Not so long ago, if you needed to travel from the East Coast to the Pacific, you had only two choices: by land or by sea. Each would be expensive and require an arduous journey of almost a year. If you just sent a message, via stagecoach or Pony Express, your letter could take months to be delivered, if it ever arrived safely. America was the tale of one country divided by a wide wilderness almost the size of Australia. Prior to entering politics, railroad attorney Abraham Lincoln had a dream of linking up the East and West with a transcontinental iron highway. He also envisioned telegraph wires (the Indians called them “singing” wires) that could establish instant communications from coast to coast. These shiny ribbons of rail would also provide for new towns, farms, industry and much more. Sadly, it wasn’t until after the Civil War, and the President’s tragic assassination, that his vision would be realized. It could be said that Abraham Lincoln was one of the many fathers of our Industrial Revolution, and that he and his dreams beckoned America into her Gilded Age.
May 10 will mark the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad. The construction of the iron highway was, at the time, the biggest engineering project ever completed by mankind. The Union Pacific Railroad started the rail line in Omaha, Nebraska, and six years later linked up with the Southern Pacific Railroad, from Sacramento, California, at Promontory Summit, Utah. When finished, the tracks and telegraph lines were over nineteen hundred miles long, and many newspapers called the road the Eighth Wonder of the World. The driving of the Golden Spike, on May 10th, 1869, symbolized the joining of America, from east to west and north to south.
This marvelous engineering feat, constructed by an all-volunteer for wages labor force, would not be overshadowed until the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.
Promontory Summit wasn’t much, just a barren piece of wasteland. But it was here that the two roads came together. The UP pulled its locomotive No.119 to the very end of their tracks while the SP nudged its locomotive Jupiter into position just in front of it.
The promise of the Transcontinental Railroad was quite simple: the iron road would replace the slower and more dangerous wagon trains, Pony Express, and stagecoach lines that crossed the country by land, and the equally difficult sea journey around the southern tip of South America.
After the golden spike ceremonies, it would take twenty more years before the Canadian Pacific railroad spanned the northern part of the continent, twenty-five years more before the Russians completed the Trans-Siberian Railroad (using two hundred thousand Chinese and two hundred thousand convicts to build the line), and another 28 years before Astoria, Oregon, would be linked up with rail service in May, 1898.
Today, thanks to cell phone technology, we enjoy almost instant communications from around the world, without giving it a second thought. So, on this 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, you might give Abraham Lincoln a nod, as he was a man of great vision and hope.