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Railroads America - The Race To The Goal

( Originally Published 1927 )

Government subsidies and land grants were the prizes for which the rivals contended. Westward across Wyoming and Utah went the Union, eastward across Nevada came the Central. The orders the Union directors sent Chief Engineer Dodge in April were "to cover the road with men from Green River to Salt Lake within one month, and to Humboldt Wells in three." That meant that 700 miles must be located by August.

The march was begun to Ogden, a march that halted neither for desert nor mountain, heat nor cold. General Dodge declared : "I do not hesitate to say that over half the number of miles of line was never located before in the same time by the same force—especially when it is remembered that the line between Green River and Salt Lake (the mountain portion) was difficult, requiring long and careful study. In Eastern States, with the same force, it would have been considered a quick location if made inside of a year."

The plan of crossing the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake was abandoned on account of the depth of the water and the muddy bottom. The railroad must make a detour from Ogden to the north of the lake and climb the steep Promontory Ridge. Beyond the ridge was a desolate, muddy basin, of no value as cultivable land; but for each mile of track across it the company would receive the government subsidy of $64,000, and gain a proportionate share of the receipts from transcontinental traffic.

The spring was late and it took a month for the end of track to reach Laramie, twenty-three miles from Sherman Summit. In two months it had gone 120 miles farther to Benton. Two miles a day had been the pace from Laramie. Graders were working 250 miles ahead, 10,000 laborers with 500 teams. Construction trains were steadily puffing westward over the single track from the Missouri River; forty carloads of material were required for every mile of track laid ; wheels must turn night and day to supply the sinews for the race.

The Union Pacific army built its iron rails across the Red Desert under the scorching sun of August, then climbed the wide plateau of the Continental Di-vide at an altitude of 7164 feet, and went on into the Bitter Creek basin, a territory shunned by travellers and explorers. Alkali dust filled the air, for 100 miles the water was poisonous with alkali and salt, in many sections there was no water. To quench thirst the workers drank the brackish supply hauled from the least poisonous source by wagon or in tank-trains. Yet on they pushed and on, and by the twentieth of September the Bitter Creek country was behind them.

General "Jack" Casement's track-layers—most of them Irish, and as indomitable as their leader himself—worked as fast as the graders made the road ready for the rails. They laid three miles in a day, four in a day, five in a day; only when they overtook the graders or materials were slow in arriving from the rear did they halt. The eyes of the whole country were on them ; everywhere the chief topic of discussion was the progress they were making; the news-papers of the eastern cities carried daily headings : "One and nine-tenths miles of track laid yesterday on the Union Pacific Railroad"; "Two miles of track laid yesterday on the Union Pacific Railroad" ; "Two and three-quarters miles of track laid yesterday on the Union Pacific Railroad." The telegraph went with the rails and every mile of that wonderful march across the barren lands was reported and read by thousands on the Atlantic seaboard.

By the Overland telegraph wires the Union and the Central Pacific were each kept informed of the rival road's progress. General Casement's men laid six miles of track in one day; Crocker's track gang accepted the challenge and built seven miles in one day for the Central. General Casement laughed and swore that his Irishmen would beat the rival's China-men. He had a number of guests at his camp at Granger, and at sunrise he invited them out to see what his marvels could do. That day the Union Pacific laid seven and a half miles of track, lacking a few rail-lengths. Casement vowed that he would build eight miles, if Crocker continued the contest.

Crocker's answer was: "The Central promises ten miles in one working day." To himself he made the reservation : "But we will take our time to it."

The telegraph brought this answer to Vice-President Durant of the Union Pacific at his New York office, and he sent word back : "Ten thousand dollars that you can't do it before witnesses."

"We'll notify you," was Crocker's reply. Casement's men sprang forward. Their slogan was the song :

"Drill, my paddies, drill !

Drill, you tarriers, drill !

Oh, it's work all day,

No sugar in your tay

Workin' on th' U. Pay Ra-ailway!"

Ties were laid, rails were spiked down; two rail-lengths to the minute, 400 rails to the mile. Small time was given to ballasting the ties and little attention to whether the rail-joints measured evenly with the ties or hung between them. Winter was coming, already the first snows were falling in the Wasatch. From O-ranger the track leaped to Piedmont and the Union Pacific was on top of the Uintah Chain of the northern Wasatch range.

Here the Mormons proved of great aid. At the or-der of President Brigham Young,—who took a contract to build the grade from the head of Echo Can-yon to Promontory Summit, a distance of 120 miles, for $2,000,000, his people joined the forces of the railroad and pushed the work forward with satisfying speed. Over the heights of the Wasatch and down through the mountain passes the rails forged ahead through drifting snow; at the end of the year the winter terminus was at the camp of Wasatch, 966 miles from Omaha.

