railroad’s construction. This image shows Chinese laborers digging a 60-foot-deep path for the railroad out of chalk bluffs in Placer County circa 1865. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.
The exact number of Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad is unknown, but the figure is possibly between 10,000 and 15,000 men, mostly from China’s Guangdong province. The impact made by Chinese laborers on the progress of the railroad through the Sierra Nevada mountains was immense. Unfortunately, the lives of these men are underrepresented in the historical record when considered against the contribution they made to the history of the state and the nation.
The longest tunnel dug by these men, Tunnel Number 6 (also known as the Summit Tunnel), measured 1,659 feet in length. The photograph taken by Alfred Hart shows rocks and laborers near the tunnel’s opening circa 1866. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.
In order to speed construction of Tunnel Number 6, a vertical shaft was dug at the projected mid-point of the tunnel. This allowed four separate teams of laborers to work at carving the rockface simultaneously. The introduction of nitroglycerin as a substitute for blasting powder also improved progress, but the dangers posed by this explosive were ever-present. Hundreds of Chinese laborers, and perhaps more, died during construction of the railroad.
Tunnel Number 6 was finally completed in August 1867, and this alignment map of the Central Pacific Railroad dated 1868 (pictured) shows the general area of this tunnel and the summit.
This map of the profile of grades of the Central Pacific Railroad (pictured) is signed by Crocker and Montague and is dated December 29, 1868. At that time, the railroad had already passed the Sierra Nevada Mountains and beyond the state-line into central Nevada. The pace of construction increased as the steep mountains gave way to the flatter terrain of Nevada and Utah. Passenger trains were already operating between Sacramento and Reno that summer.
This photograph of the Chinese workers’ camp taken by Alfred Hart in central Nevada shows some of the tents the men lived in, as well as track and telegraph poles under construction. In April of 1869 a Central Pacific work crew laid over ten miles of rail in a single day. The following month a ceremony was held at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory celebrating the meeting of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.
The entire transcontinental railroad measured approximately 1,774 miles in length, with 742 miles of track built by the Central Pacific Railroad through California, Nevada and Utah. California’s population the following year in 1870 was 560,247, but two decades later the state’s population more than doubled to 1,213,398. California was on her way to eventually becoming the richest and most prosperous State in the Union. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.
All images from records of the California State Archives and the California History Room, California State Library.
Digital exhibit by Sebastian Nelson (2019)
Imaging by Thaddeus McCurry and Brian Guido (2019)
California State Archives
A Division of the California Secretary of State's Office
1020 O Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Reference Telephone: (916) 653-2246
General Information: (916) 653-7715
Fax: (916) 653-7363