The four old nags were worn and jaded, and the coach showed evidence of long service. The mail matter was delivered to the Central Pacific Co., and with that dusty dilapidated coach and team, the old order of things passed away forever.”
– The San Francisco Daily Alto Californian , May 10, 1869.
On today’s date, May 10, 1869 the final touch was put on the Trans Continental Railroad at Promontory Point in Utah, and our nation was at long last linked from the West Coast to the East Coast. No longer was the bounteous land of California and the Pacific Northwest a distant Garden of Eden to be reached only after a long, arduous journey of six months or more. It was now accessible by train in a week. The United States was now a country that truly reached from sea to shining sea… the old order of things as the Alto Californian put it had indeed passed away forever.
Getting to California – Literally a Killer Commute
California and the Pacific Northwest. This ground was rich enough to grow fruits and vegetables in abundance, and lumber was in limitless forests. And GOLD had been discovered there in 1848. This had made California THE land of plenty in the United States. Thousands had set their minds and hearts upon reaching this fertile and RICH land. But how to get there? There were only three ways, and all of them were
arduous to a killer degree. One could go by boat which involved a trip from an eastern port, down around the southern tip of South America via Cape Horn, and then north up to California. Six months of tedium broken only by raging sea storms. There was the trip by sea to the Isthmus of Panama, an overland passage through a tropical mosquito infested swamp, followed by the voyage to California. Quicker, but you could die of malaria. And third was the most inhospitable choice of all: by land via wagon, or horse over one of the most arid, alkaline, godforsaken deserts on earth, followed by a trip through the Sierra Nevada Mountains which could freeze you to death. Any one of these took up to eight months and could kill you. It did in fact kill many who tried it.
A Herculean Labor and the Men Who Made it Happen
Linking this nation into one land was a Herculean labor requiring men on both ends of the work force to perform superhuman tasks. And in America we had an entrepreneurial system perfectly suited for the job. There were visionaries who saw a nation linked east to west, and surveyed land. Men like Theodore D. Judah (below), who started the
Central Pacific Railroad Co. moving east from California. Sadly, Judah died in 1863 from malaria contracted crossing the Isthmus of Panama on his way back to New York from California. There were men like Grenville M. Dodge, the hard driving Civil War General who convinced Abraham Lincoln the best route was from Omaha west to Utah. Dodge surveyed much of the route, and started the Union Pacific Co. which moved the project west from Iowa.
Dodge (above) also conducted a ruthless campaign to clear the path for the railroad of ALL Indians. There were the Big Four of the Central Pacific: Gov. Leland Stanford of California as well as Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, who took over the C.P. after the death of Judah and arranged the financing and the government backing by means both legal and shady. And there were the workers: Chinese with the C.P.; industrious and methodical and anxious to have a stake in this profitable venture. Irishmen
and former soldiers from both sides of the Civil War working for the U.P. who knew how to take orders and work like a team. All of these were free men who worked to blast their way through mountains and across parched deserts to link this country together. They performed back-breaking labor, living under the harshest and most dangerous conditions imaginable. Freezing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and dying of thirst in the deserts of Utah. But they all worked for pay, and took pride in what was clearly a great national enterprise.
May 10, 1869 – the Great (?) Ceremony
There was of course a great race between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific to see who could lay the most track and therefore rake in the most profit from this great feat of engineering. But it all came to an end in May of 1869. The ceremonial hammering in of the last spikes linking the nation up at last was set for May 8, but various delays of guests arriving put it off until May 10. One of those late guests was Dr. Thomas C. Durant, head of the Union Pacific. He was on his way, but was apparently kidnapped in Piedmont, Wyoming by some of his own workers whose wages had not been payed. So Dr. Durant wired for the truant cash, and arrived by the 10’th. Gov. Stanford of the Central Pacific and Dr. Durant were to simultaneously hammer in four ceremonial spikes, two gold, one silver and a fourth made of silver, iron and gold. And once this happened, an iron spike on an adjacent tie and wired to the telegraph system was to be driven in telegraphing the news to waiting crowds across the nation. But, as it turned out, both Gov. Stanford and Dr. Durant completely missed on their first tries. But the telegraph operator sent the signal anyway, and the assembled party posed for the famous photo above.
But before all of this happened, the last of the old stage coaches brought in the last U.S. Mail Delivery to be carried thus. This was indeed placed on a Central Pacific Mail Car for delivery to the coast. And with this small gesture the real change had occurred. Time and space had been closed for all time… “the old order of things passed away forever.”
“Nothing Like It in the World” by Stephen E. Ambrose, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.
“The Railroaders”, Time Life Books, “the Old West” Series, by Keith Wheeler and the Editors of Time Life Books, Time Life Books, New York, 1973.