A Story Relating To Some Aspect Of The U.S Government The Story Of America’s First Trans-Continental Railroad

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The Story Of America’s First Trans-Continental Railroad

With the benefit of 150 years of hindsight, we recognize today that the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869 was more important to the people of the United States, culturally, socially, and economically, than the opening of steamship service across the country. Laying of the Atlantic or Atlantic Ocean telegraph cable.

In the age of interstate highways and rapid air travel, it is hard to imagine how isolated even those parts of the United States farthest from the ocean were until the mid-19th century. The most optimistic of our early presidents, Thomas Jefferson, referred to the “vast and trackless wilderness” in the Louisiana Purchase. Explorer Zebulon Pike compared these lands to the “sandy wastes of Africa”. Daniel Webster declared the Wyoming Territory “not worth a cent,” moreover, “a region of savages, wild beasts, shifting sands, whirlwinds of dust, cactus, and prairie dogs.”

A map of North America in late 1900, three decades after the railroad connecting New York to San Francisco, shows 500,000 square miles ominously labeled the “Great American Desert,” a name coined 75 years earlier by a government surveyor. This wilderness covers about one-sixth of the young American republic’s 45 states — along with the still-uninhabited areas of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, lands admitted to the Union just after the turn of the twentieth century.

Jefferson is credited with taking the first steps to open commercial routes between the eastern states and the Pacific Ocean. In 1779 while he was at Versailles as the United States Minister to France, he asked John Ledyard to conduct a survey for him, but Ledyard was unable to do so. Over the next seven decades, a distinct line of visionary Americans tried to find a way to bridge the American West with the American East, and their stories are preserved in some excellent 19th-century histories.

Accounts of the creation of the Panama Canal and the building of the Trans-Continental Railroad were best sellers in the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. No more. Sadly, we have forgotten this part of the American fairy tale. And so it was with pleasure that I received from William Francis Bailey an idea of ​​the transformative nature of the railways connecting the two coasts of the North American continent. The story of the first trans-continental railroad, (Pittsburgh: 1906), Pittsburgh Printing Company. I read the book on a Kindle I downloaded from Project Gutenberg. I also downloaded a facsimile copy of the book from the Internet Archive so I could look at the text and “feel” the book.

It is a story full of eccentric and visionary characters, including Asa Whitney, who has been called the “Father of the Pacific Railroad.” He was an American businessman with extensive overseas experience, mainly in China. He proposed to Congress that the United States give him a strip of land sixty miles wide, the railroad to be its backbone, from Lake Michigan to the Pacific coast. Whitney proposed using the money from this flurry of land “colonization” (his term) with European immigrants (to whom he would sell land adjacent to the railroad) to pay for the track, leaving any surplus to his personal fortune. Whitney was irresistible, traveling up the Missouri River from Maine at a time when visiting the Missouri was akin to exploring the Nile.

Although the Senate Committee on Public Lands approved Whitney’s proposal in 1848, the bill “authorized Asa Whitney, his heirs or assigns, to construct a railroad from any point on Lake Michigan or the Mississippi River he may so designate, in nearly a straight line. In effect, “At some point in the Pacific where a port was built” failed on a vote of the full Senate largely because it was considered, along with the $4,000 annual salary Whitney demanded, a very rich deal for Whitney.

A senator from Missouri opposed the arrangement as “an empire larger than the eight original states, with sixty miles of ocean frontage, treaty power and patronage greater than that of the President of the United States.” It was a fair criticism. Asa Whitney didn’t get her “Empire.” If Whitney succeeded in his plan, his “heirs and assigns” would now own more American land than anyone other than the federal government. Congress later decided to treat the railroad as a national enterprise, not a private enterprise controlled by a single private citizen.

So what actually happened to link the two coasts? What exactly do we mean by “trans-continental railroad”? It first appeared as a dream in the minds of men like Abraham Lincoln and his predecessors, often called the “Overland Route of the Pacific” or the “Pacific Railroad.” In that era, it was as ambitious a technological feat as the moon landing a century later. This required the laying of some 1,905 miles of contiguous track, which began in 1863 and continued at a frantic pace for six years, capped by a ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, a meeting almost religious in its intensity, where the last spike ( It was made of silver, and was discreetly removed on the same day for exhibition at railway headquarters!) The final tie was struck to connect the eastbound with the westbound track. Soon, a locomotive could pull a long train from the port of New York to the port of San Francisco.

As cars began to move east and west, the nation suddenly had a fast, reliable, and cheap mechanical technology to move people and freight anywhere in the country, by horse or cart, within reach of new stations along the railroad. The railroad “shrunk the nation,” and it was possible for Horace Greeley and other newspaper philosophers of the era to reasonably advise claustrophobic Easterners to “go west” to make their fortunes. Before railroads, this meant that it would take a mule-drawn wagon nine months or more to reach the Pacific Ocean. In the decades since railroads connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, remote and sparsely settled “territories” were admitted to the Union as new states, greatly adding to America’s size and prestige.

Bailey’s narrative is compassionate and informative. It would be hard to overstate the significance of the Trans-Continental Railroad as a feat of technology and shrewd economic development, surpassing the digging of the Erie Canal in the 1820s and the construction of the railroad spider skin across the East Coast. States when the American West was still considered “wild” and undiscovered, like Central Africa.

It was a great highway for trade and travel that led directly to the settlement and incorporation of California, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming as states in the ever-expanding American republic.

Bailey’s history is also short, reproduced in electronic format by Google in the beautiful Pittsburgh Press edition of only 140 pages. What I enjoy most about Bailey’s writing is the sense of excitement he conveys about this incredible rediscovery of America, the same excitement I felt as a teenager when the moon mission unfolded on CBS television.

To reacquaint ourselves with an important chapter in American history, this book should not be read and re-read as a chore, but simply because it is interesting and fun. It is a story that deserves to be fresh in the consciousness of our country and those who set it.

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