Shortly before the American Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman visited northern California. He pronounced that building a railroad over the rugged Sierra Nevada and Great Basin was unfeasible and would require the work of “giants.” Hard-working crews of Chinese and Irish laborers would eventually prove otherwise, but snaking a train track through the mountains had been long considered an impossible feat — and a monumental financial gamble. California merchants Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker collectively staked their own personal fortunes to finance the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR) to build the Sacramento-to-Utah section of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.
In January 1869, after five years of construction, the so-called Big Four had spent a fortune on only 131 miles of track and their company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Despite an army of more than 13,000 men working round the clock, crossing the Sierra had proven nearly impossible due to climate, topography and geology. Deep winter snow, steep canyons and obdurate granite combined to slow the effort to breach the mountain range. Central Pacific accountants figured that grading the roadbed, laying the ties and rails, rolling stock and support infrastructure had already cost the railroad company about $32 million, an average of $245,600 per mile.
Central Pacific wasn’t only facing the challenges of laying track over the Sierra Nevada; it was in a desperate contest with Union Pacific Railroad to cover as much ground as possible in the least amount of time. The UP track originated in Omaha, Neb., and headed west toward the Great Salt Lake.
The race between Central Pacific and Union Pacific was a profligate waste of money, but it also ranks as one of the greatest feats in American railway history.
When winter storms on Donner Pass brought work to a halt, Central Pacific transferred 5,000 men into the Truckee River Canyon where they slammed down track as fast as they could. The race between Central Pacific and Union Pacific was a profligate waste of money, but it also ranks as one of the greatest feats in American railway history. No Hollywood movie director could set a better stage for the epic challenge of human endurance and complex organization.
By spring of 1869, the hard-working laborers were east of Truckee and picking up speed. Charles Crocker, general superintendent of the railroad, had vowed that his crews would build a mile of track for every working day. When the crews reached Nevada, Crocker eliminated nearly all alcohol drinking among the Irish and physically intimated and threatened the Chinese when he caught them smoking opium.
The whole operation ran like a well-oiled machine. Graders and bridge builders worked miles in advance of the track crews laying iron rail while telegraph crews installed poles and strung wire. Every 2 miles of new track consumed 500 tons of rails, ties and track hardware. All the metal was shipped from foundries on the East Coast.
By August, the seasoned crews were averaging several miles of track a day, but they still had hundreds to go. An intense rivalry built up between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific crews. When UP crews bragged that they had set a track-laying record with 4½ miles in one day, CP crews exceeded it with 6 miles. UP crews then boosted the record to 8 miles, but it had taken the men from 3 a.m. until midnight to do it. The race for riches had turned into a contest of pride. Crocker was certain that his Chinese crews could outperform the Union Pacific laborers in speed and endurance. As construction neared completion at Promontory Point, Utah, Crocker decided to set a track-laying record that no one could beat.
On April 28, 1869, about 1,200 men were assembled to work in teams, unloading supply trains, lifting and aligning the rails and spiking them to the ties. (The ties had been dropped along the path the rails would follow.) Supply crews had loaded five separate trains, each consisting of 16 flatcars with enough bolts, spikes, fitting plates and iron rails to build 2 miles of track. A shrieking whistle started the challenge at 7 a.m. and within eight minutes the first trainload of 16 cars was unloaded. The spikes, bolts and plates were carried in buckets to where they were needed. Eight muscular Irishmen armed with heavy tongs lifted the rails onto a portable track gauge, which guaranteed they were always exactly 4 feet, 8½ inches apart. The track-laying team worked in pairs, each man grabbing one end of a rail and pulling it off the little flatcars. Each rail, 30 feet long and 560 pounds, was set into place within 30 seconds.
Other workmen attached plates to the rail joints, hammered spikes and tightened bolts. There were 2 miles between the advance teams and the last men applying the finishing touches, a line of hyperactivity moving ahead at 1 mile per hour. By lunchtime, the men had built 6 miles of railroad and were ready to go for 10. The first hour after lunch, however, was spent bending rails because the remainder of the stretch was a steady climb and full of curves. The animated scene raged until 7 p.m. when a whistle blew to stop work. An army officer witnessing the event for Union Pacific said, “Mr. Crocker, I never saw such organization as that. It was just like an army marching over the ground and leaving the track built behind them.”
The Central Pacific crews had set a new record of 10 miles and 56 feet in one 12-hour shift, using 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 28,160 spikes and 14,080 bolts. Each of the eight Irish tracklayers lifted 125 tons of iron in the course of that day’s work. In order to prove the job safe and sound, a locomotive was run over the new track at 40 mph. Union Pacific had less than 10 miles left to complete when Central Pacific pulled its amazing feat. Crocker had left them no room to beat him. One UP official was so incensed that he begged permission to tear up several miles of track so that his men could prove they were better. He was turned down and one of the most amazing achievements in American railroad history went into the record books.