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The Transcontinental Railroad

Questions to Consider

How did the transcontinental railroad affect the way people thought about the United States?

How did the railroad change life for many Americans?

What impact did the railroad have on the lives of Native Americans?

About the Images

The transcontinental railroad connected the east and west coasts of the United States with a single rail line. This had a profound impact on the nation as a whole, and on California — the end of the line — in particular. The images in this group show different aspects of the railroad, including workers, travelers, tracks, railroad bridges, and trains.


In 1862, Congress passed and President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Bill, which granted public land and funds to build a transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad would lay tracks from California heading east, and the Union Pacific Railroad would lay tracks from the Missouri River west. The photograph taken in Placer County, "Grading the Central Pacific Railroad," shows some of the construction.

Work on the railroad was physically difficult and at times dangerous, and attracting workers was a challenge. The majority of the Central Pacific's laborers were Chinese. A Chinese worker is shown in the image "Heading (top cut) of East Portal, Tunnel No. 8." Both railroad companies actively recruited Chinese laborers because they were regarded as hard workers and were willing to accept a lower wage than white workers, mostly Irish immigrants.

As construction progressed, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific competed to see which could lay the most track each day. A photograph of a sign near Promontory Park, Utah, commemorates the day that Central Pacific crews laid an unprecedented 10 miles of track. The meeting of the two sets of tracks — the "gold spike" ceremony — took place on May 10, 1869. Several photographs and drawings depict this historic moment.

Now the country was connected as never before: a journey between San Francisco and New York that previously took up to six months now took only days. The photograph "High Bridge in Loop," from Views from a Trip to California, shows a train passing quickly through a mountain pass. The transcontinental railroad allowed people to travel more, farther, and in pleasant conditions, as reflected in the photograph "Commissary Car, 'Elkhorn Club.'" The photograph "Knights of Pythias at the Santa Fe Railway Station, Anaheim" shows an example of the popularity of trains.

Even as the transcontinental railroad brought the new country together, it brought change to the world of Native Americans. The tracks ran through a number of tribal territories, bringing into conflict cultures that held very different views of the land and how it might be used and lived on. The painting The First Train, by Herbert Schuyler, depicts three Indians pointing past their encampment at a train in the far distance. The railroad also brought an increasing number of European Americans west. One consequence of this influx was the depletion of the buffalo herds, a major food source for Plains Indians. European Americans would often shoot buffalo for sport from the train; by 1880, the buffalo were mostly gone and Plains Indians had been gathered onto reservations. Millions of acres of open grassland were being settled by the people moving west. Eventually, much of this land became the farmland that fed a growing nation.

The transcontinental railroad opened up the West to the rest of the country, even if they never made the trip themselves. A Currier & Ives hand-colored lithograph depicts a train running along the Truckee River in Northern California. The San Francisco publishing firm of Lawrence & Houseworth hired photographers and published photographic tourist catalogs containing views of the West, which they sold commercially. The railroad took hold in popular culture, as shown by sheet music for the song "New Express Galop [sic]." There was even a railroad board game illustrating "Railroads Between New York and San Francisco, California, with Scenes on the Way."

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 8:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.3 Deliver research presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.1)

Grade 8:

8.12 Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution.

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)

What is a lithograph?

Lithographs — prints made from drawings on stone or metal plates — became a popular form of newspaper illustration in the 19th century.