Railroads of the Gilded Age

The key to a prosperous economy is in a nation’s ability to transport goods in a market. The faster a transport of ordered goods can be made, more sales can occur; therefore, leading to a boost in economy. Railroads, with the invention of the steam engine, were utilized by the United States to increase sales and provide faster- or safer- transport of passengers. The railroads of the early 1800s quickly became a primary import and export of goods between states and territories, but one railroad stands above them all. An ambitious project, yet necessary to meet the expansive economic requirements of a growing United States, was presented to Congress by numerous business owners in the railroad industry. The result of this desire was the First Transcontinental Railroad, a groundbreaking achievement of the Gilded Age that provided correlative economic support for the United States’ rapid maturation.

The First Transcontinental railroad, or the “Overland Express,” was one that spanned approximately 2,000 miles, extending from California to Nebraska. Three companies lead the construction of it after gaining support from Congress: Western Pacific Railroad Company, Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, and Union Pacific. Each one of these companies attempted to build a railroad of their own. One by selling land surrounding it to pay for tracks, another by asking for money from Congress and inevitably being declined such an ambitious grant. In due time, however, Congress would see the economic potential in such a railroad and would fund it.

There were a few names involved in the production of the railroad. The first was Asa Whitney, who attempted to sell land around the promised railroad to settlers in order to provide for the massive cost, as mentioned above. He was, however, looked over by Congress. The next was Theodore Judah, the owner of Sacramento Valley Railroad. Judah, who discovered a pathway through the dreaded Sierra Nevada, wrote a proposal to Congress. He, tragically, was also overlooked. Eventually, an elected Representative from Iowa named Samuel Curtis brought the idea of a transcontinental railroad to Congress. This railroad was located in the northern region at the time, and southern states of congress wanted it located in their own region. It did not pass until the South seceded from the Union in 1862.

As Congress began funding the project, they realized that it would cost the three companies (WPRC, CPRCC, and UP) a specific amount based on the terrain track was built upon. Level ground that was flat and easy to manage cost $16,000 per mile. Hills that were somewhat difficult and required slight manipulation cost $32,000 per mile. The most treacherous land, mainly found the Sierra Nevada, were mountains. They cost $48,000 per mile. With an ever-so increasing demand for a budget, a few contributors offered their own pockets.

Union Pacific’s biggest monetary contributions came from the leader of The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Brigham Young. He invested in the company’s stock, and even provided workers. Central Pacific Railroad Company of California had a large amount of it’s money come from a group known as the Big Four. Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker were all involved in the railroad business, whether it be stock or direct management. Each one of these men invested money into the company to hopefully gain a massive return from the economic boom created by the railroad. Each one did, making them all millionaires after the railroad’s completion.

Construction of the railroad was the next big task after receiving the necessary funds. Workers were paid, but not nearly enough U.S. citizens were willing to abide with such strenuous labor. The United States began hiring outside of the country from places like Canada for engineers. They also hired Chinese workers to help with the manual labor, paying them in minimal quantities. Natives who also lived on or around the surrounding lands would frequently attack workers. John “Jack” Casement, hired as UP’s chief engineer, was responsible for fending off these dangers. He also hired hunters to gather food, such as buffalo, to supply his workers with the required nutrition.

The First Transcontinental Railroad was a massive step in the innovation of technology during the Gilded Age. Alongside such other inventions- such as the telephone and the lightbulb- the ability to traverse the land in mere days not only improved the quality of life, but boosted the economy to meet the expansion of tech. It stayed prevalent well beyond the Civil War until the mid 20th century. The railroad is a testament of the imaginative and motivated minds of the men responsible for developing tools that could only lead to a prosperous future today. The Gilded Age is certainly one filled to the brim with inspiring characters of innovation.

Works Cited

  1. Cooper, Bruce Clement. The Classic Western American Railroad Routes. Chartwell Books, 2010.
  2. Walton, Gary M., and Hugh Rockoff. History of the American Economy. Cengage Learning, 2018.
  3. Klein, Maury. Union Pacific. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2006.