Building west from Omaha, there were problems of a different nature. To construct a road, the Union Pacific had to cross land occupied by American Indians. From the Native Americans’ perspective, it was imperative to protect their families and homeland against the imminent invasion of a flood of immigrants.
By 1907 more than fourteen railroads, including the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (the Katy) and the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco), crossed Indian Territory.
Beginning in 1863, the Union Pacific, employing more than 8,000 Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, built west from Omaha, Nebraska; the Central Pacific, whose workforce included over 10,000 Chinese laborers, built eastward from Sacramento, California.
From the beginning, then, the building of the transcontinental railroad was set up in terms of a competition between the two companies. In the West, the Central Pacific would be dominated by the “Big Four”– Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins.
Theodore Judah, a civil engineer who helped build the first railroad in California, promoted a route along the 41st parallel, running through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.
Construction began in 1870 when crews of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway Company (MK&T, or Katy) laid the first track in Indian Territory into the Cherokee Nation south of Chetopa, Kansas. By December 1872 the line reached Denison, Texas, completing a north-south route in Indian Territory.
As white explorers and settlers entered Western territory, they disrupted a centuries-old culture — that of the Plains Indians. The arrival of the railroad and, with it, more permanent and numerous white settlement, spelled growing conflict between whites and natives.
Between 1865-1869, 10,000 -12,000 Chinese were involved in the building of the western leg of the Central Pacific Railroad. The work was backbreaking and highly dangerous. Approximately 1,200 died while building the Transcontinental Railroad.
Today, most of the transcontinental railroad line is still in operation by the Union Pacific (yes, the same railroad that built it 150 years ago). The map at left shows sections of the transcon that have been abandoned throughout the years.
Despite their hard work, the Chinese experienced discrimination for generations after the completion of the railroad. California laws prevented them from being admitted as witnesses in court, voting, and becoming naturalized citizens. Chinese schoolchildren were also subject to segregation.
The rail line, also called the Great Transcontinental Railroad and later the “Overland Route,” was predominantly built by the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California (CPRR) and Union Pacific (with some contribution by the Western Pacific Railroad Company) over public lands provided by extensive US land grants.
One year into the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act (1862), guaranteeing public land grants and loans to the two railroads it chose to build the transcontinental line, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific.
From 1863 and 1869, roughly 15,000 Chinese workers helped build the transcontinental railroad. They were paid less than American workers and lived in tents, while white workers were given accommodation in train cars.
Jay Gould Infamous for manipulating stock, Jay Gould was the most notoriously corrupt railroad owner. He became involved in the budding railroad industry in New York during the Civil War, and in 1867 became a director of the Erie Railroad.
Jay Gould was the most notoriously railroad owner. Bribery occurred frequently. Corruption in the railroad industry became public in 1872, when the Credit Mobilier Scandal erupted.
No one is sure how many Chinese workers died building the railroad because the Central Pacific kept no such records. Estimates range from 50 and up to 1,200.