Let’s Talk About: Railroads, Part 2

Continued from last week’s post………………

The Union Pacific Railroad had a must easier time of it due to the flat midwestern terrain. A large 20-car work train crawled along the newly-laid tracks to bring supplies and support the army of workers. This train was a combination of factory, hotel, restaurant, hospital and administrative center. It required two locomotives to pull it along. Some cars were divided into offices, storerooms, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, saddler shop. The rail hands boarded in huge sleeping cars packed with 144 bunks and fed in massive 75-foot long dining cars. Food was good and plentiful: bread, meat and coffee being the staples.

The Central Pacific had less mileage to cover but the Rocky Mountains were extremely difficult to conquer. Remember, all the work was done by blasting with TNT and then with the workers’ hands. At first, labor was scarce and expensive and unemployed immigrants were quickly snapped up by railroad recruiters. “The solution to this labor shortage lay not across the Atlantic but the Pacific,” wrote David Norris in his publication, History of Railroads. China provided thousands of men willing to travel over the ocean to work on the railroad; Chinese recruiting began in 1865 and soon grew to over 10,000 men…… who, being Chinese, were paid $31.00 per month instead of $45.00 for whites.

The worst part of the route for the Central Pacific was the Summit Tunnel over Donner Pass. This project took two full years and in the winter the workers had to dig through tunnels of deep snow just to reach the work site.

The sunny May day in 1869 when the two rail lines finally converged at Promontory Summit in Utah was indeed a milestone and reason to celebrate but the photos of the day omit the details of the full story. In those historic photos, you’ll see no Black or Chinese faces….. these ethnic workers were given no credit for their sacrifices on that auspicious day.

Jumping ahead, the Pullman sleeper car was the brain child of George Pullman who, after being “tormented during a jolting and uncomfortable ride in an overnight passenger car,” turned his mind to a solution and came up with a way to improve overnight rail travel. By 1869, his Pullman sleeper cars were running coast to coast on the new combined Union & Central Pacific Railroads.

Let’s Talk About: Railroads, Part 1

Railroads were lifelines across America to our ancestors. Anything we can learn about railroads and railroading will benefit the social history we seek to fill out our ancestors’ lives. Do keep in mind that it was our ancestors who did this railroad building not “hired workers from elsewhere.”

David Norris authored a special issue from Internet Genealogy Magazines titled The History of Railroads. This issue was 50 pages all about the topic of railroads and you might want to order a copy for yourself. I do quote from that publication.

In the beginning, there were two railroads: the Central Pacific in the west and the Union Pacific in the east. Soon after the Civil War, it was apparent that the need to connect both side of the county was sorely needed. So the government gave financial incentives to these two railroad companies, with greater benefits going to the Central Pacific for they had the far rougher terrain to conquer. Railroad companies were granted up to 6400 acres of public land and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track; this was to the Central Pacific with lesser amounts to the Union Pacific.

First, surveyors had to map the path. Then crews wee assigned to build bridges, culverts or tunnels. Next came the graders to shape the track bed. Most work was done by hand with pick, shovel and wheel barrows. Other crews cut timber along the way for lumber to build these structures, for the ties and for fuel.

Working at top speed, crews could lay over 100 feet of track per minute or less than one hour to lay a mile of track. Each mile of track required 380 rails, 2600 ties and 10,000 spikes which were transported to the work site along the newly-laid tracks.

This last paragraph applies to the work across the midwestern plains. Work crawled along with much greater difficulty through the Rocky Mountains.

To be continued………………..