Transcontinental Railroad at 150

Banner showing objects and images including a stereocard of the 1000 mile tree, watercolor of the line crossing the Platte river, Chinese-American coolie hat, replica of the Golden Spike, pickaxe, and a photograph of the Shoshone Indians

Transcontinental Railroad at 150

On a pleasant spring day in 1869, about 500 people gathered for a small ceremony in the isolated, arid West at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. Celebrants watched as the directors of the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad and other dignitaries drove gold and silver spikes and pronounced the Transcontinental Railroad complete. With great importance they proclaimed, “May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.”

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. They 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. Farmers, miners, and even tourists changed the landscape, destroying wildlife and habitats.

Today, many people remember the achievement of the Transcontinental Railroad but few know the story of the hidden labor that made the feat possible. For the backbreaking work of grading the bed and laying the track, the Union Pacific hired Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans. Building west from Omaha, Nebraska, across the Great Plains, they encountered harsh weather and conflicts with Native Americans. Facing a lack of workers to build the western portion of the railroad, the Central Pacific Railroad turned to Chinese laborers to do the grueling work of deep cuts and boring tunnels to conquer the granite wall of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In the center of the project, Mormon workers helped survey and construct the track bed.

The Smithsonian’s Transcontinental Railroad Initiative tells this great story of human grit, danger, opportunity, and the American West. Going beyond the drama of construction, it also looks at the legacy of these workers whose diversity brought new values and traditions to the United States and changed the nation.

Around the country other museums, organizations, and companies are also telling the story. The links below will take both the everyday reader and the serious researcher to sites across the Smithsonian Institution and its affiliates with insightful information about the Transcontinental Railroad.


NMAH Initiatives

Replica of the Golden Spike. View Object

Details on the 1868 General Land Office map provide insight into the role of the Transcontinental Railroad construction on the development of the American West.

Set of Chopsticks with Case. View Object

The Forgotten Workers case in the American Enterprise exhibition describes the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad and the experiences of the Chinese workers.

Smithsonian Initiatives

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

SI APAC Logo

In May, the Asian Pacific American Center is honoring the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad. Learn about the stories of Chinese labor on the railroad and the displacement of Native American communities.

Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Smithsonian Folkays Logo

Through music, people record their experiences, express their cultures, and respond to events and issues. Train Tracks, A Transcontinental Railroad Playlist, provides an engaging opportunity to gain insight into the diverse people who built and were affected by the enterprise. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad is an iconic American tale about physical mobility and technical prowess, but it is also a story about labor, migration, American conquest, and empire.

SIL Digital Collection: Transcontinental Railroad

Completed in 1869 with the driving of the famous "Golden Spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah, the Transcontinental Railroad revolutionized transportation across the United States and opened up the West for increased commerce, industry, and tourism. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries has digitized several volumes of primary source material related to the Transcontinental Railroad.

Smithsonian Learning Lab Collections

The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access created the Smithsonian Learning Lab to inspire the discovery and creative use of its rich digital materials. By encouraging users to create and share personalized collections of Smithsonian assets and user-generated resources, the Learning Lab aspires to build a global community of learners who are passionate about adding to and bringing to light new knowledge, ideas, and insight.

Smithsonian Affiliates Initiatives

Smithsonian Institution Affiliates across the country are staging exhibits and holding events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.