Tuesday, February 28, 2012

National History Day Interview

From: "Jeremy Deal" cricket3716@frontier.com

My name is Jeremy Deal and I participate in National History Day. National History Day (NHD) is a nation-wide history competition in which students develop a project about a topic corresponding with an annual theme. This year’s theme is Revolution, Reaction, and Reform in History. My topic is the Transcontinental Railroad. I [have a] few questions which have been unanswered by my research, and I was wondering if you could help me out. I apologize in advance for the long questions, and the comments about them (In parentheses, like this). Thanks again!

1. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, it greatly influenced cross-country commerce, trade and travel. During its construction, however, many posters and articles were created saying (I’m paraphrasing) "The Railroad is the key to opening up trade to China, India, and Japan." Throughout my research, however, I have not found any source which reports how much this trade increased after the road was built. (They usually allude to it, and reference it, but no hard facts are given.) My question would be, therefore, How much did the economic trade with Asia and the Indies increase as a direct result of the Transcontinental Railroad? Was freight shipping and passenger travel similarly increased with England, France, and the rest of Europe?

2. "By the time of the completion of the line, the Big Four were reckoned by a government commission to have pocketed $63 million, and to have obtained 9 million acres of land between them, and the owners of the UP were not far behind … " —Christian Wolmar, Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railroads Transformed the Road. First of all, I would liked to make sure that this commission actually exists. (I don’t believe it was made up, but its always good to double-check.) Where could I find this commission for myself? It would make a fantastic primary source. My second question: the quote states the amount of money and land the Central Pacific and Union Pacific gained from the government subsidies in building the road. How much did each company profit from the line due to the commerce and trade it received over the next 10 years? 50 years?

3. The Native Americans were obviously a major obstacle in the way of the Union Pacific. I do not believe such records exist, but is there a record of the number of deaths of Union Pacific workers due to Native American raids? Also, I have not been able to find any quotes from a Native American leader or spokesman about the Transcontinental Railroad, and why they did not want it through there land. (Yes, I know WHY – they knew it meant an influx of settlers who would invade their land, thereby ending of their way of life, but this point can be made much better if one hears if from a personal point of view, not the understanding of historians a century later) Do such quotes exist?

4. When the Central Pacific was blasting with black powder, they were averaging a foot of progress a day, correct? When they switched to nitroglycerin, they started averaging 3 feet a day, correct? Is there any record of Central Pacific worker deaths which would show the correlation of nitroglycerin was more volatile and dangerous than black powder? As I understand it, the holes which had to be drilled to fill with the nitroglycerin were smaller than the ones drilled for the black powder. How much smaller were these holes? Now, since the holes for nitroglycerin were smaller, an equal amount of nitroglycerin would last longer than an equal amount of black powder, correct? If equal amounts of black powder and nitroglycerin were purchased, was one substance more expensive than the other? By how much?

5. In your opinion, what is the greatest significance of the Transcontinental Railroad?

6. If America had no transcontinental lines today, would the modern American economy, companies, government, and railroad regulations allow one to be built?

7. In my project, my most drastic fact is how the railroad shortened the trip from New York to San Francisco from 3-6 months to 7 days. (3 [months] being by ship around South America, 6 [months] being the trip cross-country by wagon.) Are there other drastic increases regarding the Transcontinental Railroad?

Thank you for the help!

—Jeremy Deal

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. The Nov 17, 1869 opening of the Suez Canal diverted most of the Oriental traffic that had been expected to pass over the Central and Union Pacific Railroads.

2. The quoted statement is extremely misleading because it misattributes the cost of the railroad as being the profit to the shareholders, which is entirely wrong. Also, the government did not subsidize the construction, instead making a loan that had to be and was repaid in full with interest. When someone buys a house with a bank loan, and that homeowner repays the loan with interest, nobody says that the bank "subsidized" the homeowner. The government bond guarantee that allowed the bonds to be sold to private investors amounted essentially to the same thing as a home mortgage. The profit to the "big four" is not known with certainty because the construction company that built the railroad was a private business that under 19th century law had no obligation to reveal its books to the government, and those financial records were destroyed some years after completion of the railroad. For the railroad finances, see the annual reports. The Commission likely refers to the 1887 Pacific Railroad Commission.

3. Indian attacks did not disrupt construction of the Central Pacific Railroad as they did the Union Pacific. Little information has survived about Union Pacific Railroad deaths; much more information is known about the Central Pacific Railroad casualties. No first person accounts by the Chinese railroad workers exist, and if any such 19th century accounts by Native Americans exist, we have not found them.

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2/28/2012 4:35 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

4. See the definitive article about tunnel construction. The nitroglycerine for blasting the summit tunnel was created on site by a chemist, and as a result, the safety record was surprisingly good.

