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Transcontinental Railroad

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The Transcontinental Railroad was a significant event in American History. This railroad was the work of two railroad companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, which built their lines as fast as they could until they met in Utah in 1869. Once this complex building project was completed, the United States was now connected from coast to coast by railroad tracks and led to an era of westward expansion. What few people realize is that this turning point in American history could not have happened if it were not for the immigrant groups who helped to build this remarkable railroad. Irish immigrants mainly built the Union Pacific and Chinese immigrants mainly built the Central Pacific. Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by carriage cost about one thousand dollars and took five or six months. It also involved crossing Rocky Mountains and dry desert.

Work on the first transcontinental railroad began after President Abraham Lincoln approved the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. This was a landmark law that approved the federal government to financially back the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Due to the American Civil War however the work was delayed for several years. Finally around 1866 the building of the railroad had started. It was a race between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific. The transcontinental railroad was finished on May 10th 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah. This was a turning point in American History because it greatly affected the opening of the West. This linked the East and West coasts by rail, and allowed for the West to be rapidly settled by Americans seeking opportunity and a new life in a new place. It connected the coasts from “sea to shinning sea,” and had a significant impact on travel and the transportation of goods and people. In 1852, there was only five miles of track west of Mississippi. By 1890, it had increased to 72,000 miles of track.

Railroads provided opportunities to ship livestock and produce and to carry supplies and items otherwise unavailable on the frontier. The Irish immigrants had a huge effect on building the transcontinental railroad. Most of the work force in the union pacific was made up of Irish immigrants. This was due to a shortage of labor because of the gold rush, which eliminated a lot of the labor. They had to work in dangerous territories, and work lengthy hours, and they received low wages for the hard work they did. Central Pacific officials believed, “Irishmen were inclined to spend their wages on liquor.”(PBS 1) The Irishmen received 35 dollars per month with board provided. After working twelve to sixteen hour days the men used their free time to drink and fight. However while working they had to be careful about Native Americans. Irish laborers were killed by Native American war parties. The Native Americans fought for protection, they believed that the building of the railroad violated treaties established by the United States government. The Irishmen were known as the pick and shovel men. They also were the tracklayers, masons, and blacksmith.

Eventually the Irishmen started to agitate over the wages they were receiving. Charles Crocker, the chief of construction, told Strobridge to recruit some Chinese in their place. These made the Irishmen abandon their dispute. This was the turning point to Crocker hiring companies to put advertisements in China of the work. They hired one thousand plus Chinese men. Most Chinese had a delicate looking body, weighing around 110 pounds. Although they appeared small and scrawny, they were fearless and very hard working. Another benefit of hiring these Chinese workers was that they drank heated tea instead of muddy ditch water. As a result they were less likely to get sick. The Chinese immigrants had a huge role in building the transcontinental railroad. They worked in the central pacific. In the beginning it was slow and difficult. Working there was both strenuous and dangerous. However that didn’t affect the way they worked. Crocker once said, “Wherever we put them, we found them good.”(PBS 1)

The Chinese labored under extremely dangerous conditions, for little pay, even less than the Irish immigrants. They had to survive during harsh winters and the scorching heat in the desert. They earned a reputation real fast, as “tireless and extraordinarily reliable workers- – quite, peaceable, patients, industrious, and economical.”(Digitalhistory 1) The track laying was divided up into various parts: one gang laid rails on the ties, drove the spikes, and bolted the splice bars; at the same time, another gang distributed telegraph poles and wire along the grade, while the cooks prepared dinner and the clerks busied themselves with accounts, records, using telegraph wire to tap for more materials and supplies. One huge problem they had to triumph over was located in the Sierra Nevada. They had a dilemma because huge solid granite ridges were blocking construction.

They  had to be tunneled through. Using drills and blasting power, they worked several long hours to dig a twelve-inch whole just to put dynamites in. The work was arduous. They even started to use highly volatile explosives, nitroglycerin to make things faster. However they realized it was dangerous so they stopped using it. Mostly the hands of the immigrants did this whole process of construction. They would use pickaxes, drills, crowbars, hammers and many different tools. These men also wove baskets big enough to hold several men, they lowered these from the edge of cliffs to place dynamites in the wholes they dug. During this crucial time the Chinese did not talk back like the Irish immigrants did. The Chinese immigrants were known as “punctual, willing, and well-behaved – -sometimes referred to as “celestials.” (PBS 3) Even though they never did anything wrong, they received less pay and endured more discrimination than the Irish immigrants did. They were paid 27 to 30 dollars a month, which did not cover the cost of food and board.

Even though they were not even acknowledged for the work that they did, Chinese immigrants put their lives at risk and moved all the way from China to the United States to help provide for their families and to help build one of the most significant transportation projects in American history. They lived in meekly houses and cooked their own meals, often consisting of fish, dried oysters and fruit, mushrooms and seaweed. All in all, immigrants have always played a crucial role in the building and settlement of the United States. Despite the discrimination and the backbreaking work, Irish and Chinese immigrants endured these harsh conditions so they could accomplish building the Transcontinental Railroad.

They overcame the huge solid granite ridges in the Sierra Nevada by hand, which shows how strenuous they are. They fought to protect themselves from the Native Americans and continued to work. They risked their lives building this railroad. It took several months to accomplish it however in the end it became a huge turning point in American History. Because of their astonishing work they completed a railroad, which lead to the expansion in the west, and transportation of goods and people. Made the cost of travel go down and the time it took to travel go down. Passenger cars brought settlers to the Western lands in huge numbers. Freight cars carried Western agriculture and mineral wealth back to the east.

Work Cited

Clark, Judith. Americans Gilded Age: An eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, Inc, 1992. Print. “East Meets West; Chinese-Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad.” American History Web.06 Dec 2011. ;. “Chinese Immigrants and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.” Digital History Web.06 Dec 2011. ;. “People and Events; Transcontinental Railroad.” American Experience Web.06 Dec 2011. .


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