Retracing the Trails of the Iron Horse

Retracing the Trails of the Iron Horse

Meet the pathfinders, engineers, industrialists, and dreamers who pioneered the Transcontinental Railroad and U.S. economic expansion and growth.

In 1975, 13 prominent members of the Western Writers of America, a group of authors dedicated to creating Western fiction, published a seminal history of westward U.S. railroad expansion titled Trails of the Iron Horse. Their task was to revisit accounts of colorful characters, derring-do, corruption, courage, and perseverance. They wrote about industrialists who operated outside the law, engineers that sacrificed life and liberty in the pursuit of laying down tracks, and government leaders who had great expectations—then seized them without quarter.

This is the story of the Transcontinental Railroad and the legacy that many of today’s railroading pioneers continue to grow.

While globalization and technological innovation have radically changed the means of transportation over the past 150 years, the U.S. railroad remains a fixed part of the continental topography. Nineteenth-century railroaders were hell-bent on expanding track in uncharted wilderness, and today’s successors are equally determined to open rail intermodal transport to a new world of shippers. Then as now, Asian trade is a primary motivator for and benefactor of U.S. rail expansion.

The following excerpts from Trails of the Iron Horse—contextualized by Inbound Logistics in indented asides—share a passion and curiosity for Western railroad history that would be impossible to replicate in a post-deregulation world.

They reveal nostalgia for the wild and lawless Iron Horse, and offer a welcome reprieve from the burden of government regulation that derailed progress throughout the 1970s. In that sense, given the context of the day, they may collectively serve as a cautionary tale.

Join Inbound Logistics and the Western Writers of America as we revisit the pathfinders, engineers, industrialists, and dreamers who pioneered the Transcontinental Railroad and U.S. economic expansion and growth.

The Pathfinders

Andrew Jackson | Asa Whitney | James K. Polk

U.S. expansionist sensibilities and successes laid the foundation for building a transcontinental railroad. But as Don Russell, editor of Trails of the Iron Horse suggests, the western railroad really wasn’t invented. It happened.

A number of forces and influences drove transcontinental railroad development, ranging from technological advances in locomotion to U.S. military movements and explorations, and increasing immigration and homesteading throughout the Wild West. But perhaps most important was the vision of a select few who saw what could be.

As practical men strove to perfect the great machine of the 19th century—the locomotive—and all its accompanying requisites, they began to typify the spirit of the nation. The railroad was the technological symbol of an era and, by the 1840s, Americans had come to believe that they could accomplish just about anything.

They called it Manifest Destiny: "To overspread and possess the whole of the continent for development of our great experiment in liberty and self-government."

This had been envisioned by early presidents such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. The puny new nation brought forth on this continent by our forefathers was hemmed in by territories belonging to powerful, threatening giants, masters of the world: England, France, and Spain, struggling with one another for spoils of conquest.

Andrew Jackson, president from 1828 to 1836, had defeated the British at New Orleans, but the War of 1812 had proved indecisive. Spain held the Southwest, plus California and Florida. The Spanish inflicted the last thorn in our nation’s foot, when they armed and incited the Native Americans to raid South Georgia.

The fiery Jackson wouldn’t stand for this, and sent a punitive expedition into north Florida to retaliate. Rather than lose Florida by war, as seemed inevitable, Spain sold the peninsula to the United States.

Sam Houston was a pupil and disciple of Jackson, who was his mentor and idol. Secretly, Jackson sent the young giant to Texas, with acquisition in mind. Houston defeated Mexican General Santa Ana and formed the Republic of Texas, which in due time joined the United States, as Jackson had hoped.

Surely a transcontinental railroad would further Manifest Destiny. What’s more, the mouths of Eastern capitalists watered at the prospect of tapping Asia’s riches by such a shortcut. Almost without exception, early promoters of the railroads based their argument on the Asiatic trade.

Such arrogance or ignorance of free enterprise allowed a Connecticut Yankee merchant named Asa Whitney to court Congress in 1844 with an outlandish plan aimed at developing a cross-country railroad corridor—while earning him a fortune.

Whitney asked the United States to deed to him, at 16 cents per acre, a strip of land 60 miles wide from Wisconsin to the Pacific Ocean, on which he would build a railroad. He would finance his railroad by laying a few miles of track, which would increase the land’s value.

He would sell the completed stretch of track at a large profit, using the proceeds to lay for further construction—on and on until he reached the mouth of the Columbia River.

In 25 years, declared Whitney, the United States would have a railroad over which the treasures of the Orient would flow.

But the time was not yet ripe. A young Congressman from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas, said, "By all means, build a railroad, but begin it at Chicago."

