The Transcontinental Railroad: Brought to You by the Federal Government

Yesterday was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. There are many reasons why we still celebrate Lincoln’s birth and why his bearded visage was dynamited into the face of Mount Rushmore. He freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. He led the North to victory in the Civil War. And he eloquently encapsulated, in “The Gettysburg Address,” why it was necessary to fight to preserve the Union: “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Another key reason Lincoln graces Mount Rushmore and why he is often considered the greatest of United States presidents is his contribution to the building of the railroads that connected the country from Atlantic to Pacific. On July 1, 1862, more than a year into the War Between the States, Lincoln signed into law The Pacific Railway Act. With this law, the federal government pledged to support the construction of a transcontinental railroad. The law also enabled Lincoln and the Republican Party to begin fulfilling a promise made at the party’s nominating convention in Chicago in 1860.

A former railroad lawyer, Lincoln signed the law, because he saw it as essential to uniting new states California and Oregon with the rest of the country. He also saw the legislation as an engine of economic power for the United States and its people. Through its creation of the Union Pacific Railroad and authorizing 30-year bonds to finance the construction, the federal government played a central role in ensuring the transcontinental railroad was started — and completed. The period from the signing of the bill to the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, which symbolized the joining of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, took less than a decade.

Building that almost 2,000 miles of track, however, was beset with many woes. The project, which cost $100 million (almost $3 billion in current dollars), attracted corruption and self-dealing on a scale in keeping with the size of the undertaking. The transcontinental railroad also enriched the executives involved — Leland Stanford, the president of the Central Pacific Railroad, eventual founder of Stanford University, and robber baron, amassed an estimated fortune of $50 million in his life— while railroad workers, who included former Civil War soldiers as well as Chinese and Irish immigrants, often went unpaid despite building the railroad largely by hand.

Despite these problems, the railroad ultimately did what Lincoln envisioned when he enabled the federal government to back the ambitious project. The railroad united the nation. It changed conceptions of space and time by enabling a trip from coast-to-coast, which has previously been a months-long and perilous journey, to take less than a week. The transcontinental railroad was responsible for the sprouting of more than 7,000 towns at depots and water stops, according to the Union Pacific. And finally, the railroad, by 1880, was carrying more than $50 million annually in freight, a reality that helped propelled the United States on a trajectory to becoming the most powerful economy in the world.

And it all started with a law passed by federal government and signed by President Lincoln.

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