Personal Stories

The Great West.

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Written Feb 2014

What was the role of the railroads in the settlement of the Great West?  Clearly, the expansion of the railroad system across our great nation was one of many defining elements of what made our nation what it is today.  The railroad brought the introduction of greater production capabilities for emerging companies to distribute items such as coal, steel, animals, and goods.  The railroad created jobs for low skilled workers and profits for private business owners.  The railroad created tourism for individuals who wanted to see the “Great West” and all of what the West had to offer.  The railroad created cities where none had existed before.  Finally, the railroad became a symbol of money and power.

The first railroad (transcontinental) project began after President Lincoln approved the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 but was sidelined for several years due to the Civil War.  After the war was over the great race was on to lay track across the United States.  Tracks began in Sacramento, California and from Omaha, Nebraska.  (Program, Harvard University Library Open Collections n.d.) As discussed in the book “America: A Concise History” the golden spike at Promontory Point in 1869 connected the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific’s railroad system.  This meant that the path from East to West was now complete.  The railroad signified economic growth for the United States.  In San Francisco, imports quadrupled by $49 million in 1890 from a $7.4 million in 1860.  (Henretta 2012)  Emerging markets began to ship coal, steel, goods across the United States.  Thus began a more “global” marketplace that has transcended to what we all participate in today.

The railroad offered jobs to low skilled workers and immigrants who wanted to be a part of the “American Dream.”  Using California as an example, many Chinese workers lived in Sacramento since the discovery of gold.  The Chinese were recruited to help in the construction of the Central Pacific railroad.  The Germans (which were present in Sacramento since its inception) were recruited as were the Italians.  Many prominent Californians not pleased with the use of Chinese workers helped spearhead the 1882 Federal Exclusion Law which prevents any future Chinese immigration. This law was extended until 1902.  (Avella 2006)  Individuals who went bust on the gold rush with little to no education were recruited to help build the railroads as well.

Money and power was the name of the game for the railroads.  Republicans were thrilled with the fact that the power was restored to their party and federal spending was paramount as a result.  The Republicans yielded their power and declared that the railroad would “preserve the Union of these states.” (Henretta 2012)  An interesting notation of the railroad history that is not discussed in the book “America: A Concise History”is the “Big Four.”  The “Big Four” comprised of Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins.  Huntington and Hopkins were hardware retailers, Stanford was a grocer (also became California Governor in 1862 and Stanford College got it its name), and Crocker was a dry goods merchant. These four individuals created what is now known as the Central Pacific Railroad (1861) and helped fund the building of the railroad through the Sierra Nevada. (Avella 2006)

People came from a far when the transcontinental railroad was created.  For some, it was a travel to an unseen local with lively cities such as San Francisco, Sacramento, and parts of Nevada.  For others, the West represented a new beginning. For others, it was an opportunity to make a name for one self and to make money.  Women in particular created their own businesses such as laundry services, bed houses and became merchants in their own right during this time.  After the gold rush boom, the railroad was essential to keep California’s businesses at work.

Finally, Sacramento was born during the same time as the railroad beginnings.  During this time, it was home to Native Americans such as the Miwoks.  However, once the gold rush boom began those Native peoples were driven off their own lands for commerce, the railroads and all of the natural resources that Sacramento had to offer.  Sacramento crafted the seal in the early 1860’s as “Urbs Indomita” (latin) which means Indomitable City.  (Avella 2006)  Once the transcontinental railroad was complete, the rail yards in downtown Sacramento became the largest employer of the city.  The Central Pacific railroad yard started in 1872 and was eventually bought by Southern Pacific but was a major transportation hub to send California’s goods to the East coast. The rail yards, although not used for several decades, still stands in downtown Sacramento as a reminder of the beginnings of not only a city but a nation today.


Avella, Steven M. “Sacramento “Indomitable City.” .” In Sacramento “Indomitable City.”, by Steven M. Avella, 55-56. San Francisco CA: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.

Henretta, J. A., Edwards, R.E., Self, R.O. “America: A Concise History, Volume Two: Since 1865.” In America: A Concise History, Volume Two: Since 1865, by J. A., Edwards, R.E., Self, R.O. Henretta, 477. Boston: St. Martin’s, 2012.

Program, Harvard University Library Open Collections. Immigration, Railroads and the West (accessed January 18, 2013).