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Connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific by rail: "un fait accompli"

This summer, with the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities, we will be looking into just what a big deal the first transcontinental railroad was. And we invite you to join us. Read on.


On the morning of May 10, 1869, railroad workers laid two rails opposite one another: one for the Union Pacific Railroad and one for the Central Pacific Railroad. When the hammer struck the final spike to hold the rails in place, a single route connected the East Coast with the West Coast by rail. Telegraph wires attached to the spike informed both coasts that the crowd gathered in Promontory, Utah witnessed the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.

As he commemorated the moment in poetry, Bret Harte wondered:

What was it the Engines said,
Pilots touching,–head to head,
Facing on the single track,
Half a world behind each back?

In that morning’s New York Times, the Wells Fargo company had already issued an advertisement for tickets or cargo on the railroad, boasting faster travel times than anyone had ever heard of, “Overland to California. Seven Days from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.”


Indeed, completion of the railroad reduced transcontinental travel time for the average person from three to six months down to one week. It was a world-changing innovation. According to William Deverell,

the invention also brought about profound changes in the understanding of time and the relationship between time and space. To nineteenth-century observers, at first unable to adjust to the changes wrought by the machine, the railroad simply “annihilated time and space.”


Quaker Oats railroad cars crossing the Rockies, from ad booklet distributed at the Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL, 1893

If you are a teacher and you would like to join us this summer as we learn more about the Transcontinental Railroad, consider applying for a seat on The Transcontinental Railroad: Transforming California and the Nation, an NEH funded Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop.

Other railroad images in The Marchand Archive

More about this NEH Landmark Workshop