"Not so," cried out in print the editor of the influential Police Gazette, based in Independence, Mo. "This should be the starting place!"

Whitney’s 25-year prediction was right, but his personal aspirations never materialized. The vision, however, paved the way for others to complete what he could not. The path toward a transcontinental corridor required a poke—a James K. Polk.

The 11th president of the United States, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, N.C., is arguably one of the most influential and least-recognized leaders in the history of the United States.

President James K. Polk was a continentalist who not only believed in Manifest Destiny, but did something about it in 1848.

He went to war with Mexico, and the treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo ceded to the victor our great Southwest and California. Polk, another of Andrew Jackson’s pupils, had learned his lessons well.

Then the United States spread from ocean to ocean. But the East was separated from the West by 2,000 miles of terra incognita, "The Great American Desert," as our fertile wheat and livestock heartland had been named, and by "impassable mountains," the Rockies and Sierras.

The Crossing

Rock Island Bridge

Crossing the mighty Mississippi was arguably the first major engineering feat necessary for westward expansion. The challenge pitted the Burlington and Rock Island railroads against one another as both vied to bridge the gap between Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa, and capture the coveted western trade.

The task of engineering a span across the river also invited antagonism from two other competing interests : the existing steamboat and ferry services that owned the river.

Bridging the Mississippi was of significance to all. But to the Burlington, it was a setback that this project had gone to the Rock Island. Along with another competing railroad, the North Western, the Burlington awaited the outcome.

The Rock Island began constructing piers in 1853, while the river people watched with trepidation. The future, with all its uncertainty, was here.

The bridge was in trouble even before construction began. There had never been a bridge—railroad or any other kind—over the Mississippi. The long-overdue confrontation festering between steamboat interests and railroaders was coming to a head with the projected Rock Island Bridge. Public opinion leaned toward the steamboats; they were efficient, reliable, and, of course, they had been there first.

But work went on inexorably. Gradually, the wood and iron structure arose from granite piers. The wooden structure was 1,582 feet long, the spans 250 feet with the drawbridge span 285 feet. When opened, the channel for river traffic on both sides of the pier was 120 feet wide.

Work was completed April 21, 1856. The first train crossed the next day. Traffic immediately flowed regularly across the stream, linking Iowa and Illinois by rail for the first time.

Spectators were amazed and disappointed. The bridge was a novelty for its time and place, and they had expected it to collapse under the first train.

The Rock Island’s triumph lasted only two weeks.

On May 6, 1856, a steamboat, the Effie Afton, came upriver. It was dusk, and the bridge tender did not see her at first. The low-muffled blast of her whistle alerted him. He peered through the growing darkness, saw the boat coming nearer, and opened the draw as quickly as the mechanism would allow.

The steamboat moved carefully through the draw and proceeded some 200 feet before something went wrong. She suddenly veered—even though there was no wind. Then she heeled hard to the right. Her starboard engine stopped, the port engine quickened.

The boat slammed into the span next to the open draw. There was an explosion from the depths, and the Effie Afton burst into flames. The new bridge was blazing, a pier badly damaged, the draw pivot jammed.

Volunteer firemen from both states saved all but one span. But before repairs could be made, a high wind swept downriver against the crippled bridge, lifted the draw span, and threw it on its side.

The Rock Island Bridge debacle will probably be best remembered for introducing an inspired lawyer from Illinois who defended the interests of the railroad and would soon capture the hearts of the Union.

Undaunted, the Rock Island began repairs in the face of a lawsuit from the steamship company. Long court battles ensued. Abraham Lincoln, appointed the railroad’s principal attorney, defended the railroad’s right to bridge the river.

"People have as much right to travel east and west as north and south," he remarked.

Already known for his simple, direct approach, Lincoln and a helper measured the river’s flow. There was no current at point of impact. It was in keeping with a report on the river in the bridge area made earlier by Robert E. Lee, then an Army engineer. With no current at point of impact, the cause of the crash lay either with the steamboat captain or the Effie Afton‘s defective machinery.

Sympathy for the steamboat interests held greater sway than Lincoln’s simple, logical explanation, and he lost the first two trials. However, the groundwork he laid for the defense became known in the courts, in Congress, and throughout the nation.

The case finally ended in the Supreme Court in 1862, and the railroads won. It was the last time they had to defend the right to bridge a navigable stream.

The Engineer

Theodore Judah

For many 19th-century pioneers, the allure of the unknown was incentive enough to move west. Some went for the color—if not for the gold seams that both made and ruined men, then for the silver and gold coinage spent freely as commercial businesses sprouted up around Gold Rush settlements. Others were merely homesteaders looking to stake a claim on a new way of life.

