Recalling the railroad matchup of the century
August 30, 2005
The legendary race between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies during the 1860s ranks as one of the greatest feats in American railway history. No Hollywood movie director could set a better stage for the epic challenge of human endurance and complex organization – an army of men and machines working as one, battling rugged mountains and arid deserts, searing heat and lethal blizzards. The Herculean effort to build the nation’s first transcontinental railroad truly pitted humanity against the formidable physical forces of climate, topography and geology. Central Pacific had financed five years of full time construction by 12,000 men, but had only 131 miles of track to show for it. The snow and granite of the Sierra Nevada had thwarted their progress and driven the company to the brink of bankruptcy. The Donner Summit tunnel alone took two years of round-the-clock effort to complete. The mountains were tough, but mere ice and rock couldn’t stop the relentless and determined men boring through the heart of the range. By March 1868, CP’s hard-working crews of Chinese laborers and their Irish foremen were east of Truckee and laying rail down the Truckee River Canyon. Charles Crocker, General Superintendent of the railroad, had vowed as his New Year’s resolution that his crews would build “a mile of track for every working day.” When the laborers broke out into Western Nevada, Crocker had every intention of pushing them to the limit of endurance.A costly endeavorThe whole operation ran like a well-oiled machine. Graders and bridge builders worked miles in advance of the track crews laying iron rail alongside telegraph crews installing poles, nailing crossbars, and stringing wire. Every two miles of new track consumed 500 tons of rails, ties and track hardware.
Both railroad companies developed a strategy where they began constructing pieces of the line far in advance. Although no government subsidies would accompany these far-flung projects initially, both railroad companies figured they would eventually connect the parts together and collect the federal compensation later. Crocker dispatched 3,000 Chinese graders and a fleet of 400 carts to a location on the Humboldt River, 300 distant from the closest supply trains shuttling ties, bolts, and rails from California to the head of the advancing track. CP also contracted with a Salt Lake City-based Mormon firm to grade a section of road for 100 miles west from Monument Point, Utah. The Central Pacific laborers had cut their teeth conquering the Sierra, but the desert environment offered it’s own resistance with temperature extremes, lack of potable water, and distance from supply centers. Crocker’s chief of staff J. H. Strobridge reported that distributing a single carload of tools and supplies from the end of the rails across the desert to the furthermost graders cost $5,400. But nothing would stop them now.Crocker would make sure of that. He later told a reporter, “Why, I used to go up and down that road in my [rail] car like a mad bull, stopping along wherever there was anything going amiss, and raising Old Nick with the boys that were not up to time.”By August, the seasoned crews were averaging several miles of track build every day, but still had hundreds of miles to go.
Going for brag rightsThe winter of 1868-69 brought subzero temperatures in January, which froze the ground solid to a depth of 2 feet. The graders used black powder to blow it up and kept marching east. An intense rivalry built up between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific crews. When UP bragged that they had set a track-laying record with 4.5 miles in one day, CP exceeded it with six miles. Next, UP boosted the record to eight miles, but it had taken the men from three in the morning until midnight to do it. The race for riches had turned into a contest of pride. Crocker was certain that his Chinese crews could outperform the Union Pacific laborers in speed and endurance. As construction neared completion at Promontory Point and the joining of the lines was imminent, Crocker decided to set a track-laying record that no one could beat. On April 28, 1869, about 1,200 men were assembled to work in teams, unloading the supply trains, lifting and aligning the rails, and spiking them to the ties. (Most of the ties had been dropped along the path the rails would follow.) Supply crews had loaded five separate trains, each consisting of 16 flatcars with enough bolts, spikes, fitting plates, and iron rails to build two miles of track. A shrieking whistle started the challenge at 7 a.m., and within eight minutes an army of exuberant Chinese laborers unloaded the first trainload of sixteen cars, transferring the rails to small flatcars pulled by horses. The spikes, bolts, and plates were carried in buckets to where they were needed. An advance guard aligned the ties by butting them to a rope along stakes placed by surveyors. Eight muscular Irishmen armed with heavy tongs lifted the rails onto a portable track gauge which guaranteed they were always exactly 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart. The track-laying crew worked in pairs, each team grabbing one end of a rail and pulling it off the flatcars. Each rail, 30 feet long and weighing about 560 pounds, was set into place within 30 seconds.Down to the wire
Other gangs of workmen contributed to the effort, attaching plates to the rail joints, pounding spikes or cranking bolts, followed by 400 “tampers” who shoveled dirt to stabilize each new section of track. There were two miles between the advance teams and the last men applying the finishing touches. By lunchtime the men had built six miles of railroad and were ready to go for ten. The first hour after lunch, however, was spent bending rails because the remainder of the stretch was a steady climb and full of curves. Although Crocker had a relief team for the eight Irish tracklayers, they had too much pride to give in to fatigue. The frenzied work-scene raged until 7 p.m., when a whistle blew to stop. An army officer witnessing the event for Union Pacific said, “Mr. Crocker, I never saw such organization as that. It was just like an army marching over the ground and leaving the track built behind them.” The Central Pacific crews had set a new record of 10 miles and 56 feet in one 12-hour shift, consuming 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 28,160 spikes and 14,080 bolts. Each of the eight Irish tracklayers lifted 125 tons of iron in the course of that day’s work! Finally, in order to prove the job safe and sound, a locomotive was run over the new track at 40 m.p.h. This accomplishment of ten miles in one day was since exceeded only once, on Aug. 15, 1870, by the Kansas Pacific in Colorado. The new record was just a few hundred feet longer.Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.