On May 10, we mark the 150th year since the completion of the first transcontinental railway route in the U.S. Union Pacific, the last successor of the companies that built the original line, will operate a series of high-profile steam excursions. There will be exhibits at museums all over the West — including a few curated by this columnist — as well as conferences, conventions, re-enactments, you name it.
Despite all this, sometimes that first transcontinental can seem a bit… Stuffy. Corny. Boring. A little more “ye olde timey” than, well, interesting. That’s especially true if you don’t care much for history, or for steam locomotives, or for the West. If you are really into, say, GE diesels in the Berkshires — see page 32 — why should you care about some old teakettles meeting in a Utah desert during the 1860s?
First, the completion of the Central Pacific-Union Pacific line gave birth to a whole new era in the West. Following the Golden Spike, several competing and copycat companies emerged. Villages emerged from the dust along these new routes. Towns, once fed only by stagecoaches or river boats, surged into cities. Vast swaths of rural territory became dependent on the new rail network. The forests, mines, and fields of the West flowed to the railways and deeply connected the land to the region’s cities. Each rail line, no matter how long, how remote, how sparsely populated, was a finger of urbanity reaching into the wilderness. In the process, distant points became connected not only to each other, but to global markets. Even in the middle of the 19th century, the West’s farmers talked about the value of their wheat in the markets of Liverpool, its loggers worried about the price of lumber in Honolulu, Sydney, and Perth. Anyone who thinks globalization is something that came out of the modern era is off by about a century.
The first transcontinental, and those that followed it, also changed the nature of the railways throughout the country, on both sides of the Mississippi divide. Prior to the Golden Spike, U.S. railroads were typically an extension of heavy manufacturing. They were part of the same world as steel mills, coal mines, and power plants. It is true that expansion into the Midwest during the 1840s and 1850s helped make railroads into a regional mode of travel for people and goods, not merely heavy commodities. It was Promontory, however, that gave the nation its first fully realized vision of a long-distance railway offering mass transportation from coast to coast.
Consider the distinctive qualities that define North American railways. The long-haul freight, its string of cars seemingly endless, its powerful locomotives charging into the emptiness of the plains. The perfect streamliner, its stainless-steel sides flashing back the sun just after dawn. High mountain passes, their snow challenged only by the billowing clouds of a steam locomotive climbing up their flank. Sure, there were trains before the Golden Spike at Promontory. Once the link was completed, however, it changed the way we thought about railroads, transforming lines like Boston & Albany from a route between its namesake towns into a national asset, a part of a network that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It changed the scale of the railroad industry, and in the process, gave them a visual character that — minus some polished brass ostentation — still defines them today.
—Consulting Editor ALEXANDER BENJAMIN CRAGHEAD is a transportation historian, photographer, artist, and author.