The Story Of America’s First Trans-Continental Railroad

With the benefit of 150 years of hindsight, we can recognize today that the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869 was of greater importance to the people of the United States, culturally, socially, and economically, than the inauguration of steamship service across the Atlantic or the laying of the Atlantic Ocean telegraph cable.

In an era of interstate highways and quick air travel, it is difficult to imagine just how isolated those parts of the United States farthest from the oceans were, even as late as the mid-19th century. That most optimistic of our early presidents, Thomas Jefferson, referred to the “immense and trackless deserts” in the Louisiana Purchase. The explorer Zebulon Pike compared these lands to “the sandy wastes of Africa.” Daniel Webster declared Wyoming Territory “not worth a cent,” being, moreover, “a region of savages, wild beasts, shifting sands, whirlwinds of dust, cactus, and prairie dogs.”

Maps of North America as late as 1900, three decades after the railroad connecting New York with San Francisco had been launched, showed 500,000 square miles ominously labeled “Great American Desert,” a name invented 75 years earlier by a government surveyor. This wilderness covered nearly one-sixth of the 45 States of the young American republic — along with the yet untamed territories of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, lands admitted to the Union only after the turn of the twentieth century.

It was Jefferson who deserve credit for being the first to take action towards opening a commercial route between the Eastern states and the Pacific. While he was in France in 1779 as United States Minister at Versailles, he asked John Ledyard to conduct a survey for him, but Ledyard was unable to carry it out. For the next seven decades, a distinguish line of far-sighted Americans sought to find a way to bridge the American West with the American East, and their stories are preserved in a handful of excellent histories of the 19th century.

Accounts of the creation of the Panama Canal and the forging 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 got a sense of the transformative nature of the rails linking the two coasts of the North American continent from William Francis Bailey’s The Story of the First Trans-Continental Railroad, (Pittsburgh: 1906), The Pittsburgh Printing Company. I read the book on a Kindle, downloaded from Project Gutenberg. I also downloaded a facsimile copy of the book itself from the Internet Archive so that I could look at the text and “feel” the book.

This is a tale full of eccentric and visionary characters, including Asa Whitney, dubbed the “Father of the Pacific Railway.” He was an American merchant with wide overseas experience, mainly in China. He proposed to Congress that the United States deed to him a strip of land sixty miles wide, the railroad to be its spine, from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Coast. Whitney proposed to use proceeds from “colonizing” (his word) this windfall of land with European immigrants (to whom he would sell land adjoining the railroad) to pay for the tracks, retaining whatever surplus remained for his private fortune. Whitney was indefatigable, travelling from Maine all the way to the reaches of the Missouri River at a time when visiting the Missouri was akin to exploring the Nile.

Though the Senate Committee On Public Lands approved Whitney’s proposal in 1848, the bill “Authorizing 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 a line as nearly straight as practicable, to some point on the Pacific Ocean where a harbor made be had” failed a vote by the full Senate mainly because it was deemed, along with the $4,000 yearly salary Whitney demanded, simply too rich a deal for Whitney.

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