Theodore Judah went to California to build a railroad.

The 23 miles of rail constituting the first railroad track west of the Mississippi River was never impressive in itself. The Sacramento Valley Railroad, intended to connect the state capital on the river with the gold camps of the Sierra foothills 75 miles and more to the east, was built as far as Folsom and never any farther. Some of the miners did ride its yellow coaches, some supplies were hauled up the wide valley by the puffing bell-stacked engine, but the line was not an economic success, nor did it greatly ease the difficulties of those it served.

Its importance in history lies in the fact that Theodore D. Judah of Troy, N.Y., was brought west to engineer its building.

After attending a technical school in his hometown, Judah leaped into the construction of a railroad between Troy and Schenectady. From then until his death, he was devoted to the rail lines.

At 22, Judah built the famous track in the Niagara Gorge. As his reputation spread, he built bridges and surveyed rail lines all over New England, until C.L. Wilson, president of the newborn Sacramento Valley Railroad project, sought him out and offered him the job of chief engineer.

Judah hesitated. A brother in San Francisco had written of the difficulties in which the new state wallowed, but Wilson kept after him until Judah and his wife took the steamer for California.

The work of grading the line was begun in February 1855. In June, Judah and three company officials lifted a flatcar onto the fresh-laid rails, and the platform was pushed up the hundred yards of finished track, making them the first passengers ever to ride west of the Mississippi.

The Sacramento was extended to Folsom in record time, but financial depression had gripped the state, and the promoters were forced to put away their grand schemes of steel lines stretching all along the coast. The Sacramento Valley road, as the wags said, started in a river marsh and ended in a dust field.

Judah was out of work. The rational thing for a man of his ability and experience would have been to return East, but he had been bitten by the California bug. He had tramped and ridden through the Sierra Nevadas, and an obsession was growing within him. Edging toward it, he talked to many people about projected railroads, none of which got past the planning stage.

What finally became a clear mandate to him was his vision of bridging the great mountain spine with a railroad to connect the Pacific Coast with the Eastern seaboard.

The Industrialists

Leland Stanford | Charles Crocker | Mark Hopkins | Collis Huntington

Theodore Judah was an engineer by trade, but perhaps his greatest contribution to history was his tireless efforts pushing Congress toward funding for a Pacific railroad, then a transcontinental one.

After years of pressing buttons in Washington, and delay due to the untimely outbreak of civil war in 1861, Judah finally succeeded when Congress consummated the Railroad Act of 1862, providing for the formation of two railroads as a measure to preserve the Union.

The Union Pacific would build the main line to the California border, and the Central Pacific would lay tracks from Sacramento to meet it—though eventually they connected in Utah. The project received land grants of 10 sections per mile, and a first-mortgage loan from the government of $48,000 per mile through the Sierras and Rockies, and $32,000 per mile across the Great Basin between the mountain ranges.

Thomas C. Durant was the Union Pacific benefactor of the Railroad Act, largely attributed to the fact that he had hired Abraham Lincoln as attorney for the railroads during the Effie Afton fiasco in 1856.

On the other side were four men of commercial means who would ultimately become the robber barons of the western railroad.

Jubilantly, Judah went to San Francisco to raise money. San Francisco resisted him. So did Sacramento when he went there to meet with moneyed men. But Judah did not know when he was beaten.

A second meeting in the capital city was arranged, this one over a hardware store, sparsely attended by a few friends, a handful of Sacramento men—and four who made the difference.

With barely a dozen men in the room, none of them likely material to launch so vast an undertaking, the four key men were Leland Stanford, a grocer; Charles Crocker, a dry goods merchant; and two partners in the hardware store, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington.

Huntington was the acknowledged business leader. It was he who would fight new legislation through Congress; browbeat manufacturers of rails, locomotives, equipment—whatever was needed—into selling at prices below their regular levels; and trade with ship owners to carry the massive loads 13,000 miles around the Cape of Good Horn.

Hopkins was watchdog of the treasury, scrutinizing every item to wring from it their full share.

Stanford, grocer and politician, used all his connections and know-how to milk more subsidies from the state legislature and all of the communities who hoped to profit when the road came through them.

And huge Charles Crocker, dealer in dry goods, would physically drive the steel rails over the "hill" that 90 percent of Californians insisted could not be conquered: the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Associates, as they came to call themselves, grew into a force to be reckoned with. Judah needed their backing to finance his venture, but soon recognized their capitalist interests were at odds with his otherwise noble endeavor.

