Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad by David Haward BainAfter the Civil War, the building of the transcontinental railroad was the nineteenth centurys most transformative event. Beginning in 1842 with a visionarys dream to span the continent with twin bands of iron, Empire Express captures three dramatic decades in which the United States effectively doubled in size, fought three wars, and began to discover a new national identity. From self--made entrepreneurs such as the Union Pacifics Thomas Durant and era--defining figures such as President Lincoln to the thousands of laborers whose backbreaking work made the railroad possible, this extraordinary narrative summons an astonishing array of voices to give new dimension not only to this epic endeavor but also to the culture, political struggles, and social conflicts of an unforgettable period in American history.
Image credit: Stanford University Archives. One hundred and fifty years ago on May 10, , university founder Leland Stanford drove the last spike that marked the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. That event has forever linked the university with the good and the bad the railroad represents. Just about every California school kid knows the story of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which connected the Eastern Seaboard with the Pacific Coast and was completed years ago this week. Leaders of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines meet and shake hands in this iconic photograph taken by Andrew J. Russell on May 10,
On this day in , the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads meet in Promontory, Utah , and drive a ceremonial last spike into a rail line that connects their railroads. This made transcontinental railroad travel possible for the first time in U. No longer would western-bound travelers need to take the long and dangerous journey by wagon train, and the West would surely lose some of its wild charm with the new connection to the civilized East. Since at least , both Eastern and frontier statesmen realized a need to connect the two coasts. It was not until , though, that Congress appropriated funds to survey several routes for the transcontinental railroad. The actual building of the railroad would have to wait even longer, as North-South tensions prevented Congress from reaching an agreement on where the line would begin.
After failing to hit the spike on his first attempt, Stanford raised the heavy sledgehammer again and struck a solid square blow.
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The Transcontinental Railroad
With today's jets taking us across the United States in just six or seven hours, it is very hard to imagine travel in the mids. Let's just say it was arduous. Getting from New York to California in could be a half-year affair involving a number of different trains to get to the Mississippi River, and then horse-drawn wagons across the plains and over the mountains. The journey was fraught with peril -- everything from Indians to weather to robbers to wild animals could cause insurmountable problems. So when they put the "golden spike" into the last piece of track of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, , it seemed like a miracle. There was an electric reaction to the news all across the country. Finally you could imagine going from New York to California in a week rather than six months, and the risks fell significantly as well.
A transcontinental railroad is a contiguous network of railroad trackage  that crosses a continental land mass with terminals at different oceans or continental borders. Such networks can be via the tracks of either a single railroad, or over those owned or controlled by multiple railway companies along a continuous route. Although Europe is crisscrossed by railways, the railroads within Europe are usually not considered transcontinental, with the possible exception of the historic Orient Express. Transcontinental railroads helped open up unpopulated interior regions of continents to exploration and settlement that would not otherwise have been feasible. In many cases they also formed the backbones of cross-country passenger and freight transportation networks.