Before the mid-1800s, traveling from the East to the West coast was rough, dangerous, and long. The only transportation was with horses and coaches. At that time, it was the beginning of the attraction for the West coast, the promised land, with gold and a lot of free lands. Little by little, people started having ideas about building faster, safer, and more comfortable transportation. The first serious proposal to build a transcontinental railroad was made in 1845, by Asa Whitney. However, because of all the events happening in the country, we had to wait until July 1st, 1862, for President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Pacific Railroad Act.
This is when the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were created. All of this was possible thanks to one man: Theodore Judah. However, they still had one big problem, who is going to fund the construction? That’s when the Big Four come in. C. Huntington, L. Stanford, C. Crocker, and M. Hopkins decided that they would fund the construction, as it would also benefit their businesses.
This is how the humongous journey to build the railroad, from one coast to the other coast began. What did the construction change for the country? It broke many barriers! People could finally travel peacefully, trade throughout the country, and mail delivery was faster, which allowed the development of what became the Great West. It also changed the face of society nowadays, like the settlement of the Chinese workers in Los Angeles. This is why the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad led to important changes in the country and society.
Mid 1800, a grave economic situation in the country pushed the nation towards the need to build a transcontinental railroad.
First of all, the dream of becoming rich thanks to gold and the desire for free lands, pushed a part of the population to travel toward the West Coast. At that time, the Gold Rush was a dangerous journey. Indeed, traveling across the country was long, because they used horses and wagons. They had to pass hostile regions with bandits and American Indians that would attack them. The terrain was sometimes really rough, as they had to travel through planes, mountains, rivers, and deserts (History.com, paragraph 2). As described by M.W. Sandler(pg.3-4), the immigrants had to pass two mountain chains that were so steep that they had to lower wagons by rope. The weather was also harsh because when they crossed deserts, sandstorms and extreme heat were very common, and up high in the mountains snow and cold air would chill you to the bone. The whole journey would take months, with high risks. This is why people started to think about building faster and safer transportation.
Secondly, the country was shaken by the civil war. Billions of soldiers were killed. Abraham Lincoln was in need to move quickly the troops towards the western areas of the conflict. He saw the opportunity to do that by authorizing the construction of the railroad. This is why he signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 into law. (M.W. Sandler, pg 55)
In addition, the development of trade between Aorsia and the US, and also between the East and West coast, compounded the need for quicker and safer transportation. A lot of merchants started to be interested in the idea of the railroad because they saw opportunities to make more profits for their businesses. This is why they decided to invest in the construction.
Lastly, the need for communication increased too. The construction of the railroad motivated the building of a telegraph line along it. The telegraph allowed the two railroad companies to inform each other, at the end of each day about their progress. For instance, it helped them to communicate faster about the need f supply and new workers. Thanks to the telegraph, they were able to move quicker. This is why it was essential to the building process. If the construction of the railroad revolutionized transportation in the United States, the construction of the telegraph, was the longest communication system that the country had ever had. (M.W. Sandler, pg 144-145)
The construction of the Transcontinental railroad permitted great changes in the United States. It broke many barriers within American society and trade.
By completing the construction of the railroad, the time of the 3,000 miles journey through the country was considerably cut. Indeed, what took months before, became a week-long trip. It was also easier and safer to travel. This change had a huge impact on the way to exchange goods and population migration.
At first, it allowed the development of Asian trade with American merchants. The idea was to ship goods from the West Coast ports by rail. However, the completion of the Suez Canal gave European merchants an advantage in this Asian trade. It was a huge disappointment for the American merchants, but the construction was not a waste. The railroad permitted the development of trade between the East and the West Coasts. For instance, the East Coast was craving diversity and California could offer that spark. The West Coast, and particularly California, became an important industry for the rest of the country(California railroad museum, paragraph 23).
It should be noted that not only goods but also mail, were traveling faster and cheaper. It was such an astounding achievement, that by 1880 more than $50 million worth of goods and hundreds of thousands of letters and packages were sent by rail across the continent! The advantages were so great that by 1893, four more cross-country railroads were constructed and dozens of smaller ones branched from the main arteries(M.W. Martin, pg 176).
In addition to the increase and facilitation of trade, another effect of the railroad was the change of the profile of the country. The rail allowed the population to migrate to the promised lands, with gold and territories to cultivate. This soon became what was known as the Great West. Even though the lands seemed to be desert-like, the people who followed the construction of the railroad and settled along it, quickly noticed that the soil was one of the richest in the world. Millions of immigrants, mainly farmers, traveled transcontinental and settled in the West. This allowed the development of those desertic plains into acres of land with crops, which meant food for the entire country. (M.W Sandler, pg. 178)
Despite this positive impact, not everybody benefited the same way. Indeed, among the task force were the Chinese. They composed 80% of the workers for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. When it was completed, most of those Chinese railroads builders decided to settle in a part of Los Angeles, that is now known as Chinatown. Most of them reconverted in laundries or canneries; some became gardeners or farmers. Despite the fact a large number of them died during the construction or put a lot of effort into it, they remained discriminated against by the rest of the population. Even worse, the politicians tried to stop all the immigrants coming from China. For instance, Leland Stanford, who was the president of the Central Pacific, welcomed Chinese workers when he needed them. But all of a sudden, he decided to rally against Chinese immigration, when he didn’t need them anymore. Even a law was passed in 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act, that banned all Chinese workers from entering the United States. In this Act, they also added a provision that prohibited all Chinese men and women on the territory to receive citizenship, even though most of them built the Transcontinental Railroad. It was only during the Second World War that this Act was canceled, as more than 13,000 Chinese-American soldiers served and a lot of Chinese laborers worked in the war industries. After the war, a lot of Chinese immigrants came to the US and settled down there. Nowadays, nearly five million Chinese Americans still reside in the country(M.W. Sandler, pg 177)
In a country shaken by many events and changes, the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad allowed many improvements in a lot of different domains. To start, it permitted much safer travel for people, but also mail and goods. Thanks to it, the West Coast developed pretty fast, trade, and communication became easier and quicker. For most, the Transcontinental Railroad had a positive impact. However, many Chinese immigrants, who worked for the railroad, didn’t receive much recognition for their hard and dangerous work. However, nowadays, we can still see the impact of their immigration to the country. Chinatown in Los Angeles has been built by those courageous workers who abandoned everything in their country to come and help build one of the most amazing journeys in the United States.
This is why we can say that the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad has broken a lot of barriers in the mid-1800 and we can still notice these changes now!