Podcast # 29: The Transcontinental Railroad

With the end of the Mexican –American War the United States gained a vast amount of territory and realized its goal of Manifest Destiny. The United States had gained control of the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. One time, the thought of settlers living west of the Mississippi where Native Americans had been forced to relocate was a foreign one. With the gaining of new territories and the desire for more land, more and more people moved west on what had once been designated as Indian Territory. Yet again, Natives who had already been relocated would see their lands taken away again, relocated again or see their population and land significantly reduced. By 1849, with the California Gold Rush, more and more people were choosing to settle West. Living on the west wasn’t easy, nor was the journey to get there.

By the 1830s, a variety of railroad and canal companies began popping up throughout the United States. The majority of them throughout the north. As the frontier moved further and further west, the need and want to be able to bring people and products west increased. We had acquired the land up to the Pacific Ocean, now we had to populate it. A variety of technologies created during the industrial revolution began to change the way people lived and communicated. For example, the Pony Express was replaced by telegraph lines and the ability to send telegrams. As more people began to flock westward for a variety of reasons, the creation of a transcontinental railroad would change not only how people lived but where they were able to live. The Railroad, while a wonder of the industrial world and the spark for many positives, was also the catalyst of destruction for the Indigenous people of the United States.

California Gold Rush 1848- 1849

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California caused a mass migration of people not only from surrounding areas and throughout the US, but also from other parts of the world. Hundreds of thousands of settlers came to the area in the hopes of striking it rich. Some came by sea, sailing for months around the tip of south America and arrive in San Francisco. Others traveled by land using the California Trail, the Oregon Trail or even the Mormon Trail to get west. These trails many of them first traveled by fur trappers and traders were quickly flooded by settlers in horse drawn Wagons. Some of you may remember playing the Oregon Trail game in school. If you have never played that game, you will never truly understand the devastation of finding out your entire family died because you refused to wait a day to cross the river by raft. If you have never played, go to classicreload.com and play. A great that I have found to teach this topic is that You can also give various scenarios to your students and have them make decisions as if they are the ones traveling along the frontier. There are wonderful resources at the California state library of primary sources of letters from people who made the journey across the continent to California prior to the transcontinental railroad being built. The journey was difficult. Many settlers traveled together on what became known as wagon trains. Traveling together created a sense of safety and support. You took only your most essential items. Selling what was left behind to buy needed supplies for your journey. A broken wagon wheel, disease, dangerous river crossings, bandits were just some of the dangers. Yet people still came. Taking only the most essential items, they were forced to abandon many of those things along the way. The number of the graves along the trails are staggering.

The thousands of prospectors who arrived in California in 1849 became known as the 49ners

It wasn’t just some miners who became wealthy, mining was difficult, and the more people who showed up, the more difficult it became to strike it rich, unless you were a merchant in the area, then you made money had over fist selling mining supplies. The swell in population also helped California to become a state faster and it entered the Union in 1850 as a free state.

Comstock Lode of Nevada in 1858 – the discovery of silver in the region which was the first in the US also encouraged settlement.

Boom towns / Ghost towns

Around these discoveries of precious metals, we see the rise of what we call boom towns. Once an area was designated as being rich with gold or silver, people flooded the area. These prospectors would need a place to live. Towns quickly sprung up around mines. Boarding houses, grocery stores or a mercantile, a post office, a jail, and of course, many saloons. When we think of mining we sometimes imagine the image of the rugged cowboy, sifting with a pan and mining tools. Now, that did happen, but mining wasn’t easy and it required heavy machinery. How did that machinery get there and who brought it there? Before the transcontinental railroad, it had to be brought over by sea around the tip of south America or through the isthmus of Panama The voyage was expensive and the machinery needed was equally expensive. So you have thousands of hopefuls who have rushed westward in the hopes of becoming rich, but it will be these Eastern Financers who have put up the money, bought rights to the mines for example that are really the ones who will be getting rich. When the mines dried up, people left, moved on to other places with other opportunities. These once booming, gun slinging towns had been deserted and became known as ghost towns. Many of these ghost tones still remain today. Some have become tourist attractions, like the ghost towns of Bodie & Calico in California. When people refer to this time period, people refer to it as the wild west. That is true to an extent. Many of these boom towns didn’t have the funds to keep a local sheriff on the payroll, there is very little government in many of these places. So What do you do? You have people taking the law into their own hands, you have vigilante groups, you have lawlessness.

Westward Expansion and its impact on Native Americans

The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 established the Reservation System in the United States. What this act did was it designated land for Native Americans to live on and they couldn’t leave without permission. It was a way to put Native American Tribes under Government control and Americanize them. With the loss of ancestral lands, it became increasingly difficult to maintain their traditional ways of life. No longer able to leave, follow the buffalo, fish or gather traditional foods. Many groups became dependent of Government provided rations which introduced new foods that made them sick. Many died of starvation and disease. No longer able to provide the basics for their families, many Natives were forced to find labor jobs. Many found jobs within the mining communities that sprang around mines, Weather cooking or cleaning, or even those who had become sex slaves for the predominately male populated boom towns of the west. They quickly found themselves competing for jobs against newly arrived Asian immigrants who had arrived on the pacific coast. For many Native American children, they found themselves in Indian Schools that were created to force further assimilation. Gone were their parents, their native language, and traditional clothing. The education provided was one that would allow them to assimilate into American society. It wasn’t successful, many attempted to run away and resisted the new cultural ways being taught to them. Native American tribes resisted these measures and it resulted in a number of Indian Wars. You may recall learning about the Sioux Wars, The Battle of Little Big Horn or Custer’s Last Stand- the result of gold being discovered on Native American lands. White settlers called for protection from Native’s as they settled and mined for goal on Native lands. While the Sioux & Cheyenne defeated Custer, they still fled their land out of fear of retaliation. These wars aren’t really discussed much in History classes or textbooks and if they are, they are typically a minor foot note. In 1887, the Dawes Act was passed. The Dawes Act, gave the Federal Government the right to break up tribal lands into individual allotments. Native Americans who agreed to these individual plots were given citizenship. This law also allowed these individual parcels to be given to non-native settlers. It was common to see Ads showcasing the availability of Indian Lands in the West being sold by the Dept. of the Interior. In my research for this podcast, I reached out to the Historical Preservation Department of the Cheyenne Nation and was quickly put into contact with Wallace Bearchum who agreed to speak with us about the impact that Westward Expansion had on the Cheyenne Nation. Our next podcast will be completely dedicated to that conversation.

What had once been designated as Indian territory was now being carved up into territories that were being settled by whites and would eventually be admitted to the union as a state. The discovery of gold and the granting of land through the homestead Act helped to spur settlement of the western United States. Life for these new settlers wasn’t easy. The land proved to be difficult to farm and required heavy machinery.

Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres of land to any settler (citizen or immigrant alike) who was either the head of a household or over the age of 21, and who agreed to live on and work or farm the land for 5 years or they could choose to purchase the land for 1.25 an acre after 6 months. Homesteaders had to pay a small filing fee. Combined with the Morrill Land Grant which helped to create colleges and universities to promote technology for farmers that would help them to cultivate the land, it helped to spur western settlement. I talked more about this in our episode on Lincoln’s Presidency when this Act was passed. Lured to the west with promises of fertile land and a chance at the American dream people headed west. If you are a Little House in the Prairie fan you may be imagining Pa Ingalls packing up the Wagon and heading out of the Big woods to go find land out west. The farm land wasn’t always lush and an easy to farm. In fact, many required the use of heavy machinery and had to take loans from eastern bankers. Life in the Great Plains region wasn’t easy. In the post-Civil War Era we see an increase in immigration to the United States. Now of course many immigrants settled in the big cities of the East, but the offer of 160 acres of farm land out west encouraged many immigrants to go westward. The opportunity to own land was once thought to be beyond their reach, especially if you consider the old European custom of land being inherited only by the eldest son. So instead of living in the tenements of say, New York City or Chicago, many immigrants chose to continue on in their journey and head westward. Now Homesteaders were expected to build homes and work the land. In areas where trees were not in abundance, homes were built into hills or were made out of sod. This was no easy task, the sod bricks were heavy and they dried quickly so you couldn’t cut more sod from the ground than you could use each day. Those homes were often referred to as soddies. Farming the land was just as difficult. Extreme weather conditions such as droughts, blizzards and tornadoes ruined crops and the dreams of many farmers. Some packed up yet again and went further west or went back home. For the ones who stayed the farmers began to work together. The Granger Movement was an alliance of farmer’s who worked together to improve their conditions. Many of the things they advocated for became a part of the Populist movement of the late 1800s which we will talk about in a future podcast. With more people living out West, a desire to connect the markets of the eastern and western half of the country and a need to tame the wild west by bringing Government there, the idea to build a Railroad line to connect two regions led to the creation of a transcontinental railroad. The first of its kind in the world.

Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 – Calls to build a railroad line to reach the Pacific coast on the US began before the start of the Civil War. Debates over where the line would run, in the North or in the South stalled the issue until 1862, after Southern States seceded, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. The railroad and telegraph lines would be built along the 32nd parallel. Two companies were charged with building the railroad lines. The Union Pacific which would begin building the line in Missouri and the Central Pacific which would begin building in California, would somehow have to carve their way through the Sierra Nevada mountains and the two companies would meet in the middle. The meeting point was not known at the start of construction but would eventually be Promontory Point, Utah. As an incentive, Congress gave each company thousands of acres of land for each mile of track they laid. At the start of construction, the offer was 6,400 acres of land for every mile of track. Over time, to offer an even greater incentive to move as quickly as possible, that number was doubled and in addition they received thousands of dollars in Federal Bonds. The Government would not pay a cent until 40 miles of track were laid. An abundance of wealth was at stake, and each company raced to lay as much track as they could. Over the course of 7 years, these two companies worked at record breaking paces to get the job done. The labor demand to build the railroad was significant. The goal was to get the job done as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Immigrants from China were employed by the Union Pacific Railroad company. This is being built on the backs of immigrants. Immigrants who would be later be singled out by the American government and further immigration banned by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese Americans would not be allowed to become citizens until the 1940s and they faced tremendous amounts of discrimination. When we talk about the Transcontinental Railroad, people always discuss the achievement of such a feat, the ingenuity, the possibilities for growth that it created and rightfully so, but we also must equally discuss how it destroyed the Native American Way of life and how the individuals who labored on this great example of American ingenuity were treated and the impact that it had on Native American tribes.

The Central Pacific Company was funded by 4 California Merchants in 1861. They paid engineer, Theodore Judah to do a survey on the best possible path through the Sierra Nevada mountains. This railroad will have climb a summit thousands of miles high and would require the digging of tunnels through mountains of rock. They hired thousands of Chinese Immigrants who had come to California during the Gold Rush. The discrimination they faced trying to get jobs resulted in many of these immigrants to accept being paid less than the white workers doing the same job. The work was extremely dangerous and backbreaking. In order to dig tunnels through the mountains it required the use of explosives and round the clock work forces constantly hammering and chiseling away at the granite. Imagine working and doing this for 10-12 hours and at the end of the day you were an inch or an inch and half further into the tunnel than when you started. These workers, chiseled through mountains, dangled off of cliffs by rope thousands of feet in the air, dealt with severe weather – we are talking snowdrifts and avalanches. The Transcontinental Railroad would not have been possible without the labor of immigrants, especially Chinese Immigrants.

The Union Pacific Company would begin building by Missouri River near the Nebraska and Iowa border and would head west. This company would also face difficulties in building their portion of the railroad line. The Union Pacific would also be marred with scandal as a result of Credit Mobilier which we will talk more about during the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Today, we are joined by Lindsey Marolt, the education coordinator at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Iowa.

Construction ended on May 10, 1869 with the Golden Spike at Promontory Point Utah. News of the completion of the railroad was celebrated throughout the country. News quickly spread through the use of the telegraph lines that had also been installed across the continent. What was once a long and difficult journey, now took 1 week. The economies of the Eastern and Western half of The United States were now connected.

When the transcontinental railroad was completed, what time the trains would be arriving and departing proved to be a logistical nightmare. When it came to telling time, there were typically three ways to measure: Natural time – which is measuring the movement of the sun in the sky, then local time and then railroad time. Each rail line would print time tables of when the trains were scheduled and there were many different rail lines. Time needed to be standardized. Eventually in 1883, 4 Time Zones were created in the United States (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific). The Standard Time Act of 1918 would make this official in the United States. When this topic is discussed, it almost always focuses on the positives. But it is also important to discuss the negatives that came from it as well. We touched on them throughout this podcast, but in our next episode, we will be joined by Wallace Bearchum, a member of the Cheyenne Nation. I hope that you will join us for this incredibly important conversation.

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