"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Golden Nuggets Brought Steel Rails to the West

by Don Baumgart

Like a magnet the Gold Rush drew people from around the world. It also drew the "Iron Horse" west.

Railroads to the West were made possible with the 1848 treaty acquisition from Mexico of a block of western land that would allow a transcontinental line to avoid crossing "foreign" territory.

Back East, railroad schemes were flying faster than an eager miner's pick.

Asa Whitney saw a transcontinental railroad as a part of expanding trade with China. "It will change the world!" he told financiers. In 1845, while James Marshall's famous bit of gold was still tumbling downstream in the American River, Whitney proposed a railroad with tracks from the Great Lakes to the Oregon coast.

It would cost the federal government $200 million to build the line, Whitney said, but he had a plan. If Congress would agree to sell him a strip of land across the country, 60 miles wide, he would pay ten cents an acre -- $8 million. Then he would sell the land to settlers, raising the money to build a railroad.

Other routes were proposed, muddying the waters. General Sam Houston wanted a southern line running from Galveston to San Diego. Another proposal would take rails across Louisiana, Texas and Mexico, to avoid the cold winters of Whitney's northern route.

Marshall and the gold flake met up in 1848 and the destination of the railroad was settled. California!

Congress voted funds in 1853 to pay for route surveys, "to ascertain the most practicable and economic route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean."

Senator Thomas Benton of Missouri, the probable starting point of a railroad West, wrote this when the funds were approved: "This common road is now a want, and a necessity, for our California and Oregon immigration. Forty or fifty thousand go annually from the frontier of Missouri to these territories, traveling without a tree blazed or a signpost put up by the federal government."

True to governmental form, eight years later eleven successive volumes of proposed route maps had been published but the first spike was yet to be driven.

Thomas Hinckley gives this progress report in his book Transcontinental Rails, "President Buchanan in 1857 advocated the Pacific railroad as a means of holding the Pacific coast people in the Union. California, admitted to statehood seven years prior, originally had three cities with more than 5,000 in-habitants. But as the frenzied placer mining gave way to more intensive mining, Only San Francisco and Sacramento remained with more than 5,000 inhabitants."

After travelling West by wagon, Leland Stanford told his wife, "I will build a railroad one of these days for you to go back on."

In California there was strong support for a transcontinental railroad. Enthusiastic residents of the foothill mining camp of Dutch Flat came up with more than $46,000 to help build rails ...that would run through their town. The Central Pacific Railroad was born in June, 1861, with Sacramento wholesale grocer Leland Stanford as president. A year later President Lincoln signed a bill creating the Pacific Railroad...for military purposes; a strategy that still has the ability to pry loose major Washington dollars.

Contending that the nation had its hands full with the Civil War, Lincoln pushed for private development of the rail line. An 1864 amendment sweetened the private sector deal by providing 30-year loans of $16,000 upon completion of each mile of track. Where the going got rough, the stipend went up to $48,000 a mile.

The cash, while it seemed magnificent by 1800s standards, paled by comparison to the land that was given to the railroad builders by the federal government. Each mile of track built earned the railroad more than 12,000 acres.

The Central Pacific Railroad received its first 100 tons of rails at about the same time the Union Pacific broke ground at Omaha. By the spring of 1864, 18 miles of California track had been laid. Competing with the mines for labor, the idea of using Chinese laborers was born. Fifty were hired; they learned quickly and worked hard. As 1865 began 2,000 men were at work. Another 2,000 men were brought from China to work on the railroad, doubling the work force.

Ahead lay perhaps the greatest engineering and construction challenge ever faced: taking the shining ribbons of steel over and through the Sierra mountains.

— end —
(Copyright 2002, Don Baumgart)


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