With the benefit of 150 years of hindsight, we can recognize today that the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869 was of greater importance to the people of the United States, culturally, socially and economically, than the inauguration of the worldwide steamship service. the country. Atlantic or the laying of the Atlantic Ocean telegraph cable.
In an age of interstate highways and fast air travel, it is hard to imagine how isolated the most distant parts of the United States were from the oceans, even in the mid-nineteenth century. The most optimistic of our early presidents, Thomas Jefferson, referred to the "immense and trailless deserts" of the Louisiana Purchase. Explorer Zebulon Pike compared these lands to the "sandy wastes of Africa." Daniel Webster stated that the Wyoming Territory "is not worth a penny" and is "a region of savages, wild beasts, quicksand, dust swirls, cacti and prairie dogs."
Maps of North America in 1900, three decades after the launch of the New York-San Francisco railroad, showed 500,000 square miles menacingly labeled the "Great American Desert," a name invented 75 years earlier by a government inspector. This desert encompassed nearly one-sixth of the 45 states of the young American republic – along with the untamed territories of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, lands admitted to the Union only after the turn of the twentieth century.
It was Jefferson who deserves credit for being the first to act to open a trade route between the eastern states and the Pacific. While he was in France in 1779 as United States Minister at Versailles, he asked John Ledyard to do a research for him, but Ledyard was unable to do it. Over the next seven decades, a distinctive line of nearsighted Americans sought to find a way to connect the American west with the American east, and their stories are preserved in a handful of excellent nineteenth-century stories.
The accounts of the creation of the Panama Canal and the forging of the transcontinental railroad were the top sellers in the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. No more. Unfortunately, we have forgotten this part of the American fairy tale. And it was with pleasure that I had a sense of the transformative nature of the tracks connecting the two coasts of the North American continent from William Francis Bailey. The History of the First Trans-Continental Railroad(Pittsburgh: 1906), The Pittsburgh Printing Company. I read the book on a Kindle, downloaded from Project Gutenberg. I also downloaded a facsimile copy of the book from the Internet Archive so I could see the text and "feel" the book.
This is a tale full of eccentric and visionary characters, including Asa Whitney, nicknamed "Father of the Pacific Railroad." He was an American merchant with extensive experience abroad, mainly in China. He proposed to Congress that the United States hand him a 90-kilometer-wide strip of land, the railroad to be his spine, from Lake Michigan to the Pacific coast. Whitney proposed using the resources from the "colonization" (his word) of this land harvest with European immigrants (to whom he would sell land alongside the railroad) to pay for the tracks, keeping all the remaining surplus for his private fortune. Whitney was indefatigable, traveling from Maine to the ends of the Missouri River at a time when visiting Missouri was like exploring the Nile.
Although the Senate Public Lands Committee approved Whitney's proposal in 1848, the bill "Authorizing Wing Whitney, his heirs or designees, to build a railroad from anywhere on Lake Michigan or the Mississippi River he so provided." designating, as nearly straight as possible, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean where a port was built "failed the entire Senate vote, mainly because it was considered, along with Whitney's $ 4,000 annual salary. , a deal just too rich for Whitney.
A Missouri senator objected to the measure that "it would give an empire larger than eight of the original states, with a sixty-mile ocean front, with hiring powers and sponsorships greater than the president of the United States." It was a fair criticism. Asa Whitney did not achieve her "empire". If Whitney succeeded in his plan, his "heirs and assigns" would now have more American areas than anyone other than the federal government itself. Congress later decided to undertake the railroad as a national enterprise, not as a private enterprise controlled by a single private citizen.
So what actually happened to connect both backs? What exactly do we mean by "Trans-Continental Railroad"? It first appears only as a dream in the minds of men like Abraham Lincoln and his predecessors, often referred to as the "land route to the Pacific Ocean" or "Pacific Railroad." At that time, it was a technological achievement as ambitious as the moon landing a century later. It required laying about 1,905 miles of contiguous runway, beginning in 1863 and continuing at a frenetic pace for six years, crowned by a ceremony at the Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, a quasi-religious gathering in its intensity, in which the last one the spike (this one made of silver and prudently removed the same day for display at the railroad headquarters!) was struck in the final draw to unite the east with the west rails. Soon a locomotive could pull a long train from New York Harbor to San Francisco Harbor.
As cars began to move east and west, the country suddenly had fast, reliable, and inexpensive mechanized technology to move people and cargo anywhere in the country, with horse or car access from the new stations to along the railway route. The railroad "shrunk the nation" and enabled Horace Greeley and other philosophers of the day to reasonably suggest to claustrophobic Orientals that they "go west" to make a fortune. Before the railroad, this meant taking nine months or more in a mule cart to reach the Pacific. In the decades following the linking of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail, distant and sparsely populated "territories" were admitted to the Union as new states, considerably increasing the size and prestige of America.
Bailey's narrative is graceful and informative. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the transcontinental railroad as a technological feat and astute economic development, certainly surpassing the excavation of the Erie Canal in the 1820s and the creation of the spider's hammock crossing the east coast while the American west was still. considered "wild" and as unexplored as Central Africa.
It was a magnificent road to commerce and travel that led directly to the settlement and incorporation of California, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming as states in the ever-growing American Republic.
Bailey's story is also concise, just 140 pages in the lovely Pittsburgh Press edition recreated in electronic form by Google. What I liked most about Bailey's writing was the sense of excitement he conveys about this amazing reinvention of America, similar to the excitement I felt myself as a teenager watching the moon missions unfold on CBS television.
This book should be read and reread not as a costly task, familiarizing us with an important chapter of American history, but simply because it is exciting and fun. It is a story that deserves to be renewed in our awareness of our country and the people who established it.