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Riding the Transcontinental Rails:
Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad.


by Bruce C. Cooper

Riding the Transcontinental Rails, Cover. Courtesy Bruce C. Cooper.

Polyglot Press, 2004, with content from the CPRR Museum.

Order a copy of this new book.

Arguably, the single most significant American technological achievement of the 19th Century was the building of the Transcontinental Railroad which, when it opened in May, 1869, established the first truly practical overland passenger and freight link between the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts. In the long run, however, of perhaps even greater significance was how this "great national work" would also fundamentally reshape the post Civil War expansion of the United States and thereby profoundly alter the overall course of the nation's history.

While the much anticipated opening of the new Pacific Railroad finally made "rapid" (i.e., about a week) coast-to-coast overland travel both possible and affordable for the first time, in many ways the taking of such a journey could still rightly be viewed as a glorious adventure. Although those traveling the transcontinental rails could now avoid the necessity to devote massive amounts of time (six weeks to six months) and exposure to many dangers (disease, shipwreck, bandits, exposure to the extremes of climate, etc.) previously required to make a New York to San Francisco journey by sailing ship around Cape Horn (17,000 miles by sea), via ocean steamers and Panama, or overland by wagon train across the plains, the Rockies, and the Sierras, nevertheless Nineteenth century transcontinental rail travel – while often a grand experience – could still be fraught with unexpected challenges and hardships.

This unmistakable aura of adventure naturally fostered the same kind of insatiable public appetite for information about transcontinental railroad travel in 1869 that man's first journey to the moon would do for the interest in space travel a century later in 1969. Countless sets of Pacific railroad stereoviews by the likes of such noted photographic artists Alfred A. Hart, Charles Savage, Thomas Houseworth, A.J. Russell, and Carlton E. Watkins were sold all over North America and Europe. Detailed travel guides, copiously illustrated with maps and engravings, such as Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist Guide and Frederick Shearer's The Pacific Tourist became popular and perennial best sellers. But what armchair adventurers devoured with the greatest passion were the colorful "first person" accounts of transcontinental railroad travel authored by many of the era's most popular writers which appeared in the newspapers, monthly literary magazines, and books of the day.

Included in the following pages are a collection of some of the best of these contemporary accounts selected from the works of these writers. Among these are selections by the ill fated author-adventurer, political activist, and noted New York Tribune correspondent Albert D. Richardson, the widely traveled Springfield (MA) Republican owner and Editor Samuel Bowles, Scottish novelist, poet, and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson, former New York Evening Post Managing Editor and world traveler Charles Nordhoff, onetime Chicago Evening Journal military correspondent Benjamin F. Taylor, American novelist and ardent supporter of Native American peoples Helen Hunt Jackson, and her close friend and frequent traveling companion Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, herself a popular author of children's novels who often wrote under the name of Susan Coolidge. In addition to their books, some of these accounts first appeared in the in the pages of such widely read publications as Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Scribner's Magazine, The Overland Monthly, the New York Times, and the New York Tribune.

In addition to the above, also included here are two fascinating first person accounts by nonprofessional writers which were not written for publication. One is a personal account by James H. Kinkead, the former Under Sheriff of Washoe County, Nevada, who solved and captured the perpetrators of the first train robbery in the west, that of the CPRR's Overland Express which took place near Verdi, Nevada, in November, 1870. But perhaps most remarkable of all, however, is a never before published 1872 letter from a 34-year old Boston businessman named Walter Scott Fitz written to his mother with a colorful day-by-day account of his harrowing 36-day winter transcontinental rail passage from Boston to San Francisco – which he describes as "the most eventful journey in the history of railroading" – during which he and his fellow passengers were often snowbound throughout Wyoming over a period of more than three weeks.

* * *

In many ways the development of railroads in the United States – which began with the Granite Railway of Quincy (MA) in 1826 and the Baltimore & Ohio in 1827 – mirrored that of the young nation itself. As the country's population and economy grew, so too did the many new "ribbons of iron" that began to crisscross its ever expanding landscape. More than anything else, over the next hundred years or so the railroads provided the many new lines of communication necessary to support the transformation of the United States from a one time Eighteenth Century confederation of former British colonies nestled along the Atlantic seaboard to a Twentieth Century continent-wide industrial giant.

