Harpers Description of May 10
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum
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Monthly Record of Current Events
Our Record closes on the 28th of May.—The prominent events of the month are: The completion of the Pacific Railroad ...
The 10th of May will be noted as the day upon which the construction of a railroad from the Pacific coast to the Missouri River, and thence virtually, by lines already completed, to every part of the great Valley of the Mississippi and the whole Atlantic coast, was finally accomplished. We do not here propose to present the details of the immense preparatory work performed before the enterprise was fairly started; nor to say to which one, out of many scores for whom the credit has been claimed of having suggested the idea, the honor should he awarded. Within a short time after the value of the region of the Pacific slope was approximately ascertained, it became a settled conviction in the public mind that one or more railroads must be built to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. Many routes were proposed, the arguments for each being based mainly upon sectional grounds as to whether the line should be northern, central, or southern. In 1853 Congress authorized the War Department to institute a series of surveys of the various routes proposed. The results of these surveys, comprised in thirteen folio volumes, were published. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, recommended a line mainly following the 32d parallel of latitude.
Nothing practical was done until July, 1862, when Congress passed an act granting aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. An association named the Union Pacific Railroad Company was empowered to build the line from a point in Nebraska Territory to the western boundary of Nevada, and there connect with the line of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, which bad been already chartered by the Legislature of California. The whole line, from the Missouri to the Bay of Sacramento, was to be completed not later than July 1, 1876, and the Company first reaching the boundary line might proceed until it met the other. The aid promised by Government was of a substantial character. The Company was to have the right of way through the Government lands for 200 feet on each side of the track; besides this the Company received a grant of ten alternate sections to the mile on each side of the railroad, with the right to nse material npon Government lands. Moreover, the Government promised its bonds, the interest payable in gold, at 6 per cent., at the rate of $16,000 per mile for the whole road; but for certain parts, amounting in all to about 150 miles, which were of especial difficulty, $48,000 per mile was granted. For the Californian section the uniform grant was $32,000 per mile. These issues of bonds were to be made only upon the certificate of Commissioners appointed by the Government that sections of twenty miles had been duly completed and thoroughly equipped as a first-class railroad.
With all these possible advantages the work at first advanced but slowly. The Pacific Union Company was organized in 1863, with a nominal capital of $100,000,000, but with the right to proceed when $2,000,000—a fiftieth part of the whole capital—was actually subscribed. It was hard to get even this two million of dollars. But it was finally raised, and the Company began to work. Omaha, on the Missouri River, was fixed upon as the starting-point, from which the work was to be pushed westward. Thence to Salt Lake City was a distance of something more than a thousand miles. Here, or hereabouts, it was expected that the junction would be made with the road to be pnshed eastward by the Pacific Central from Sacramento. The first actual work on the Union Pacific road was begun in August, 1864. Three months later 12 miles had been constructed, and the occasion was duly celebrated. The next year, 1865, 28 miles more were built. At this rate it would take more thau a third of a century to reach the point of junction, near the Mormon capital. The work now fell into the hands of men who were resolved to "push things," no matter at what cost. Heretofore a mile a day had been the utmost at which any railroad had ever been built. This rate was soou reached. In 1866 265 miles were built; next year 235 miles. In 1868 the work was pushed forward with a rapidity heretofore unknown. For weeks four miles a day was the usual rate at which rails were laid; and early in May, 1869, the thousand miles and more from Omaha to the head of Salt Lake had been built.
Meanwhile the Central Pacific Company had been pushing on their road to meet their eastern coadjutors. The line as originally planned was to run to the south of the Great Salt Lake, passing through Salt Lake City. It was changed so as to bend northward, passing the Salt Lake at its northwestern extremity; from this road a branch road of some fifty miles. in length must be built to connect the sacred city of the Mormons with the continental line.
The ceremony of placing the last tie of the united roads was performed with as much display as was possible. The scene was a grassy valley at the head of the Great Salt Lake. About 3000 people of all sorts had here congregated. Among them were many men who had borne a prominent part in the construction of the road. The final tie was of polished laurelwood, bound at the ends with silver bands. A golden spike sent by California, and a silver one by Nevada, and one of gold, silver, and iron by Arizona, were presented. These spikes were driven home by the representative officers of the two Companies by whom the roads had been constructed. Prayers were offered and some speeches made. Arrangements had been made by which the strokes of the hammers were connected with the telegraphic wires; and almost at the instant it was known on the Pacific and the Atlantic that the junction of the roads had been completed. The New York newspapers of the morning of the 12th contained a dispatch from San Francisco announcing that at the moment when the last spike had been driven an in voice of tea had been sent by the road, thus, as the dispatch read, "inaugurating the overland trade with China and Japan."
