They said it couldn’t be done: building the railroad |

They said it couldn’t be done: building the railroad

Building the transcontinental railroad is considered by many today to be the greatest feat of the nineteenth century. This immense project was an epic of logistics, organization, muscle and endurance.

However, at the time many folks felt that the idea of crossing the Sierra Nevada by rail was insane.

Indeed, Donner Summit seemed an insurmountable obstacle. Here was a core of solid granite with the lowest possible pass at an altitude of over 7,000 feet where snowfall averaged more than 30 feet each year. There were sheer precipices to be scaled and deep gorges to be bridged at a grade of no greater than 140 feet a mile so locomotives could haul heavy freight cars up the steep mountain passes.

In the years following the gold rush of 1849 the population of California exploded, prompting speculation of building a transcontinental railroad. Although feeble attempts were made to have one built, it wasn’t until the arrival of Theodore Judah in 1854 that any serious attempt was made to span the continent with twin ribbons of rail.

Judah, a railroad engineer from Connecticut, had been commissioned to construct the short Sacramento Valley Railroad from Sacramento to Folsom, which he completed in short order. Guided by Dr. Daniel Strong, Judah surveyed the area and became convinced that the pass above Donner Lake would be the most suitable route for a railroad crossing over the Sierra.

A dreamer by nature, Judah painstakingly prepared facts and figures and began a campaign to obtain financing. In a meeting above a hardware store at 54 K Street in Sacramento, a dozen men gathered to discuss the feasibility of the project. Among them were Judah, Dr. Strong, and four Sacramento merchants: Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington, who later became known as the “Big Four” of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Sadly, Theodore Judah died before his dream materialized, but not before convincing the Big Four that with the construction of a wagon road across the Sierra Nevada they could control the traffic to the Comstock mines. Hooked by the idea of fabulous wealth, the Big Four were receptive to Judah’s idea of forming a railroad company.

It wasn’t until after President Lincoln signed the Railroad bill that the first shovelful of earth was turned by the now-governor of California and president of the embryonic railroad, Leland Stanford, on January 8, 1863.

The first Railroad Act gave the railroads generous land grants consisting of 10 miles in alternating sections (640 acres) along the rights-of-way, a 400-foot wide strip for the actual roadbed, and a specific sum of money for each mile of railroad track completed.

The second Railroad Act doubled the land grants to 20 miles per alternating section in many areas and made government bonds a second mortgage on the railroad, thus permitting first mortgage company bonds of the same amount. In addition, federal subsidies for construction increased to $16,000 per mile on level land and $32,000 per mile in the foothills, and $48,000 per mile in the mountains.

The two railroad corporations, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, began assembling armies of men, with tents, wagons, horses, mules, cooking facilities and equipment. Ogden, Utah was chosen as the terminus for the Central Pacific coming from Sacramento and the Union Pacific coming from Omaha.

America’s great race had begun! Jack Casement, the UP construction boss, bragged that his men could lay down four and a half miles of track in a single day. Hearing of this, Charles Crocker challenged his construction boss, James Strobridge, to top the UP. In 1868, Strobridge and his crew spiked down over six miles in a single day.

The first locomotive to arrive was the Stanford, brought around South America’s Cape Horn in 1863, arriving disassembled, then reassembled in Sacramento shops. Manpower was a greater problem. Nevada’s Comstock mines had depleted most available hired hands.

By January 1865, only 56 miles of track had been laid. The Central Pacific advertised for 5,000 workers, but was only able to hire about 800.

With China being ravaged by economic upheaval, Charles Crocker suggested Chinese labor. Originally thought to be too small in stature to complete such a momentous task, Crocker pointed out, “They built the Great Wall, didn’t they?”

The first Chinese were hired in 1865 at approximately $28 per month and by April the Chinese work force had swelled from a few hundred to 2,000, some wielding picks and driving carts, despite harassment from white workers who resented their presence. By October, an estimated 6,000 Chinese workers were engaged in all phases of construction, except supervision, including skilled work drilling holes in solid granite and handling nitroglycerin explosives.

Strobridge was delighted when he saw that the Chinese were willing to work long hours while supplying their own food and lodging, while Caucasians working beside them were paid $40 per month, fed and bedded at company expense.

Ultimately, about 14,000 Chinese workers would risk their lives to help make Judah’s dream of the transcontinental railroad a reality.

(To Be Continued)

“Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User