More about the Transcontinental Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad fundamentally changed the American West. As the United States pushed across North America, railroads connected and populated the growing nation. Railroads also sparked social, economic, environmental, and political change.

Model of Central Pacific Railroad locomotive Jupiter

Model of Central Pacific Railroad locomotive Jupiter

Model of Union Pacific Railroad locomotive number 119

Model of Union Pacific Railroad locomotive number 119

The Central Pacific Railroad locomotive Jupiter met the Union Pacific Railroad locomotive number 119 during a ceremony marking the meeting of the railways at Promontory summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

Golden spike

Gift of Union Pacific Railroad

The Union Pacific Railroad made replica spikes commemorating the event, including this one given to the Smithsonian in 1958.

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Ceremony to drive the last spike, May 10, 1869

Ceremony to drive the last spike, May 10, 1869

Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California, Andrew J. Russell Collection

For many, completing the Transcontinental Railroad symbolized achievement and national unity—yet it was built with mostly immigrant labor. Ironically, the famous photos show few of the workers who built the road.

Detail from stereo view of Union Pacific board members and others in company business car, 1869

Detail from stereo view of Union Pacific board members and others in company business car, 1869

Courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad Museum

Building the Transcontinental Railroad presented both physical and monetary challenges. Even with huge government subsidies, the railroad companies had to raise millions of dollars to cover construction costs. Directors skimmed millions off the construction and became rich. Operating the enterprise was often less profitable.

Detail from stereo view of laying track, Nebraska Territory, 1866 

Detail from stereo view of laying track, Nebraska Territory, 1866
 

Courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad Museum

The backbreaking work of grading the bed and laying the track required thousands of workers, who were poorly paid. Building west from Nebraska, the Union Pacific hired Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans. The Central Pacific Railroad Company, building from California, hired Chinese migrants. In the center, Mormon laborers worked for both lines.

Railroads provided employment for immigrant workers, opportunities for investors, and a means for farmers to seize new lands. But these new transportation routes also carried settlers. 

Lakota, Shoshone, Cheyenne and other tribes fiercely resisted the railroad as it encroached on indigenous communities. The Pawnee worked with the railroad, seeing benefits to the partnership. Farmer, miners, and even tourists changed the landscape, destroying wildlife and habitats. 

Native American man (Shoshone) looking at the Central Pacific Railroad, about 1869

Native American man (Shoshone) looking at the Central Pacific Railroad, about 1869

Courtesy of Library of Congress

The Shoshone were among some of the Native peoples who resisted as the Transcontinental Railroad, aided by U.S. Army troops, pressed into their lands. Both the railroad and the settlers who used it threatened Native peoples’ ways of life and sovereignty.

Map of the United States and territories, 1868

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Explore our interactive map to learn more.