The length of the Union Pacific road, from Omaha to Ogden, is 1086 miles; that of the Central Pacific, from Ogden to Sacramento, is 690 miles—1776 in all From Sacramento to San Francisco, 124 miles, a road has been built. It is impossible to state with any accuracy the entire cost of the construction and equipment of these roads. Apart from grants of land and material, the subsidies afforded by Government amount to $52,000,000, of which $26,000,000 have been paid to the Union Pacific, and $20,000,000 to the Central Pacific, leaving $6,000,000 yet due to the roads. There can be no doubt that much of the roads has been hastily and imperfectly constructed; but in September of last year a Commission appointed by Government, headed by General Gouverneur K. Warren, reported upon 890 miles of the road then in operation: "Deficiencies exist, hut they are, almost without ex ception, those incident to all new roads, or of a character growing out of the peculiar difficulties encountered or inseparably connected with the unexampled progress of the work. They can all he supplied at an outlay hut little exceeding that which would have obviated them in the first instance, hut at the cost of greatly retarding the progress of the great work."
The accompanying map shows the general line of the two roads, which together may he called the Pacific Railroad. It runs almost due west, following closely the 41st parallel of latitude, bending southward a little when it approaches the Pacific coast. The map also indicates the railroads which, centring at Omaha, run in every direction, connecting this place with the Valley of the Mississippi, the Lake region, and the Atlantic seaboard. It is useless now to attempt to locate the towns which are every day springing up on the line of this long road. It passes in its course four distinct ranges of mountains: (1.) The Sierra Nevada, the highest elevation, about 100 miles from Sacramento, is 7042 feet; then it sinks gradually, hut with alternate risings and failings, to Ogden, 4320 feet. (2.) Then it climbs the Wasatch range, the highest point, 800 miles from Sacramento, being 7500 feet, whence it sinks 1500 feet; and (3.) climbs the Rocky Mountains through Bridger’s Pass, where, 1000 miles from Sacramento, it gains a height of 7500 feet. Thence it runs nearly level for fifty miles, when (4.) it ascends the Black Hills, the summit, 1250 miles from Sacramento, being 8242 feet ahove the ocean. Then the region slopes gradually downward for 500 miles, to Omaha, which is about 1000 feet above the ocean level. There are thus four several points where the road reaches an elevation higher than the loftiest peak in America east of the Mississippi River.
No two measurements of the absolute distance by the traveled routes between New York and San Francisco exactly agree; but the sum of the discrepancies hardly amounts to a hundred miles. It is as yet impossible to lay down the precise time which will be required for the transit. The following table is a close approximation to what is proposed to be accomplished; the whole tune being a few hours less than a week:
New York to Chicago 911 miles, 36 1/6 hours.
Chicago to Omaha 491 mi1es 24 1/2 hours.
Omaha to Ogden 1091 miles, 53 1/2 hours.
Ogden to Sacramento 743 miles, 43 3/4 hours.
Sacramento to San Francisco 117 miles, 3 1/2 hours.
3353 miles, 161 3/4 hours.
Of the commercial value of this road it is yet too early to speak with confidence. Four points, however, may be assumed: (1.) The heavy articles which enter into commerce will not pass over the line. The saving in time will not compensate for the heavy charges which must be imposed. (2.) The "way traffic" upon the line will for many years be inconsiderable. A great part of the road runs through a region which will always he very thinly peopled. (3.) Assuming that the road will be operated with tolerable accuracy, nearly all the passengers between the Pacific and the Atlantic will pass over this road. By it a person starting from San Francisco will reach New York in a week. By way of the Isthmus of Panama he would require nearly a month. (4.) The political uses of the road are incalculable. In case of war with a maritime power, our Government can transport an army to the defense of any point on the Pacific, without any possibility of obstruction from the enemy; whereas, were a force sent by sea, the vessels conveying it would be liable to capture either on the Atlantic or the Pacific side; to say nothing of the possibility that transit across the Isthmus of Panama might be blocked up. In this single point of view every dollar which the Government has expended in aiding the construction of this road has been wisely laid out.
Courtesy Cornell University Library, Making of America.