The great vastness of the American west was nonetheless daunting, however, and until mid-century was still considered by many to be all but unconquerable. In the summer of 1820, Stephen H. Long, a prominent U.S. Army topographical engineer, had led the first formal government topographical survey and scientific expedition out the Platte River Valley from Council Bluffs proceeding as far west as Long’s Peak in what is now Colorado before turning south and east again. While a half century later that same Platte valley would become the UPRR's route for the easternmost portion of the Pacific Railroad, in a report of his survey entitled "General Description of the Country Traversed by the Exploring Expedition," Long propounded what became known as the "Great American Desert" myth which for the next three decades or more did much to discourage any serious consideration of western settlement in the plains.

"In regard to this extensive section of country, I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by people depending on agriculture for their subsistence," Long wrote. "This region, however, viewed as a frontier, may prove of infinite importance to the United States inasmuch as it is calculated to serve as a barrier to prevent too great an extension of our population westward, and secure us against machinations or incursions of an enemy that might otherwise be disposed to annoy us in that part of our frontier."

That dismissive view finally began to soften with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in México City on February 2, 1848, which ended the Mexican War and finally extended the boundaries of the United States west to the Pacific Ocean. The Treaty granted the U.S. more than 525,000 square miles of former Mexican territory that includes present-day Arizona, California, western Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. With the discovery of gold in California the following year and its admission to the Union as a state in 1851, the question of building a Pacific railroad – for reasons of both commerce and national defense – was also no longer one of "if" it would happen, but only of "when."

On March 3, 1853, the Congress authorized the expenditure of $150,000 by the War Department to conduct extensive "explorations and surveys ... to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean," and within two months the surveys of five such routes by parties of U.S. Army Topographical Engineers were already underway. In his Report of the Department of War to President Franklin Pierce for 1853, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis wrote, in part, of these expeditions:

"A vast extent of country was to be accurately surveyed, and numerous lines, thousands of miles in extent, to be examined; and it is hardly, therefore, to be hoped that such data can be collected as will satisfactorily answer the question proposed. But it is confidently believed that much information will be added to the stock previously possessed, perhaps enough to determine the practicability of the proposed enterprise.

" ... The explorations of Lewis and Clarke, who crossed to the Pacific, and those of Colonel (Stephen H.) Long, while they throw much light on the general geography and topography of the country, and have served to indicate the routes to be explored, do not give profiles of the regions passed over.

" ... The information which has been received from the parties now in the field is too limited and imperfect to [yet] justify an opinion on the question proposed by the act of Congress. When the reports of these parties shall have been received, or at the date prescribed by Congress, it is my purpose to submit a condensed statement and map, exhibiting all the reliable information possessed, with profiles annexed of all instrumental surveys which have at any time been made, and which serve to answer the inquiry contained in the act of appropriation under which surveys are now in progress."

Over the next two years a massive twelve volume Report detailing the findings of the survey parties was published and submitted to the Congress. While competing economic interests between the North and South as to which of the five routes surveyed should be chosen prevented the successful passage by Congress of a Pacific Railroad Act until 1862, the reasons for the nation to support such a road were laid out in a Report of the Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph filed six years earlier on August 16, 1856, by its Chairman, Rep. James W. Denver (D-CA), who wrote:

"The necessity that exists for constructing lines of railroad and telegraphic communication between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of this continent is no longer a question for argument; it is conceded by every one. In order to maintain our present position on the Pacific, we must have some more speedy and direct means of intercourse than is at present afforded by the route through the possessions of a foreign power.

"The importance of our Pacific possessions is felt in every pursuit and in every relation of life. The gold of California has furnished the merchant and trader with a capital by which enterprises have been undertaken and accomplished which were before deemed impracticable. Our commercial marine has been nearly doubled since 1848; internal improvements have been pushed forward with astonishing rapidity; the value of every kind of property has been doubled; and the evidences of prosperity and thrift are everywhere to be seen. The security and protection of that country, from whence have emanated nearly all these satisfactory results, is of the greatest importance; and that can be accomplished only by direct and easy communications through our own territories. Railroads will effect this. At present, we are forced to resort to a very circuitous route by sea, through the tropics and across the continent, at the most sickly point in the torrid zone. Should a war break out between our country and any other maritime nation, or should a difficulty arise with one of the petty Spanish-American States through which these routes lie, our communications would be interrupted, and the unity of our confederacy actually broken up.

