Rails to the Pacific

A brief history of the Transcontinental Railroad and how it changed California

When James Marshall blinked disbelievingly at the lumps of gold in John Sutter's millrace in the Sierra foothills in 1848, California was not yet even a United States Territory. News traveled slowly then even news so exciting as incredible wealth lying in streams for the taking. It took several weeks for the gold fever to spread to San Francisco. Mere days after the Mexican government ceded the immense territory stretching from Texas to Oregon, the message went out that there was "Gold in California." It took nearly seven months for the news of Marshall's accidental discovery of gold to reach the East Coast. Spurred by letters and witnesses, newspapers crowed of the "new El Dorado" and the opportunities to become wealthy merely by walking around picking gold nuggets off the ground. Tens of thousands of men but at first, only a few women and families hastily left their old lives for the dash to the West.

Within three years the population of the state had swelled to more than 250,000, all making the grueling cross-country trek by wagon train or the equally hazardous sea voyage. Even before the U.S. won the Mexican War to claim California, visionaries in the East dreamt of iron rails opening the vast West and uniting the country. By 1850, California was even granted statehood. But Californians knew that their prosperity would depend on the railroad.

A Railroad Must be Built

The business establishment back East recognized the entrepreneurial potential of the West. The government considered the political and financial ramifications of massive western expansion at the same time that millions of European immigrants sought a new life in this land of opportunity. Almost as soon as the railroad demonstrated its practicality in the mid-1830s, far-thinking men realized that it would be the tool Americans used to pry open the continent and extract wealth from mines, factories, and fields. But this was before the discovery of gold, and the politicians of the day could not conceive of a 2,030-mile, $60-million iron highway across what they understood as the "Great American Desert." Even the location of the proposed railroad was hotly disputed. Southerners favored a southerly route. Northerners favored tracks through the middle of the continent. Wherever the railroad ran would profoundly affect the balance of slave and free states, and that stalled the project for a decade.

Throughout the country, meetings called for the speedy completion of the Pacific Railroad. By the mid-1840s, the technology existed to build and operate the road. In 1853, Putnam's Monthly Magazine noted that "A railroad from the Mississippi to California or Oregon is a foregone conclusion! It has been decided that it must be built." A year later, Representative James McDougall of California argued forcefully before Congress that "the want of a railroad to the Pacific operates a direct loss to the people of the United States in time, property, and money, each year equal to the annual expense of the Federal government."

While the federal government vacillated and promoters agitated, a few courageous individuals got to work. Theodore Judah had no illusions that his Sacramento Valley Rail Road would become the route to the East, but it represented a toehold for the iron horse in the Far West. Sacramento was one of California's liveliest cities and, of course, the state capital in 1854 when construction began on the Sacramento Valley's line to Folsom. Two years later it was done, linking the Embarcadero along the Sacramento River (now the site of the California State Railroad Museum) with the jumping-off point for the gold fields. Judah then turned his sights to a true transcontinental railroad, and became the catalyst for the creation of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Rails to California

When the southern states seceded in early 1861, the way was clear to begin construction of the Pacific Railroad. In mid-1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act authorizing the Central Pacific Railroad to build east from Sacramento and the Union Pacific Railroad to build west from Omaha, on the Missouri River. The government could not afford a direct subsidy in time of war, and adopted a scheme of land grants and government loans to fund the project. On May 10, 1869, the two companies met at Promontory Summit, Utah, completing the nation's first Pacific Railroad a quarter century after the first visionary proposals.

California was a very different place in 1869. Since the completion of the transcontinental telegraph in 1862, communication with the East had been relatively rapid. New steamships and the completion of a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama had improved the journey by sea, and the frontier pushing steadily west from the Mississippi Valley was beginning to meet expansion eastward from California. With growing Asian trade and the wealth of western gold and silver, San Francisco had grown into a cultured and substantial city. Over 600 miles of railroad connected most parts of the state with the transcontinental line and major seaports.

No other state depended so greatly on a railroad link to the rest of the country. No other state grew so fast or matured so quickly under the combined influences of the railroad, gold, and massive immigration. The Civil War unleashed a wave of industrialization and expansion that led the Census Bureau to declare in 1890 that "the frontier was closed." In many ways California represented the "new" United States. Americans had done in eight decades what the best minds of the early 1800s had predicted would take centuries to accomplish: continuous settlement from coast to coast.

The land of potential became a land of real prosperity as gold and timber and produce flowed east and manufactured goods and migrants went west. Soon enough, the middle filled in and by 1900 gave us the United States we know today. Had it not been for the Gold Rush, statehood would have come to California later and much more slowly. Had it not been for the railroad, statehood might not have come at all.

The Railroad's Reality

As we pass the watermark of 150 years of statehood here in California, keep in mind the men and women who saw not gold, but iron rails stretching into the distance. They thought not of quick riches, but of prosperous families and a peaceful, united country spanning the continent. Manifest Destiny and an irrepressible American spirit provided the dream; California was the place; and the Iron Horse made it reality. Today, the California State Railroad Museum celebrates this history for all to appreciate.