Ogden was sixty-five miles away. Over the desert beyond the Central Pacific was pushing, striving to win as much land as it could from its eastern rival. Crocker had kept his promise of building a mile a day. The Central tracks had reached Reno May 1, 1868, and crossed the Truckee on the ninth of July. From there extended the deserts of Nevada and Utah, alkali, rock-filled regions, with uncertain water-courses. It was rumored there were Indians lurking back of the peaks that alone broke the desert. Crocker exhorted his white and Chinese laborers, 2000 white, 10,000 Chinese, and tackled the job. There were three canyons to be graded, the grading was completed when the track-layers arrived. Now, as the Central proceeded across that uninhabited land everything that was needed had to be brought great distances, the vast army on the march looked back across the mountains for all its supplies.

At the end of the year the Central rail-heads were almost at Humboldt Wells, the emigrant station that the Union Pacific had claimed as its outpost. Between the winter terminals of the rival lines stretched 300 miles, desert, mountain and valley, through which the rival grading crews were working in opposite directions, often side by side. The Union Pacific track was still 275 miles from Humboldt Wells ; the Central held the upper hand, it could reach that station in a fortnight and dash for the Salt Lake Valley, there to meet not only the rival line but the Central's own grade from Ogden.

Moreover the Union was now in the snowdrifts of the mountains, the Central in the less stormy low-land country, though even there the winter winds were cold. The Central builders leaped forward to Humboldt Wells ; Mormon laborers were now with them ; over the desert from the Sierra came the supply-trains.

If the Central would build through the winter, so would the Union, and the latter's workmen fought through blizzards and were only idle when storm or snow prevented the arrival of materials. In one place the track-layers could not wait for the clearing of a grade and the rails were laid upon ice, with the result that a train slid sidewise into a canyon, bringing down with it the ties and rails.

In January, 1869, the Union Pacific track had won to a point 1000 miles from Omaha. Ahead the Union's grading gangs were working out from Ogden on the 220 miles that stretched to Humboldt Wells. Into Ogden came the Union's rails on March third, welcomed by the inhabitants of that small Utah settlement. There was a parade, with a military brass band, and a banner proclaiming: "Hail to the high-way of nations ! Utah bids you welcome."

The whole country, that had been watching the great race with rapt attention, was now wondering where and how the contest would end. Replying to a question from Congress, the Secretary of the Interior said: "The point of junction has been assumed to be 78.295 miles east of Salt Lake City, or at a point that will entitle the two companies to an equal amount of bonds." The Union Pacific had, however, already gained and passed the mark set by the Secretary of the Interior and was in Ogden. It was evident that the railroad could not get as far as Humboldt Wells, but the company intended to push westward from Ogden as far as it could, and for that purpose now called in its grading-parties in the Nevada desert and set them to work in the Utah country.

The Union headed northwest around Salt Lake, making for the ridge to Promontory Summit. This ridge had no ravines nor water-courses, and had to be reached over shifting mud and by means of curving trestles and switch-backs. Meantime west of Promontory Summit the Central was building mile after mile across the desert. To reach the Summit the Central had the easier route. The Union battled sturdily, track-layers spiking the rails close behind the graders and the trestle-builders. A terminal camp at Corinne was located on March twenty-eighth; the pace from Ogden had averaged a mile of track a day. On the other side of the Summit the Central was doing as well through the desert.

Each of the two railroads was claiming territory far ahead of its tracks; the Union had won Ogden and the trade of Salt Lake City and had surveyed as far as the California border; the Central had graded east of Ogden and run its survey across the Wasatch; the lines met nowhere ; if there was to be a through transcontinental road the rivals must compromise. This the companies agreed to do, and the compromise, as ratified by Congress, read as follows :

"That the common terminus of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads shall be at or near Ogden; and the Union Pacific Railroad Company shall build, and the Central Pacific Railroad Company shall pay for and own, the railroad from the terminus aforesaid to Promontory Point, at which point the rails shall meet and connect and form one continuous line."

This agreement reached, the Union Pacific climbed Promontory Summit and on April twenty-eighth looked down on the camp of the Central Pacific west-ward on the plains. The grades joined at Promontory, a small railroad settlement. The great work was almost finished. Charles Crocker of the Central sent word to Durant of the Union : "To-morrow we'll lay those ten miles."

When those ten were built there would be but ten more between the two roads and of these the Union Pacific was to lay six. Holiday was declared to celebrate the joining of the lines.

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