Who Built the Railroads?: The Union Pacific Heads West
This series that I have entitled “Who Built the Railroads?” focuses on the laborers who built the transcontinental railroad in the United States and the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia. Part 1 was an introduction to the immigrant workers who comprised the majority of the labor force. Part 2 addressed the forces that gave rise to the need for a Trans-Siberian Railway. Part 3 picked up discussing the laborers who build Russia’s transcontinental railway. Part 4 is a brief look into the laborers who built the Union Pacific’s section of the Transcontinental Railroad, extending from Omaha, Nebraska to Promontory Point, Utah.
The Union Pacific Heads West
By the late 1850s pressure had begun to mount for the building of an American transcontinental railroad. The burgeoning population of California was growing impatient at having to wait months for mail and provisions. “Washington, too, recognized the economic as well as political benefits of linking the country’s two coasts.” People wanted to move to the West, and Californians wanted to export their products east.
In 1861, President Lincoln and Congress agreed to finance a transcontinental railroad via government bonds despite the recently commenced Civil War. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies received contracts to build the rail systems in 1862. The Central Pacific began its work in Sacramento, California, working its way eastward. The Union Pacific was to commence working its way west from Omaha, Nebraska. The point of conjoinment for the two railroads was established as Promontory Point, Utah. The first to reach the site was guaranteed a bonus.
Glenville Dodge oversaw construction of the Union Pacific, while John and Francis Casement managed the laborers. The first three years of construction for the Union Pacific produced few results. Only forty miles of track were lain between 1863 and 1865, as the company was attempting to get a change of course approved for the railway. Such an action could only be accomplished through the President by an Executive Order. By the time the Central Pacific was ready to obtain permission to move forward with its altered plans, President Lincoln was assassinated. President Johnson was suspicious of the railroad men and held up the work until he could get one of his men to qualify the validity of the change. The Union Pacific was able to lay 250 miles of track in 1866 and from that point forward was only held up by natural obstacles, such as blizzards, floods, and impeding rock formations.
The majority of the foremen and workmen who worked for the Casement brothers were Civil War veterans. Grading gangs, bridge crews, and bully-boys were comprised primarily of “‘galvanized Yanks’ from the South. Union veterans from the prairie states, Swedes, Danes, and Finlanders were recruited in Chicago, plus three hundred to one thousand Negroes [who had] mulewhacker and shovel jobs.” Men worked in military fashion with transits, rods, chains, picks, bars, spades, and sledges. Though the work was grueling, it paid fairly well.
While construction was under way in Utah, the railroad was able to employ a number of Mormons, who sublet portions of construction contracts. The Mormons proved the least troublesome of the Union Pacific’s crews. They tended to stay away from the prostitution and gambling institutions that followed the railway crews in the trek westward. Many non-Mormon laborers spent the majority of their pay on alcohol, women, and gambling, and proved unsteady workers because of their habits. Estimates suggest that twenty-five to fifty percent of the Union Pacific’s labor force acquired some form of venereal disease, whether gonorrhea, syphilis, or pubic lice, from prostitutes.
The Union Pacific had easier terrain to deal with through the plains of Nebraska and eastern Wyoming than did the Central Pacific, who had to traverse the Sierra Nevada range and into the Rocky Mountains. However, the Union Pacific had much ground to make up, considering those first five lost years. Over the next three-and-a-half years, beginning in 1866, the Union Pacific was able to lay more than eight hundred miles of track in order to meet the Central Pacific at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869.
Part 4: The Union Pacific Heads West
This article first appeared in the Vulcan Historical Review (2010) under the title: “Transcontinental: A Comparison of Labor Sources Used in the Construction of the First Transcontinental Railroads in the United States and Russia”.
 Iris Chang, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (New York: Viking Press, 2003), 53-54.
 Wesley S. Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1962), 163.
 Robert West Howard, The Great Iron Trail: The Story of the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: G P Putnam’s Sons, 1962), 203 (Quoting: Edwin L. Sabin, Building the Pacific Railway (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1919)).
 Robert Edgar Riegel, The Story of the Western Railroads (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1926), 86.
 Howard, 249.