Uniting the Nation

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“The Voyage from New York to San Francisco upon the Union Pacific Railroad,” a Union Pacific Railroad Game, 1870. Courtesy of David Rumsey.

While the railroad was built in a divisive era, its completion helped unite the nation after the Civil War. Arguably its greatest contribution was that it allowed for people and goods to travel from coast to coast at unprecedented speeds. Prior to construction, cross-country travel required long treks over dangerous land and sea. Travelers could trek for months across the American interior, over the Great Plains, through the Rocky Mountains, and on through the Sierra Nevadas, before ever reaching California. Even by sea, migrants had to spend several weeks sailing around South America and the treacherous Cape Horn before reaching San Francisco. Whereas countless lives were lost by land and by sea, the railroad expedited cross-country travel and made it safer for westward expansion.

The Transcontinental Railroad also served as a strong symbol of American achievement. This was important as the country continued to rebuild after the Civil War. Not only had the US built a transportation system that enabled travel “from sea to shining sea,” but it had also conquered the terrain and the elements of a still wild West. As the country set forth united, railroad workers laid the last railroad tie at Promontory Point, Utah, sealing the ceremony with a gold spike to commemorate the achievement. The image of the golden spike remains one of the most iconic of the nineteenth century, although an ordinary spike did eventually replace the ceremonial gold one. In fact, the railroad had to replace ties at a rate of one per week as souvenir seekers chipped away at the railroad for a chance to own a piece of history.