"Looking to these facts alone to secure the construction of these lines of communication, has given to them such an importance as never attached to any work of internal improvements since the time when, during President Jefferson's administration, it was thought necessary to connect the States lying on the Atlantic seaboard with the States lying in the valley of the Mississippi, by means of roads across the Allegheny mountains. Insignificant as such an undertaking as the building of a wagon road across the Alleghenies may appear now, the proposition was then deemed exceedingly difficult and occupied quite as much of the public attention as the Pacific railroad does at the present time. The States were then separated only by the mountain range of the Alleghenies, but the western Country was so remote and access to it so difficult, that the construction of a road was considered absolutely necessary, and sufficient to authorize the earnest attention of Congress.

"The people of the western frontier were at that time exposed to frequent incursions of the Indians. The country was exceedingly fertile, but the markets were so distant that the productions were an encumbrance rather than a profit to the farmer, and vast tracts of rich agricultural lands were suffered to remain an unbroken waste. The action of the government attracted public attention, and awakened private enterprise. Canals were projected, and then followed railroads, until every part of that country, which was but a few years ago called the 'far west,' has been brought within three or four days' communication with the cities on the seaboard, giving a new impulse to commerce, increasing the value of property, and relieving the frontiers from all the dangers of a hostile foe.

"No better example can be given of the benefits resulting from the construction of railroads, to both public and private property, than that of the Illinois Central railroad. On the line of that road the public lands had been offered for sale many years without finding a purchaser, and were at last reduced to the lowest minimum price, twelve and a half cents per acre. Even this reduction was not sufficient to induce their sale; but after the government had given away one-half to assist in building the road, the other half was very readily sold for two dollars and fifty cents per acre. Similar results have followed the building of nearly every other railroad in the country, although in many instances, as in this, the roads came in direct competition with river and canal transportation.

"A railroad across the continent would open up a vast extent of country to settlement, and much of what is now believed to be sterile and barren will, no doubt, (as in California) be found to yield bountifully to the agriculturist.

"These lands are now totally without value, no matter how fertile they may be, and to the government worthless. By giving away one half for the construction of the proposed roads, the government will thereby attach a value to the remainder; and whatever that value may be, will be the amount the government is gainer by the transaction. Your committee have not thought proper to step aside from the long established system of the government in granting lands only to aid in the construction of the roads under consideration, except incidentally, in the payment for transportation of, troops, munitions of war, &c., and for carrying the mails; at the same time they have endeavored to extend to every portion of the country an equal share of the benefits to be derived from it. Every part of the country, extending from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico, is brought in direct contact with one or the other of the proposed roads, and from the western frontiers of the States lying west of the Mississippi, connexions are easily made with roads already completed to the cities on the Atlantic seaboard.

" ... From the results of the surveys authorized by Congress, we derive, at least, the assurance that the work is practicable; and may dismiss the apprehensions which, previously, we could not but entertain as to the possibility of defending our Pacific territory through a long war with a powerful maritime enemy.

"The judgment which may be formed as to the prospect of its completion, must control our future plans for the military defence of that frontier; and any plan for the purpose which should leave that consideration out of view, would be as imperfect as if it should disregard all those other resources with which commerce and art aid the operations of armies.

"Whether we shall depend on private capital and enterprise alone for the early establishment of railroad communication, or shall promote its construction by such aid as the general government may constitutionally give; whether we shall rely on the continuance of peace until the increase of the population and resources of the Pacific States shall render them independent of aid from those of the Atlantic slope and Mississippi valley; or whether we shall adopt the extensive system of defence above referred to, are questions of public policy which belongs to Congress to decide.

"Beyond the direct employment of such a road for military purposes, it has other relations to all the great interests of our confederacy, political, commercial, and social, the prosperity of which essentially contributes to the common defence. Of these it is not my purpose to treat, further than to point to the additional resources which it would develop, and the increase of population which must attend upon giving such facility of communication to a country so tempting to enterprise, much of which, having most valuable products, is beyond the reach of market."

* * *

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 designated the Union Pacific Railroad Company to build west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha through Nebraska, Wyoming, and into Utah, and the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California to build east from Sacramento, California, through to Nevada and Utah. The CPRR was organized on June 28, 1861, by a group of Sacramento merchants known later as the "Big Four" – Collis P. Huntington, Gov. Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker.