5. It was the greatest engineering project of the 19th century which resulted in creating a transcontinental nation due to the dramatic reduction in time and cost to traverse the continent and at much less risk of loss of life. The result was an enormous increase in economic activity, wealth, and standard of living.

6. Can't accept the premise "If America had no transcontinental lines today" because that is not possible since by 1860 there was general agreement to build a transcontinental railroad as stated in the party platforms of both Democrats and Republicans. Similarly for the Interstate Highway System built after WW II due to Eisenhower's earlier experience in crossing the country by road in 1919. As far as today goes, the Obama administration is so economically illiterate, being dominated by big government leftists and irrational pseudo-environmentalists that it impossible to tell if they would prevent the construction like the Keystone Pipeline or desperately needed oil drilling or whether they would require some crazy unaffordable high speed rail line to be built that would add to the debt crisis and hasten bankrupting the government.

7. Volume of freight and passengers, wealth created, increased safety while traveling.

2/28/2012 4:36 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kyle K. Wyatt" kylekwyatt@gmail.com

I'll address your question 4 below. Also some comments on question 6 and 7.

—Kyle Wyatt


4. John Gillis, the civil engineer who oversaw the construction of the Central Pacific tunnels, presented a paper to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in January, 1870 where he discussed all the Central Pacific, and Union Pacific, tunnels and their construction. The paper was published in the ACSE Transactions, Vol. 1, 1870. An abstract of the paper was reprinted in Van Nostrand's Eclectic Engineering Magazine in 1870. The abstract has been transcribed and is available here.
A version was also published in Engineering (of London) in the June 3, 17, and 24, 1870 issues.

Gillis specifically discusses the use of nitro-glycerine in place of black powder – primarily in Tunnel 6 (Summit Tunnel), and a bit in Tunnel 8. He says with black powder the headings averaged 1.18 feet in day. With nitro-glycerine they averaged 1.82 feet per day, a 54% increase in progress. Clearing the bottoms (after the headings had been bored) they averaged 2.51 feet per day with black powder; with nitro-glycerine 4.38 feet per day, a 74% increase. This is included in the abstract.

Excluded from the abstract, but included in the original paper, is the following statement with reference to safety and nitro-glycerine:
"wherever practicable, I have no doubt that it is safest to manufacture nitro-glycerine on the site where it is to be used, and from day to day as required. (This is what the Central Pacific did, employing a chemist specifically for that purpose.) (He continues) At Donner Pass I only recollect two accidents, and these would have happened with powder." So overall, the Central Pacific exercised great care in producing and using nitro-glycerine, and had a very good safety record with it.

Articles about one of the two accidents mentioned, in which a white foreman was killed, appeared in the Sacramento Union of May 29 and June 3, 1867, with the first one partially reprinted in Scientific American of July 20, 1867.

After completing the Summit tunnels through the especially hard granite, the CP switched back to black powder for the rest of construction. This probably had much to do with the fact that the CP was facing patent suits for not having a license for using nitro-glycerine.

The CP used 2 1/2 inch drills for black powder; and 1 1/2 inch drills for nitro-glycerine. Holes were typically about 2 feet deep. The smaller size drills speeded the work as much as the increased blasting power of the nitro-glycerine.

According to Gillis in the full presentation, nitro-glyceing made on site cost 75 cents per pound to produce. It was considered 8 times as powerful as the same weight of powder. Gillis notes it is considerably cheaper than powder, but does not say by how much. In a table on expenses for Summit Tunnel, Gillis notes using 40 kegs of black powder at $4.00 per keg. He does say that with black powder in Summit Tunnel it cost $14.80 per cubic yard, while with nitro-glycerine it cost about $10.00 per cubic yard.

Nitro-glycerine was also used on some Union Pacific tunnels. Gillis notes that the Union Pacific Railroad saved nearly $40,000 by using nitro-glycerine on UP Tunnel No. 3.

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2/29/2012 6:31 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

6. If we did not have a Transcontinental Railroad today, the country and its development would be so different that the question of whether one could be built now becomes rather insignificant. If for whatever reason one had not yet been built, it is unlikely there would be much economic reason, or power, to build it now because settlement and development would have been so minimal as to provide no justification, support or economic resources. The country – assuming it had somehow remained a single country (which is a very real open question) – would have developed based on a lack of such transcontinental transport. In particular, the extensive agricultural economy based on export to the Midwest and East would never have developed, nor would much of the Western industry, except that to support local and mining development.

One could weave a whole counter-factual assessment and scenario based on that one "little" fact of a Transcontinental Railroad not being built.

