During the 19th Century, the main form of transportation
in the United States
was the railroad
. As rails sprung up everywhere, the question was asked: why can't there be a railroad to connect the entire continent? At first, such a huge task was thought impossible, but, after the Civil War
had ended, two companies began to build track on opposite sides of the country. The Central Pacific
Railroad Company began laying track in California, with the Union Pacific
building in the east.
The Central Pacific ran into problems almost immediately. It had a shortage of workers, with only Chinese available to fill positions. Charlie Crocker, the Central Pacific overseer, scoffed that the Chinese "are too small; they eat only rice, they're not strong enough" despite the rebuttal that the Chinese "had built a huge Great Wall in the past". However, Crocker, after witnessing some Chinese at work, reputedly sent a ship to China to bring more Chinese coolies.
While the Union Pacific laid tracks over the vast open expanses of the Great Plains, the Central Pacific had to fight through rattlesnake and Indian infested desert in Nevada, and then the Rocky Mountains. Tunnels had to be laboriously blasted through the mountains, with equipment having to be dragged painfully uphill in the snow. After the railroad was "finished", much more labor was needed to straighten out tracks where the builders decided to lay track around a hill instead of blasting a tunnel through it. When winter should have halted work, the railroaders would build tracks on the snow. In the springtime, when the snow melted, some sections of track would hang precariously in the air.
The Union Pacific crews were also halted by the onset of winter. As winter arrived in 1866, most railroad work halted. The predominantly Irish workers built the town of North Platte, Nebraska seemingly overnight, complete with gambling casinos, dance halls, and saloons. The Irish, especially when placed in proximity with whiskey (it was said that "the Union Pacific runs on whiskey; the Central Pacific runs on tea"), seemed to like fights. One visiting Englishman remarked, "The greatest amusement here seems to be the practice of shooting one another."
At first, inexperienced crews laid tracks at rates of 2 to 3 miles a day, but as the men became experienced, they began to lay about 5 per day. One day, Thomas Durant, a part owner of the Union Pacific, struck a bet with Crocker that the Central Pacific could not lay 10 miles of track in a single 12 hour working shift. Crocker agreed, and on April 28, 1869, the coolies of the Central Pacific began to lay rails. 6 miles had been laid by the time the men stopped for lunch, and when the day ended, exactly 10 miles and an extra 55 feet of rails had been laid. Crocker personally shook the hand of every worker on the Central Pacific crew.
Competition was fierce between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. The unofficial goal was Utah, with both companies at different times seemingly in the lead. The Union Pacific overseers would cry to their fatigued men, "You boys gonna let a bunch of little Chinamen beat us to Utah?!?" The Union Pacific managed to beat the Central Pacific to Utah, and finally, on May 10, 1869, the two rails joined at Promontory Point, Utah. After the heads of the two companies ceremoniously drove in the final golden spike, the stitch that bound America, Atlantic to Pacific, fulfilling the dream of Manifest Destiny, was bound. "THE GREAT PACIFIC RAILROAD IS COMPLETED."