Transcontinental railroad completion celebrates sesquicentennial

Tunnel 8 west portal at Donner Pass summit, 2015.


Back in 1869 the Utah desert became the scene of a remarkable achievement in railroad engineering with completion of the transcontinental railroad.

What used to take months crossing the United States by wagon and risking life-and-limb could now be done in less than a week by train.

Building the railroad is the stuff of legend. I haven’t seen a movie that captures the grand spectacle, although the highly fictionalized TV show Hell on Wheels had its moments.

Thousands of Chinese toiled for more than seven years to make the dreams of the Robber Barons come true. All the work was done by hand.

Even the granite tunnels through the Sierra were cleared out by hand after each explosion. Pneumatic drills had just come on the scene but were not used.

I decided to write a novel, China Grade, about the building of the railroad as seen through the eyes of a Chinese character. I’ll admit it’s not elegant writing, but it does give some historical background on what it must have been like working on the railroad.

To top off the celebration in Promontory on May 10, Union Pacific invested a ton of money to restore one of their enormous Big Boy steam locomotives, built from 1941-44, and retired in 1959.

The train is making a U.S. tour, so it may pay us a visit. Worth a see.

And to give this some connection to bicycling, Thomas Stevens on his around-the-world bike tour, starting in San Francisco in 1884, took his penny-farthing through High Sierra train tunnels, and basically followed railroads cross-country.

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