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The TRANSCONTINENTAL Railroad UNITING the United States

Jeffrey Syken

As late as the Seventeenth Century (due to a mistaken belief) cartographers were describing California as an island on their period maps. Later, topographical and exploratory expeditions would resolve the matter and, indeed, indicate California as integral to the North American continent. Lewis & Clark’s “Voyage of Discovery” (1803-1806) would determine for certain that an overland route to the Pacific Ocean was feasible. By 1835, there were seven hundred and ninety miles of railroad tracks in the United States. The young nation’s rail network was growing exponentially and “Manifest Destiny” demanded that America extend from coast-to-coast. Ironically, it appears several distinguished (and undistinguished) gentlemen had the bright idea of a “Transcontinental Steam Railroad” nearly simultaneously.

With the conclusion of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the California Gold Rush (of 1849) and the admission of California to the Union as the thirty-first state (in September 1850), it had become a commercial, economic and strategic necessity to link the east with the west by rail. Whether one used the Overland, Panamanian Isthmus or Cape Horn route to get to California, the journey was both perilous and long enduring – taking several weeks, at a minimum. Though California no longer appeared to be an island on maps, it might as well have been given its isolation from the rest of the country. All through the 1850s the subject was debated in the court of public opinion as well as in the halls of Congress, resulting in several extensive, detailed surveys and their accompanying reports which prompted a call-to-action. In fact, the issue of a “Pacific Railway” was as much on the minds of the public-at-large as was the daunting issue of slavery.

One of the strange ironies of the “Transcontinental Railroad” would be the fact that, as the very symbol of the physical link that would bind the nation together, it would be conceived and begun while the nation was tearing itself apart in a bloody Civil War. With the war’s end came reconciliation and the freeing of labor, material and capital for the completion of the two roads (long stalled by the exigencies of the conflict). The Union Pacific would build west from Omaha, Nebraska Territory while its rival – the Central Pacific, would build east from Sacramento, CA. Eventually, after many difficulties, hardships and loss-of-life, the two roads would meet atop a barren plateau in Utah Territory. The nation that had nearly been split in two was made whole again by the joining of east and west by rail. No event, before or since, would define the character of America as did the building of this first physical link. So too, it would give new meaning to the name the founding fathers had chosen for their young republic: “UNITED States of America.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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