Friday, May 15, 2015

Direct to California, c. 1869

You need to get from New York to San Francisco in a hurry. By train, it will take 7 days and cost $2,500. Do you go for it?

In 1870, you did. The transcontinental railroad was completed in May1869, and it revolutionized travel to the West Coast. A first class ticket cost $136 (about $2,500 today) for a berth in a Pullman sleeping car—for $65 you could get space on a bench in the third class coach. I know, don’t even think about it.

Before the railroad was completed, the best a traveler in a hurry could do was take the Butterfield Express (later Wells Fargo) overland stagecoach. First, you had to get to St. Louis, MO, and then the stagecoach offered a spectacularly uncomfortable ride across the western plains in about three weeks, and sometimes the stage didn’t make it through. Traveling by boat from the East Coast to the West Coast took about a month.

Political shenanigans about the preferred route of the transcontinental line delayed the construction project until the Civil War began. With southern legislators (who advocated a “southern” route) out of the picture, the reps from northern states approved a route from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. In the mid-1860s, the national government handed out obscenely large cash grants and generous land grants to the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. There was a lot of corruption, and a lot of worker exploitation, and a lot of folks got rich as the two companies laid tracks, starting at the endpoints and ultimately meeting at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

You know the story about the golden spike and all the hoorah celebrating the completion of the rail link across America.

It was a really big deal that spread a lot of benefits around, although the Native Americans on the plains and the buffalo herds got the other end of the stick, you know the story.

p.s. My trusted history consultant tells me that the first “transcontinental” railroad in the Americas predates the whole Promontory/golden spike extravaganza by more than 14 years. In January 1855, the Panama Rail Road Company completed a 48-mile line that connected Panama’s east coast/Atlantic Ocean with the west coast/Pacific Ocean, the same ocean-to-ocean connection achieved by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in 1869. Many of the passengers on the Panama line were prospective gold miners heading to California—they were Johnny-come-latelies in the 1849 Gold Rush.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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