Updated: Jan 23
WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
12:47 pm, May 10th, 1869. An unnamed railroad worker had just pounded the famous “Golden Spike'' into the rocky ground at Promontory Summit, Utah, after big-names Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant swung and failed to hit the stake. The Transcontinental Railroad, a revolution in American transportation, was finally finished! But although this is probably the most well-known railway in American history, it certainly isn’t the first. In today’s blog, we’re going to travel through the history of locomotives in America to discover the lesser-known stories of how trains affected everything from travel to funerals to television. All aboard!
Let’s begin by rewinding sixty-five years from then, to Wales in 1804. On February 21, the Penydarren Tramroad drove the first-ever steam-powered locomotive down nine miles of railroad tracks. It carried with it ten tons of iron and around seventy passengers, at an astounding speed of five miles per hour!
However, trains didn’t hit the United States until later, in 1827. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was desperately trying to compete with the commercial boom that followed the construction of the Erie Canal. Peter Cooper, philanthropist-inventor-manufacturer extraordinaire, designed and constructed for them the first American-built steam engine, which he named Tom Thumb. Did you know? During Tom’s first demonstration on a common-carrier railroad, the machine was approached by a horse-drawn train and challenged to a race. At first, the steam-powered invention chugged easily ahead. I imagine the conductor was probably muttering something about the times a-changing, celebrating his victory and basking in the glow of a new invention, when the belt slipped from the blower pulley. The boiler lost power and was thus unable to produce steam—and power. Tom Thumb quite literally lost steam (ever wonder where that phrase came from?) and fell behind. The horse-drawn train galloped its way across the finish line, winning the impromptu race! Though it was recognized that the steam engine was, indeed, the superior machine, the story of that chance failure still laughs its way through history.
Traveling ahead thirty-eight years, however, we enter a much more somber scene.
April 21, 1865: the body of the newly-assassinated President Lincoln rested inside a Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad engine. A portrait of the late leader was mounted on the front. The sides were draped in a mournful black. After Abraham Lincoln’s death in Washington, DC, a thirteen-day trip was planned to bring Lincoln's body from DC to Springfield, Illinois. It was to stop in 180 cities on its way to Lincoln’s final resting place—and businessman George Pullman saw this as a golden opportunity to promote his new sleeping cars. Mourning citizens who wished to travel with the president as he made his way home could buy a ticket to travel from Chicago to Springfield, on what he called the “Lincoln Special”. After the farewell trip was completed, Pullman sleeping cars were in high demand – and with their shiny, luxurious interiors of polished mahogany and marble, the business boomed.
Our final stop on the history train (wink wink) actually began in 1843, with the first proposal of a railroad that would run from New York all the way to the Pacific. Asa Whitney, an entrepreneur with a New York business mind, presented his idea to Congress—but federal funding was denied. His idea, however, was passed down to a young engineer named Theodore Judah. He took Whitney’s plans and routed them through the infamous Donner Pass in western California, traveling all the way through to San Francisco. He secured investors, business partners, an official Act from the president, the whole shebang. The project was divided into two companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroad and the work began.
Unfortunately, the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was not nearly as glamorous in reality as it seemed on paper. A collection of men was assembled to build the railroad, but when they realized how intense the labor was, many left the project. Consequently, the head of the Central Pacific, Charles Crocker, began to hire Chinese immigrants; taking advantage of their desperate situations, language barrier, and willingness to work. The Union Pacific chief, General Grenville Dodge, hired Irish men for the same reasons. These overworked, underpaid men made their way through the brutal terrain of the West, suffering vicious attacks from the Native American Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Sioux tribes in their attempts to prevent the progress of the “iron horse” from destroying their homeland. As the exhausted workers traveled through the wilderness, they brought gambling, drinking, prostitution, and violence with them. Pop-up towns, fights in taverns, and men living by their own rules spiked through the deserts and mountains, inspiring the tales of the Wild West.
The process was brilliant and bloody, but at last the railroad was complete! Interestingly enough, the two companies argued so fiercely over where to lay the final track, where to plant the last stake, where to call it quits, that the new President Ulysses S. Grant threatened to stop all federal funding. Picture a stern father taking away a toy because the kids can’t share – that’s exactly what it looked like. Just, on a congressional scale.
Before the final stake was driven into the ground at Promontory Point, those wishing to travel across the U.S. would have had to endure five to six months of cramped stagecoach travel over fierce terrain. The passengers would be exhausted from their less-than-luxurious trip—and $1,000 lighter! But the dawn of transcontinental travel reduced prices by nearly 86% and shortened travel time to seven days. First-class passengers could pay $136 per ticket and enjoy their week in a Pullman sleeping car, second-class $110, and third class—or “emigrant class”—$65 for a space on a bench.
As we’ve discovered here, trains have made their way across America, through burial sites and wilderness, into folklore and reality. We know they’ve provided jobs for thousands of people, though the conditions were less than ideal. History tells us they’ve carried supplies to warring armies and families to each other. But how have trains played a role in your life?
Does railroad transportation continue to evolve and change? And how could it change our future as we know it? For the answers to these questions and more, please watch Season 2, Episode 7 of Reconnecting Roots, “Trains: Tracking Progress”. Catch us on PBS, or stream for free, anytime, anywhere, at pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots.