The first transcontinental railroad in the United States is the name of a railway line through The United States that joined the city of Omaha (Nebraska) with Sacramento in the 1860s, linking this way the railway network on the East of the United States with California on the Pacific coast. It ended with the famous Golden Spike Ceremony (gold nail), held on May 10th 1869 at Promontory (Utah), creating a mechanized transport network of national scale that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West. This network made the famous caravans of wagons (wagon trains) of the old west from earlier decades become obsolete, and this made it necessary to change them for a modern transportation system.

Old train

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Authorized by the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act and strongly supported by the federal Government, this construction was the culmination of a long time building this line and it was one of the greatest achievements of of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, it was actually completed four years after his death. The construction of the railway required enormous engineering and work efforts in order to make it across flat landscapes and high mountains, this hard work was made by two rail companies, Union Pacific and Central Pacific, the two companies that built the line westward and eastward respectively.

The construction of the railroad was motivated in part to interconnect the land during the American Civil War. This situation greatly increased the amount of population in the west by white settlers, while it contributed to the decline of Indians in these regions. In 1879, the Supreme Court of the United States formally established, in its decision regarding the case of The Union Pacific Railroad against The United States that the 6th of November of 1869 was the official date of completion of the transcontinental railroad.

This railway was considered the greatest achievement in 19th century American technology. It served as a vital link for industry, trade and travel, joining the halves, East and West of The United States in the 19th century. The transcontinental railroad quickly ended with the romantic diligence lines that there once worked with a much more slowly and risky pace, these lines preceded what was starting to happen. The subsequent advance of the so-called destiny manifesto and the proliferation of the “iron horse” through the lands of the indigenous natives greatly accelerated the fall of the great Indian culture at the Great Plains.


The railroad route followed the major roads used for the opening of the West, the so called Oregon route, the route of the Mormons, The California route and the Pony Express. Going from Council Bluffs (Iowa), it followed the Platte River through Nebraska, left the traditional route to cross the Rocky Mountains at the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming and then tackled over Utah’s north and Nevada in The Great Basin before crossing The High Sierra until Sacramento.

The route did not go through the two largest cities of the Great Plains at the East of the Rocky Mountains (the so-called great American desert), this means Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah there were branch lines built to serve these cities.

Initially this railway was not directly connected with the Eastern U.S. rail network, for this reason trains had to be carried on ferries across the Missouri River but in 1872, the Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge was opened and this directly connected the East and the West of the United States.

The Pacific Central built up to 690 miles of railways, starting in Sacramento, California, and continuing towards The East (Newcastle and Truckee) California, Nevada (Reno, Wadsworth, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Elko, Humboldt-Wells), and splicing Union Pacific’s line at the summit of Promontory in the territory of Utah. Later on, the route was extended to Alameda’s terminal in Alameda (California) and shortly after, to the Oakland’s Long Wharf at Oakland. The Union Pacific also built up to 1087 miles of railroad tracks that started in Council Bluffs, and continued westward through the Missouri River and through Nebraska (Elkhorn – currently Omaha-, Grand Island, North Platte, Ogallala, Sidney), the Colorado territory (Julesburg), the Wyoming territory (Cheyenne, Laramie, Green River, Evanston), the Utah Territory (Ogden, Brigham City, Corinne), and connected the Pacific Central at Promontory’s top.

Thomas the Train

Image courtesy of Anthony Doudt at

Today the 80 Interstate Freeway (Interstate 80) follows the route of the railway, with one exception. Between Echo, Utah and Los Pozos, Nevada, the Interstate 80 goes through the Great Salt Lake City and along the South shore of the Great Salt Lake. The railway instead followed the Weber River to Ogden (a route currently used by the Interstate 84) and around the north side of the Great Salt Lake. While the route of the railroad along the Weber River was being built, workers decided to plant the “thousand-mile tree”, it still remains a marker to commemorate the milestone.