This week, two historic steam locomotives left Wyoming to join the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the joining of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.
According to the Library of Congress, the possibility of a railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was discussed as early as 1845. At that time, the chief promoter of a transcontinental railroad was Asa Whitney, a New York merchant active in the China trade who was obsessed with the idea of a railroad to the Pacific.
Whitney envisioned the use of Irish and German immigrant labor, whose wages would be paid in land, guaranteeing settlers along the route who would need produce delivery and transportation.
Congress did not act on Whitney’s proposal, mainly due to the vigorous opposition of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who favored a western route originating at St. Louis.
In 1849 Whitney published a booklet to promote his scheme entitled Project for a Railroad to the Pacific, accompanied by an outline map of North America which shows the route of his railroad from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, across the Rocky Mountains north of South Pass.
Despite Congress’ failure to sanction Whitney’s plan, the Pacific railroad became one of the great public issues of the day. The acquisition of California following the Mexican War, the discovery of gold, the settlement of the frontier, and the success of the eastern railroads all increased interest in building a railroad to the Pacific.
Proposals for accomplishing the audacious task were as numerous and varied as the politicians who promoted them. To resolve the debate, money was appropriated in 1853 for the Army Topographic Corps “to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.”
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was directed to survey five possible routes. The surveys showed that a railroad could follow any one of the routes. The Southern Pacific Railroad was subsequently built along the 32nd parallel, as this route was deemed the least expensive, but it was far from the coast to coast railway imagined by Whitney.
Northern and southern politicians debated vigorously through the late 1850s over how to proceed and Congress stayed out of it.
Meanwhile, Whitney was no longer the only businessman obsessed with the desire to build a transcontinental railroad. In 1860, Theodore D. Judah, engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, approached prominent Sacramento merchants and soon convinced them that building a transcontinental line would make them rich and famous.
In 1862, the men incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, which later merged with the Southern Pacific.
Through Judah’s efforts and the support of Abraham Lincoln, who saw military benefits in the lines, as well as the bonding of the Pacific Coast to the Union, the Pacific Railroad finally became a reality.
Official government support for the transcontinental railroad came in the form of the Railroad Act of 1862, which created the Union Pacific Railroad.