Taking in the four Sacramento merchants, Judah took a camel into his tent. Together they would drive the engineer out of the company before work on the railroad was barely begun.

The Federal law creating the Central Pacific Railroad was passed, but it specified that no subsidy should be paid the company until the first 40 miles had been built. Effectively, it forced the promoters to pay that cost themselves, either out of their own pockets or by finding the money somewhere.

Huntington took off for Washington to lobby for help. Stanford, already strengthening his political connections in a bid that led to his election as governor, squeezed concessions from the counties and cities through which the rails would pass, as well as from the California state legislature in Sacramento.

The ways of the engineer and the promoters parted quickly. The four partners wanted the first 40 miles laid as cheaply as possible. Judah wanted to build well, for permanence. That was not the only disagreement. Judah wanted a correct, conventional financial structure aimed at benefitting the road; the merchants were accustomed to quick profits and devious methods of achieving them.

The four came up with a wonderful compromise, independently incorporating a contracting company which, as directors of the railroad company, they hired to construct the Central Pacific. Some organization had to build it, and would profit from the job. It might as well be they themselves.

Judah, horrified at such chicanery, protested loudly, and the open break yawned. It was agreed that the four merchants would buy out the engineer’s interest for $100,000, or he in turn could buy out each of them for a like amount.

Eternally optimistic, Judah started for New York, certain now that the Vanderbilt interests would back his Pacific railroad. But it will never be known if he was right. He contracted yellow fever en route, and was dead shortly after landing in New York.

The Golden Spike

Central Pacific Railroad | Union Pacific Railroad

After Judah’s untimely demise, the Associates took control of the Central Pacific operation and began the tedious process of laying track over the Sierra Nevada. Crocker, the operations man, bossed the project while his partners continued fundraising, scheming, and politicking.

Stanford, who had proposed using Chinese immigrants as cheap laborers—and for whom Stanford University is named—was elected governor of California in 1862 while also serving as de facto president of the Central Pacific.

The process of building the railroad was slow and labored, with funding shortages and never-ending engineering challenges often contributing to a glacial pace. All the while the Union Pacific, led by Durant and his Irish workers, was making swift progress from the Missouri River.

On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, west of Ogden, Utah, the stage was set for the wedding of the rails.

According to Union Pacific accounts of the historic occasion, as soon as Stanford’s special (the train hitched behind the Jupiter locomotive) rolled to a stop, Chinese laborers from the Central Pacific’s construction gangs rushed in to level the ground in the gap, readying it for the last ties and the joining of the iron.

On orders from W.B. Hubbard, Western Union superintendent, wires from the nearest telegraph pole, on top of which a nine-year-old boy was perched for a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings, were run down to a special operator’s kit on a small four-legged table beside the gap.

Seated at the table, W.N. Shilling of the company’s Ogden office waited to tap out a blow-by-blow description of the final act to the waiting nation. A silver-headed spike maul, wired so that its blows would activate the telegraph key, lay waiting.

While the crowd cheered, the last tie was carried into place by Superintendents J.H. Strobridge of the Central Pacific and S.B. Reed of the Union Pacific. Now all was in readiness for the driving of the Golden Spike.

All Western Union wires had been cleared for the Promontory news and finally, as an eager nation waited, the messages began clicking out into space. At 2:40 Eastern Time, the telegrapher tapped:


This proved to be a long ceremony, for there were many spikes. One of silver; one of silver and gold; another ribbed with iron, clad in silver and crowned with gold; and the last, the Golden Spike. Various states—Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and California—had donated spikes and all had to be presented with appropriate speeches. There were speeches, too, by Governor Stanford, General Dodge, and others.

Governor Stanford was to strike the first blow that drove the Golden Spike, and the signal that it was about to be driven—three dots by the telegrapher—was given. The governor then stepped forward, took the silver-headed maul, and, while the crowd and the nation waited in a breathless hush, swung—and missed.

Shilling, however, had already tapped out his message:


The official announcement, flashed to the Associated Press and to President Ulysses S. Grant, read:


The two engines, Jupiter and 119, covered with cheering celebrants, then advanced until their pilots touched. Bottles of champagne were broken on them, the bubbling wine flowing down over the Golden Spike and the laurel tie.

As soon as the ceremony was over and the tracks cleared, crews from both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific rushed in, removed the precious spikes, and replaced them with ordinary iron spikes, while the officials of both roads retired to Governor Stanford’s car for lunch.

There they talked over the stirring experiences of the past three years, during which a continent had been spanned with two thin lines of steel.

As a final gesture of farewell, each train steamed across the junction of the rails, standing for a triumphant moment on the other side before departing for the East and the West.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *