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The final meeting point of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah, USA

Transcontinental Railroad

Image Credit: | Above: The final meeting point of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah, USA

Between 1860 and 1910, the US army, wiping out the Indian villages on the Great Plains, paved the way for the railroads...The first transcontinental railroad was built with blood, sweat, politics and thievery.

Howard Zimm

It takes six months to cross the American continent in 1860. To unite East and West, in 1862, President Lincoln authorises a transcontinental rail road over 3000km long. In 1863, work begins with the hope it will unite a country ripped apart over slavery. Treatment of two immigrant groups show the Civil War hasn’t killed racism.


Three thousand Irish immigrants work mainly on the Union Pacific line going West to East. In 1866, 3,000 Chinese are hired and soon make up 75% of the Central Pacific (West to East) workforce of 10,000 to 12,000 men. Thought incapable of hard work, their boiling of water for green tea means they escape the dysentery that strikes down the Irish. And the Chinese are rarely drunk. The Irish live in tents and die instantly in avalanches. The Chinese prefer tunnels but some survive rock fall only to be buried alive. But the Irish don’t pay for their board. Wanting equality, the Chinese strike in 1867, and demand better wages and an end to whippings. Their food supplies are blocked and they’re starved back into work.

“They were considered somewhere between human and animal. They were not expected to survive. They were expected to come here and work and die." Margaret Cho, comedian


The biggest obstacle is the millions of tonnes of ancient rock that make up the mountains of Sierra Nevada. First they must connect the Donner Pass where the settler party ate each other 20 years earlier. More than 2km high, it’s the highest point on the route. It means 500ms of rock must be excavated, the longest tunnel on the route. Progress slows to 15 cm a day.

The breakthrough needs nitro glycerine, but it’s so dangerous that transporting it is illegal. A Scottish chemist, James Howden, mixes it on the spot. Nitro glycerine is 13 times more powerful than dynamite but so unstable that it may explode at any minute in his hands. Howden gets hazard pay but soon turns to drink, and hands over the task to the Chinese. The Irish won’t touch it. Detonation creates temperatures of nearly 5000 degrees Celsius, as hot as the surface of the sun. An estimated 1500 Chinese workers die in explosions and rock slides.

Once through the mountains, track-laying accelerates from 25cm to nearly 10km a day. Each spike is hit three times. Ten spikes to a rail, 250 rails a km, making 21 million hammer swings.


Union Pacific and Central Pacific rails meet. A one word telegraph is sent: ‘Done’. The six month continental journey is cut to six days.

Central Pacific reports 137 deaths during four years of construction. But in 1870, a journalist sees a train loaded with the bones of an estimated 1,200 Chinese bodies. Railway completion means 25,000 Chinese and Irish are now unemployed. Hatred of the Chinese results in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act ending their immigration. (It would be 1898 before Wong Kim Ark challenged this institutional racism, effectively creating the first Asian-Americans).

"If America was now a continental was the Chinese who had made it so...And instead of thanks what they got was the smell of their Chinatowns burning to the ground" Simon Schama

In California, the Chinese form 10% of the population. Violence is endemic.

“Stoned to death in the streets of San Francisco by a mob of half-grown boys and Christian school children.” 1869 obituary for a Chinese man, Wan Lee

But the transcontinental railroad triggers a mass migration to the Great Plains. The farmers and cowboys are the next wave to try to tame the wilderness either side of the rail-tracks.

Did you know?

A Chinese worker who handled the nitro glycerine for James Howden not only survived his experience, but his son went onto become the first Chinese American graduate with an engineering degree from the University of Berkeley., It took the Americans just 30 years to lay nearly 50,000km of track across their continent, more than the rest of the world put together. There was a station every 12km, around which towns usually formed.