History of the Transcontinental Railroad for Kids

Bedtime History

When was the last time you saw a train? You may have seen one when your car was stopped and you had to wait to watch it pass. Or maybe you’ve even taken a ride on a train. Trains are extremely important because they move goods and people from one place to another and can do it very quickly. Railroads are one of the most important parts of American History because the country is very big and they helped connect the East and the West.

Many years ago it took a very long time to travel from the East to the West. Most people had to take a boat all the way around the continent, a journey that took months to complete. Travelers could also take a wagon across the dangerous wilderness and tall mountains to get from one side of the country to another. Either way, it was a very difficult journey and kept the country separated in many ways. 

But in the 1800s gold was discovered in the West and many Americans moved there to try and strike it rich. But one major problem was how long it took to get to the gold. One man, Asa Whitney, believed a railroad could be built through the middle of the country. Many doubted this could be done, but Asa made a plan and went to the government with his idea. Unfortunately, at first, no progress was made.

Later, an American named Theodore Judah decided to find a way to build a railroad across the country. He was a surveyor. A surveyor is someone who looks at the land with special tools and finds ways to build roads and buildings on it. Theodore had many good ideas about how the railroad could be built. He had to learn much about math and other sciences in order to design maps that could be used to make a path for the railroad. 

Eventually, two big companies, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad caught the vision of the railroad and decided to make it happen. They would call it the Transcontinental Railroad. “Transcontinental” because it crossed the continent. 

In January 1863, the Central Pacific railroad broke ground on the first part of the railroad in Sacramento, California. In October of the first year, the first rail was laid. In December 1863, the Union Pacific Railroad broke ground on its part of the railroad which started in Omaha, Nebraska. But because of the Civil War, the first rail wasn’t laid until July 1865. One company would be building East, the other building West, with plans to meet somewhere in the middle.

Building the railroad across the United States was a dangerous task and extremely difficult at times. General Grenville Dodge was one of the first chief engineers working for the Union Pacific Railroad. During the first part of the construction, he and his teams laid rails on Native American land. Members of the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes were outraged by the invasion of their lands. They called the train an “iron horse” and feared it would only bring more settlers to their sacred lands. The tribes attacked the workers, doing anything they could to try and slow the progress of the railroad. But the railroad continued to be built anyway and as it did, new towns popped up along the way. These towns became wild places with saloons and outlaws, the kind of places you can imagine from Wild West books and movies. Construction by the Union Pacific railroad moved very fast because it was flat plains. The Central Pacific, on the other hand, was built through the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

Building through huge mountains and wide rivers was a very difficult task, as you can imagine. They had to build tall bridges across the rivers. For mountains, they laid tracks around them when they could, but often they had to build tunnels through the mountains. To do this they dug deep holes, then placed gunpowder in them, and blew up the rock to create even deeper holes. Pickaxes and explosives were used to create 15 tunnels through the mountains. Many smart engineers worked on creating a path for 2,000 miles of track. Railroad tracks were laid by pounding spikes into railroad ties. All of this work was done by hand, pounding each spike in with a hammer. One ethnic group that did most of the work was Chinese immigrants. An immigrant is someone who moves from a different country. Chinese immigrants moved to the United States hoping for a better life where they could find work. The railroad was that opportunity for work that many Americans weren’t willing to do at the time. Eventually, over 15,000 Chinese immigrants applied for the job. They worked long and hard hours through hot summers and freezing cold winters. They moved the rock with shovels and wheelbarrows and pounded railroad ties with hammers. They built scaffolding and did blacksmith and explosive work, too. Sadly, the work was extremely dangerous and workers were often treated poorly. Many didn’t survive the hazardous job. At one point the work was so dangerous, that the Chinese immigrants striked. This means they refused to work until conditions and pay improved. Company leaders didn’t raise their pay, but after the strike, they were worried about another strike so agreed to improve their work conditions.   

In 1869, after eight years of work, the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad met in the middle at Promontory Point, Utah. They threw a big party to celebrate the completion of the railroad. A gold spike had been prepared as the last spike in the railroad. The President of the Central Pacific Railroad, Governor Stanford gave a speech and then lifted a hammer to pound the last spike into the ground. But the funny thing was, he swung and missed! The crowd burst out laughing. Stanford swung again and pounded the gold spike in. Everyone cheered! 

News of the finished railroad was sent by telegram to both parts of the country. When it reached New York and California people fired off cannons to show their excitement. It was an exciting time for the United States of America! A trip across the country that had taken many months now only took 10 days! Before the railroad, it cost $1,000 to travel from the East to the West coast. Now it was only $150, which gave more people the opportunity to travel across the country. It united the East and West and also meant families could also be more easily united and business could happen faster. It also brought more immigrants and Americans to the West Coast. And as you can imagine resulted in more conflicts with Native Americans who were desperately fighting for their land. 

The new Transcontinental Railroad was an engineering miracle involving many smart engineers, ambitious business people, and very hard workers who gave so much to make this new technology a reality. Spend some time thinking about the technologies in your life that make it easier. Cars that get you places, trains that move goods around, and airplanes that can take you to distant places. Also, think about the people who invented these amazing technologies and the hard work and determination it took to make these big ideas a reality.

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