142 years - and counting


Often, a culture's defining history - its "mythology," if you will - fails to live up to its hype.

Oh, but when it does and the stories are not only based upon reality but also possess substance...well, it can be a wondrous thing!

I never grow tired hearing of Tom Thumb's race, of Casey Jones' "trip to the Promised Land," or of "the Day of Two Noons." Tales of technological innovation, personal heroism and societal advancement prove mankind's myriad capabilities. When such narratives revolve around one's own interests and work, it helps engender a justifiable pride and establish the sincere desire for a greater purpose in life.

On Monday, May 10th, 1869, 142 years ago today, an event occurred that is arguably the seminal point in the development of the North American railroad system: the driving of the Golden Spike, marking the official completion of the Pacific Railroad.

I'll now pause a few moments for some to sigh and roll their eyes.

You see, I realise many among us have grown tired of the story. After all, it is ancient history and fails (on several levels) to represent railroading of this current age. Still, just as steam locomotives and passenger service can be relied upon to reach the public in ways no unit train or sea container ever could, this classic bit of Americana embraces in one neat package almost everything U.S. citizens cherish about their collective past, with our industry and technology taking top billing.

There’s a Wild West setting, replete with cowboys, Indians, buffalo and the U.S. Cavalry. There’s a tremendous (and almost unfathomable) goal successfully reached, using little but brains, brawn, gunpowder and the force of sheer will. There’s a scoundrel or two (or three) who, awash with corporate greed and general malfeasance, combined to create a national scandal of epic proportions (how 'bout that Credit Mobilier?!) - yet, even while appealing to the most salacious of appetites, ultimately proved unable to overcome the noble task at hand.

Today's populace tends to harshly judge proponents of Manifest Destiny and may, sadly, reflect only upon all that was lost with the Pacific Railroad's coming. Certainly, indigeonous peoples were gravely mistreated; however, railroads were but a pawn in Washington's battle. Besides, we’d be remiss if we ignored what 21st century America might call the railroad's "diverse" workforce and the priceless contributions so many immigrants made, especially the Irish and Chinese.

Item: When doubts first arose concerning the ability of Cantonese labourers to fulfill the physical demands of their job, Charles Crocker (one of the Big Four) strongly supported his men. As he was debating the matter with famed construction superintendent James Harvey Strobridge, Charlie Crocker rhetorically ask, "Did they not build the Chinese Wall?"

Surely, the Overland Route has proven its value many times over (perhaps even lending credence to the idea of modern public/private partnerships)! Far from being a dying relic of days past, Union Pacific’s main line across mid-continent is vital in ways its founders could have scarcely imagined.

Item: The three-track-wide route segment in Nebraska between North Platte and Gibbon is one of the busiest freight-only lines in the world, with trains moving at streetcar frequencies, year 'round.

Isn't it still impressive that ten miles (and 56 feet) of track could be laid, by hand, in one day? Doesn't the Southern Pacific’s claim that their predecessor's "record…defies defeat" fill you with admiration for our forebears? Wouldn't an equivalent bout of contemporary project management be worthy of note?

Item: The UP's V.P., Dr. Thomas Clark Durant (weasel extraordinaire), lost a $10,000 bet in the process. Can you imagine Crocker, Strobridge and George Coley (track foreman) collecting on the debt? What fun!

Have you ever stopped to think that the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was as great a national accomplishment as man’s landing on the moon a century later - and that the word "done" was, at one time, as famous in context as Neil Armstrong's "…one small step…"?

Item: That single word, telegraphed to the world at 12:47 p.m. (local time), set off a country-wide celebration, the likes of which had never been seen before (and one that, according to a Chicago reporter, was "a true uprising of the people, spontaneous and not manufactured to order"). Essentially every city and town with a link to the wire honoured the event in some way. In Philadelphia, they even rang the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell!

We are truly indebted to Theodore Dehone Judah (CP’s chief engineer) for proving, at least posthumously, that the appellation "Crazy" isn't necessarily a pejorative (and for refusing to give up on his dream)! We are indebted to the Pacific Railroad Act of 1863 for today's near-universal application of Standard gauge! We are also indebted to our ancestors for their forethought and faith.

At one time, less than a century-and-a-half ago, most shipments from New York to San Francisco went 'round the Horn by sea, had schedules measured in months, and were, at best, fraught with danger. Suddenly, with one final track connection in place, heavy freight could travel over land, transit times could be measured in days, and both safety and reliability were dramatically increased.

You know, that sounds like something worth celebrating!

_..  . .  _.  .

D   O   N   E


  • Thank You.. It is very good to be reminded of these great stories about how our country became the wonderful place that it is. Today most people take the railroads for granted.   They don't remember how or why they came about..

  • A fine piece of writing, Garl.  Thanks.  And, for candlou, remember that the railroads pretty much stopped having anything to do with the public at large when they got out of the passenger train business.  That contributes to the impression that people take the railroads for granted.  For the most part, they don't even think about railroads other than when they're stuck at a grade crossing and a 130-car coal train passes by.  Look at some of the blather that appears at this blog site, and it comes from people who should know better.


  • Amen, Garl!  Another good piece of writing about the railroads from a historic perspective.  I am doing my part as my staff and I are working with BNSF and UPRR to improve the rail efficiencies at Tower 55.

  • Ditto - this is indeed nicely written.

    Interesting that the transcontinental railroad has recently been brought up as a negative example of previous government involvement in railroads that didn't go well.  Yet without it, would it have been built?  What would we have focused on as a nation to stitch us back together after the civil war?  If we had waited for some other James Hill (named Harriman?) would our history as a nation been different?

  • conductorchris:  You pose an interesting set of questions.  This is worth precisely what you are paying for it, which I seem to recall is nothing.  I believe the transcontinental railroad would have been built eventually, just not as early as it was.  The Northern Pacific drove the second golden spike in Montana 13 years after the first transcontinenatal road was completed in Utah.  

    I think our nation would have had a somewhat different history, but it still would have been the great nation that it became.  As for government involvement that didn't go well, that sure doesn't comport with American history as I know it and have written about it.  There was no economy whatsoever in most of the West.  No capitalist would risk all to build into a region with no traffic.  The land grants - and only 8% of the U.S. system was built with land grant assistance - enabled the builders to sell or mortgage some land to raise the capital needed to build; and it allowed the builders/promoters to attract immigrants from the East and from Europe by making land available cheaply and thus creating their own market.  I can think of a number of government actions involving railroads that were far worse both for the railroads and the economy they served.

  • 133 years ago:

    Professor, Physicist & Engineer Dr. Werner Von Braun built the worlds 1st ELECTRIC LOCOMOTIVE with 'Disney Land' sized passenger cars tagging behind!!!

  • That's really some feat - very improessive.  What's really impressive, though, is that von Braun must have done this from within the womb.  There were operating electric locomotives before he was born.  So, question, Railwayist.  Do you simply make up some of these posts of yours?  Or, are you one of the more gullible people on Earth?  By the way, professor, physicist and engineer von Braun is far better known as the father of the German V1 ballistic rockets of WW II.  Not a terribly admirable man.

  • You are correct Mr. Kaufman, Dr. Werner Von Siemens is who I meant---not Von Braun, later affiliated with NASA.