Finding a practical mountain route for the rail line over California's Sierra Nevada mountains would be the key to the successful building of any Pacific Railroad. Such a route was first conceived and surveyed by a Dutch Flat, California, gold prospector and drugstore owner, Dr. Daniel W. Strong, and railroad engineer Theodore Dehone Judah of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. Judah obtained the financial backing of the California group, became the CPRR's Chief Engineer, and then went to Washington where he won federal support in the form of the Pacific Railroad Act, signed in July, 1862, by President Abraham Lincoln, himself a former railroad lawyer for the Illinois Central.

Government bonds, required to be repaid after completion of construction, were issued to the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad Companies as they completed construction milestones, and they were granted sizable parcels of land along the entire length of the track as an added incentive, placing the CPRR and UPRR in competition – a race to the finish at an undetermined meeting point.

The Central Pacific began laying track eastward from Sacramento, California in 1863, and the Union Pacific started laying track westward from Omaha, Nebraska, two years later in July, 1865. To meet its manpower needs, the Central Pacific hired thousands of Chinese laborers, including many recruited from farms in Canton. These crews had the formidable task of laying the track across California's rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range including the blasting of fifteen tunnels to accomplish this great feat. The crews of the Union Pacific, which was composed largely of Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans, had to contend with the Rocky Mountains and attacks by Native peoples. On May 10, 1869, the 1,776 miles, 4,814 feet of new track of the two rail lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah.

A key figure for the CPRR in the accomplishment of this great work was Lewis M. Clement (my great great grandfather) who, as that road's Chief Assistant Engineer, had primary charge of locating, designing and supervising the construction of the difficult grade over California's Sierra Nevada Mountains which included the perilous Cape Horn, the 1,660-foot Summit Tunnel which was hand drilled and blasted with black powder through solid granite, and building more than 40 miles of snowsheds to keep the track clear during winter blizzards. In addition to the difficult Sierra grade, Lewis Clement also had similar responsibility for the final 200 miles of the CPRR line across Nevada and Utah to Promontory Summit.

In February, 1869, Clement was appointed by the Secretary of the Interior as one of four members of the Special U.S. Pacific Railroad Commission to inspect and approve the railroad’s location and construction and help to determine the very sticky issue of where the CPRR and UPRR would finally meet. Once the line opened in 1869 Clement added the duties of CPRR Superintendent of Track, a position he held until 1881.

In his 1887 statement submitted to the U.S. Pacific Railway Commission, Clement summarized the challenges and great obstacles – both physical and financial – which had to be overcome to build the CPRR:

"At the beginning of the construction, the company, knowing the political and commercial necessities demanding the rapid completion of the railroad, determined that nothing which was in their power to prevent should for a single day arrest its progress.

"With this determination in view all energies were bent, fully realizing the physical obstacles and financial difficulties to be overcome.

"The financial difficulties were not lessened by the opinions circulated to the effect that the obstacles were insurmountable; that the railroads then constructed in Europe were as bagatelles compared with the difficulties to be met in constructing the Central Pacific Railroad, and failure was clearly written on the rocky sides of the cañons and the bold granite walls of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

"Not only was it impossible to construct a railroad across the Sierras via Donner Pass, but owing to the great depth of snow, some years reaching an aggregate fall of nearly 50 feet, would be impracticable to operate, and if built must be closed to traffic in the winter months, which would have been the case had not the road been protected at great cost by snow sheds.

"Against these utterances from men of railroad experience the company had to battle in financial circles, forcing them to show that they were not attempting an impossibility, though always realizing the great difficulties."

Many sections of the original grade of the combined Central Pacific-Union Pacific route as originally laid down between 1863 and 1869 have been realigned or relocated since the "Last Spike" was driven on May 10, 1869. The location of Lewis Clement's CPRR Sierra grade, however, remains virtually unchanged and still serves today, more than a century-and-a-third later, as one of the busiest and most important arteries of the nation’s commerce.

Now owned and operated by the Union Pacific, the route of the first Pacific railroad from Omaha to Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area is today primarily a freight road. However overland passengers still happily ride the scenic rails of this route every day of the year aboard Amtrak's daily westbound (#5) and eastbound (#6) "California Zephyr" runs from Chicago to Oakland.

And in many ways, "riding the transcontinental rails" from the Atlantic to the Pacific can still rightly be viewed as a glorious adventure.

Riding the Transcontinental Rails, Cover. Courtesy Bruce C. Cooper.

Polyglot Press, 2004, with content from the CPRR Museum.

Riding the Transcontinental Rails. Courtesy Bruce C. Cooper.

Courtesy Bruce C. Cooper.

Order a copy of this new book.

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