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Railroads America - The Linking Of The Continent

( Originally Published 1927 )

THE United States had step by step stretched from the original thirteen colonies along the Atlantic seaboard to San Francisco Bay. The Louisiana Purchase had added much, a great tract was acquired when the republic's claim to the Oregon Territory was granted, Texas had become part of the Union; the nation reached from ocean to ocean and from the Rio Grande on the south to the generally accepted 49° on the north. Gold in California brought crowds of adventurers and after them more useful settlers, the Mormons had trekked from Illinois to Utah and were planting those far western fields, here and there were scattered hamlets, and everywhere that pioneers located talk began to buzz concerning means of communication.

The Great Divide must be banded. Trade must follow the flag, and the Far Eastern ports be reached by a more expeditious journey than the voyage round Cape Horn. It was the old dream of Columbus and the early navigators, the short route to the Indies, and appropriately, when the first transcontinental railroad was visioned, Senator Thomas H. Benton declared : "Let it be adorned with its crowning honor, the colossal statue of the great Columbus, whose design it accomplishes, hewn from the granite mass of a peak of the Rocky Mountains overlooking the road, the mountain itself the pedestal, and the statue a part of the mountain, pointing with outstretched arm to the western horizon, and saying to the flying passenger, `There is the East ! There is India!' "

For years argument was rife as to the best route for a railroad to the Pacific and gradually three came to be generally considered. One route, originally sponsored by Asa Whitney, a New York merchant and wide traveller, ran north from Chicago to the coast; the second, urged by Senator Ben-ton, was a central line, starting from St. Louis and crossing the Rockies by a pass supposed to have been discovered by Frémont in 1848 and later located farther north in Colorado ; the third, championed by Southern leaders who felt the cause of the slave states jeopardized by the other two, was to run through El Paso to San Diego.

In 1853 the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, sent out by order of Congress five exploring parties, officered by the government's Corps of Engineers, for the purpose of ascertaining "the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean." The routes chosen for investigation were the Northern Trail (that of Whitney), the Mormon Trail, the Benton "Buffalo" Trail, the Thirty-fifth Parallel Trail, and the Southern Trail.

The engineers explored these routes and made full reports to the government. Their figures as to the distances and the cost of constructing railroads on these various lines were as follows : On the Northern Trail, from St. Paul to Vancouver, along the Upper Missouri,—a distance of 1854 miles; $117,121,000 ; on the Mormon Trail, from Council Bluffs to San Francisco by way of the South Pass and Salt Lake City,—a distance of 2032 miles, $116,095,000; on the "Buffalo" Trail, from Westport (Kansas City) to San Francisco by way of the Cochetopa Pass in the southern Colorado Rockies,—a distance of 2080 miles,—the cost was considered "impracticable"; on the Thirty-fifth Parallel Trail, from Fort Smith of Arkansas to San Pedro (Los Angeles) by way of northern Texas, northern New Mexico and northern Arizona to Needles at the Colorado River,--a distance of 1892 miles,—$169,210,255; on the Southern Trail, from Fulton on the Red River in southwestern Arkansas to San Pedro by way of central Texas and southern Arizona,--a distance of 1618 miles,—$68,970,000.

It was further declared that the Northern Trail and the Mormon Trail would be very difficult to construct on account of the heavy falls of snow. The "Buffalo" Trail was ruled out because of excessive cost. The expense of establishing a terminal on the Thirty-fifth Parallel Trail that would satisfy the trade requirements of Little Rock, St. Louis, Memphis and other centres was considered such as to eliminate the use of that route. Secretary Jefferson Davis, who came from Mississippi, therefore recommended that the road should be built by the Southern Trail, which had the advantages of climate and lowest cost of construction to favor it.

Immediately the "free" states of the North took up the challenge thrown down by the "slave" states of the South. The immigration that would follow the railroad would largely determine whether the west-ern country would be "free" or "slave," and neither of the parties to that controversy would yield to the other. Everybody took a hand in the argument. While they debated events marched apace. The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (afterwards the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific) was pushing across Iowa and planning to reach into the Platte Valley; the Mormons were petitioning Congress to unite Utah with the eastern states; Denver was demanding connection east and west; and the national political parties were urging that a transcontinental railroad be built by Government aid.

Citizens of California hereupon stepped forward and in June, 1861, the Central Pacific Railroad of California was incorporated. The Civil War was in progress and the national Congress was entirely made up of Northerners; therefore the government favored a northern or central route. A bill was passed, authorizing the construction of a Pacific Railroad, and the act was signed by President Lincoln on July 1, 1862. The bill named one hundred and fifty-eight men, chosen from the Union section of the country, who should constitute, with five commissioners representing the national government, the Board of Commissioners of the Union Pacific Railroad and Telegraph Company.

These commissioners were empowered to construct a continuous railroad and telegraph line on a route that should "commence at a point on the one hundredth meridian of longitude west from Greenwich, between the south margin of the valley of the Re-publican River and the north margin of the valley of the Platte River, in the territory of Nebraska, at a point to be fixed by the President of the United States, after actual surveys ; thence running westerly upon the most direct, central and practicable route, through the territories of the United States, to the western boundary of the territory of Nevada, there to meet and connect with the line of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California."

The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were given a right of way through public land of 200 feet width on either side of their tracks, and were granted as a subsidy vacant lands within ten miles on either side of the lines for five alternate sections per mile, excepting only mineral lands. In addition to the land grant the national government made a money loan, the whole of which was not to exceed $50,000,000, and to be apportioned according to the miles of track laid.

The agreement was that the Central Pacific should build eastward from San Francisco or a near-by point to the eastern boundary of California and there join the Union Pacific. The tracks of the two lines were to be of uniform width, so that cars could be run direct from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. If the Union Pacific should complete its line to the California boundary before the Central Pacific, the former company might, with the consent of the state, continue to another meeting-point; and the same privilege of continuing to build was given the Central Pacific if it reached the state boundary first.

The race was on between the two companies to see which of them could cover the greater distance with its tracks. The Central Pacific, already well organized, was first in the field.

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