Pacific Railroad–II

The project to build the Pacific Railroad started during the War and the legislation was signed by Lincoln.  Much of the follow-up administration work was done by Johnson as his successor.  The legislation was amended a couple of years later to adjust the payments and requirements for the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific who were the actual rail lines building and operating the road.

The work was highly organized by teams and function.  The surveyors went out first to select the best route for the line.  They were allowed to only have a grade of 110 for mile because that was the technical limits of the then existing locomotives and the rate of turning was regulated.   A train is like a battleship; it can’t turn on a dime.  It takes a lot of real estate for it to make a 90 degree turn.  There were many accusations that the lines were intentionally increasing the length of the road so they could get more of the government bonds that were being used to finance a goodly portion of the building.  These accusations were mostly against the Union Pacific.   But likely there was very little of that happening.  First the geography of the basic northern route was the determining  and secondly there was the “race” aspect of the construction.  Both lines wanted to build as much as they could.  It was known that the Central Pacific couldn’t do as many miles as the Union because of the Sierra Nevadas and the tunnels they had to make.

There had been a proposal to build the line on a southern route more or less from New Orleans across southern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and into Los Angeles.  But that didn’t get the same political traction because the gold fields were in NorthernCal.   Plus there were the Mormons and Salt Lake City.  That was the only civilized and developed place between Omaha and Sacramento.  Except for it there was only a few army posts and trading locations and lots of Indians.

The Central Pacific had to build several tunnels.  The biggest was near the apex of the ascent over the Sierras.  It was hundreds of feet long and had to be dug out of solid rock.  They humped over the mountain supplies so that they could do the digging and construction from both ends to speed up the project.  If fact they started laying track down on the other side even before the tunnel was complete.  They mostly averaged a foot a day from both ends.  They used nothing but hand tools and gunpowder.  It was difficult and dangerous work.  They would pound out with drills holes in the rock then pack it with gunpowder and set it off.  Then come in with the picks and shovels and wheel barrels to haul out the debris.  They also used nitro for some of the project and that was much more effective but dangerous to use.  Several men were injured or killed due to mis-handling the nitro.  It wasn’t as stable as the gunpowder.  Both railroads used hundreds of thousands of pounds of gunpowder during the construction.  In the days before GPS or lasers measurements the two work crews were only off 1″ when they met in the middle of the mountain.  That is truly an amazing feat of engineering.  They used just plumb bobs, barometric altimeters and telescopes and measuring tools of the day and pencil and paper to calculate.  The engineers had to measure daily to assure the correct alignments.

After the surveyors came the grading crews. If you have ever looked a rail line you will have noticed it is not just there on the ground. It is built up for a firm foundation.  The foundation has to be very stable to support the weight and movement of a trail and cars traveling over it and to give the rails solid support so there is no wiggle at all.   A constant hardship was finding the rock or gravel to use in making the basic grade.  They also had to make cuts in the small hills and almost daily build small culvert crossings when they crossed ravines or gullies.  If you’ve been in the country or plains you know they are everywhere.

The actual laying of the rail was next.  The ties would be put in place over the grade and affixed to the ground.  Then came the rails which weighed 560 pounds each and were carried by four men.   They would sit the rails down per instructions of the supervisor and the spikes would be hammered into place.  One man would hold while another struck the spike with a 14 pound sledgehammer.  Hate to think of the thumbs and busted fingers when the strike was off a little.   Then special plates were bolted in where the rails met to hold each in place with its mate.

Many in the press of the day were worked up over the government bonds granted the railroads based on the number of miles the built.  It was claimed to be a great scam and the whole program filled with corruption.  It is true that a number of members of Congress did have shares in the Union Pacific and they were the ones voting on the deal and had oversight.  In spite of all the hue and cry and investigations (yes, they had Congressional investigations in those days also) the fact is that the bonds were all paid off with interest when due 30 years later.   The government made a very nice return on the money invested not to mention the greater economic boom from the lines being open.  Of course the government and the lines made some money on the sale of land along the lines but not so much as this was the boondocks, literally.

This again is an example of something done that couldn’t be repeated today.  With the EPA alone the line would never pass an environmental impact study much less all the litigation from the likes of the Sierra Club.  The OSHA folks would have shut the whole operation down because men were injured almost daily and there were a few hundred deaths along the way.  The FCC would have regulated the telegraph lines that were built side by side with the rail lines and vital to the flow of information so the correct inventory of goods could be shipped the following day.  It is sad to think but it is true; that railroad couldn’t be built in today’s world or at best it would take a couple of generations for completion.  The original was done in about 5 years.

Global warming must be really bad.  This is the coldest winter I can remember in about 70 years of winters in north Texas!   Methinks Ma Nature does as she wishes and laughs at our chest thumping about how important we are and influential on Her stage.

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Filed under business, Economics, geography, government, history

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