On a more simplistic basis – we successfully sent men to the moon in modern times, and we also built the Interstate Highway System, so we probably could build a Transcontinental Railroad in modern times. All this assumes that a United States that had NOT built Transcontinental Railroads in the 19th century would have developed into a 20th century country capable of sending a men to the moon – or building Interstate Highway Systems and Transcontinental Railroads. And I hold THAT to be an open question.


7. Also consider transit times between the East Coast and California via Panama – measured in weeks, not months. Sometimes people made the trip 2 and 3 times in a single year – if they had cause and resources.

2/29/2012 6:32 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: Bob_Spude@nps.gov

Jeremy,

You have taken on a major task, but your questions show that you have a real grasp of the topic already. I'll briefly answer some of your questions below after the questions, with suggestions where you might do additional research. One could go on at length on each of your questions, and some have already brought book length treatments.

—Robert L. Spude, Ph.D. – Regional Historian – Cultural Resources Management – National Park Service – Intermountain Region – 505.988.6770 Voice – 505.988.6876 Fax

The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.


1. Most of what you will find is anecdotal, but the truth is the concurrent completion of the Suez Canal had a greater impact on trade with Asia – lessening the impact of the railroad's role in the trade between East and West. After 1869, you will see mention of trains of tea or other oriental goods moving from west coast ports to the east, but this was minor in comparison to the bulk of trade. Sydney Dillon, director then president of the Union Pacific, recalled in an 1892 article, Historic Moments: Driving the Last Spike of the Union Pacific, that the transcontinental railroad builders had believed that trade with the orient would provide economic justification for building the line, but eventually they found that developing the West provided far more business.

2. Robert Fogel in his book The Union Pacific Railroad, a Case in Premature Enterprise (1960) goes into the Wilson Committee (and other) investigations in detail (these are U.S. Congressional documents listed in his bibliography – most are now on-line). Fogel, an economic historian, used computer generated economic models and sampling techniques to prove his points. Wolmar and more recently Richard White in Railroaded (2011) continue this argument. That they all profited in the long term is without a doubt, but in 1869-70 they were actually closer to bankruptcy. There are many studies of the pros and cons of the land grant – these books provide one view point.

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3/02/2012 8:53 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

3. Ogden Junction (Ogden, Utah newspaper) February 8, 1871 reported the death of Shoshone chief Little Soldier’s brother by being run over by a train. The newspaper reported afterward Little Soldier's speech in the streets of Ogden: "He said the engines and cars were devils and he knew when they got into this country they would kill Indians and whites too, for he had heard their devilish shrieking way off." Native American quotes are hard to come by. But if you look deep enough, in Congressional reports, tribal sources, and maybe even a contemporary newspaper like the above they'll pop up. One point about your first sentence and parenthetical caveat, we need to change the view about Native Americans – there's was not a cause of being an obstacle as it was of defending their homes, as anyone would do.

5. In our world of concern over impacts on environment and concerns over such issues as how this country treated such groups as the Chinese and Native Americans, we should be cautious in any overly celebratory praise for the Transcontinental Railroad. That said, it was a stupendous engineering accomplishment, it did cause great economic change, and settlement in the West, but its greatest significance was redefining how we visualized the landscape along its route, accurate or not, as one of potential and hope.

6. The Federal and state government taxes more and provides far more subsidies for commerce today than ever before – just look at all the interstate highway black top around your city, for example. They would provide means to "allow" one to be built (just not with land grants or older financial incentives). But railroads are a hard sell – see Richard White's editorial about the fast rail concept for California (you should be able to google his name and fast rail and an editorial should pop up). But, the traffic on the transcontinentals today would justify their construction if they didn't exist – and when people like Warren Buffett show strong willingness to invest in railroads there's a sound reason.

7. Nineteenth century writers liked to talk about the railroads ability to demolish "time and space." Most recently, see Craig Miner in A Most Magnificent Machine, America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862. There were plenty of other changes: the government's cost of a letter; the overland wagon freight haul cost; the increase in immigration, such as the number of Mormons immigrating into the Salt Lake Valley; the cost of shipping ores from mining camps in Colorado or Nevada to Swansea, Wales or German processing plants; or cattle from Wyoming to Britain. Newer writers have tackled the topic of the changes in the freedoms of women through railroad travel.

Many topics here, Jeremy. Good luck

[Links added]

3/02/2012 8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Significance: "Farmers ... could grow cash crops that could be sold anywhere in the country where rail was available. No longer did they need to rely on local markets. It had the effect of shrinking the size of the country dramatically. Most people have no concept of the magic it created ... "

7/15/2012 8:21 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See related.

1/16/2016 2:28 PM  

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