Yesterday's Magazette

5 – Greatest Railroad Project

The Greatest Railroad Project


By E. P. Ned Burke

On May 10, 1869 construction came to an end. A train from the east and a train from the west screeched to a halt. Between the five-foot gap separating the noses of the two locomotives, a memorable scene took place. The symbolic golden spike was driven, signifying the completion of the first chain of railroads to span the American continent.

The golden spike marked the completion of the greatest railroad project the world had seen. At that desolate spot in Promontory Summit, Utah, this vast country was united. This achievement brought an end to the long overland trip by stagecoach or covered wagon. It also ended the necessity of the long sea voyages around Cape Horn or the treacherous treks through the jungles of Panama.

The late President Kennedy once remarked: ”We need not read deeply into the history of the United States to become aware of the great role which the railroads have played in the opening and developing of this great nation.” He went on to point out that as our frontier moved westward, ”it was the railroads that bore the great tide of Americans to areas of new opportunity and new hope.”

Though not fully mature, the railroad of 1869 was far from infancy. It was born in this country in 1825 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The proud father was a Col. John Stevens. He built an experimental engine and operated it on a circular railway track.

This was the fIrst locomotive to run on rails in the New World. Unfortunately, however, it was never put to practical use.

Four years later, Horatio Allen, a young civil engineer, operated the first locomotive to run on a standard railroad. The locomotive, however, proved to be too heavy for the wooden tracks. Correcting this oversight, the Pioneer railroad of the South introduced the first scheduled steam passenger service. This marked the beginning of the “railroad era” in America.

By 1835, more than 200 railway charters had been granted in eleven states and more than a thousand miles of track were in operation. Fifteen years later, railroads increased their operating capacity to well over nine thousand miles.

In 1850, it was possible to travel all the way from Waterville, Maine to Buffalo, New York by using 12 different railroads and changing cars several times on the way. This trip usually took about four days.

Between 1850 and 1860 railways increased from 9,021 to 30,626. The country was growing by leaps and bounds with numerous railroads being constructed. One of these was a railway across the Great Plains to the Pacific Coast – a line two and a half times longer than the longest railroad then existing anywhere in the world!

In 1863, ground was broken in the east at Omaha and out west in Sacramento. Then for six grueling years, men hammered and forged through the western mountains and across the prairies. Finally on May 10 when the Golden Spike was driven into the earth just north of Great Salt Lake, the nation flashed the thrilling message: “The last spike driven … The Pacific Railroad is completed!”

Today, when we look back at the history of the United States and its many achievements, we must agree with President Kennedy again who said: “It was the railroads that linked together the diverse segments of this vast land so that together they might create the greatest economy the world has known.”


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