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Early railroad history relived in essay

Editor's Note: Kasey Williford was the overall winner of the Daughters of the American Revolution American History Essay Contest. The theme of the contest was to write a first-person account of someone involved in the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

By Kasey Williford

5th grade, Dearing Elementary

In 1869, the tracks of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific met at Promontory Point in the Utah Territory. Before that, it was a lot of hard work. Before this, railroad traveling took months and cost $1,000.00. But, then we thought we could make one better, and now traveling would take less time and cost less. A railroad engineer named Theodore Judah made a bold prediction about how the transcontinental railroad would change travel in the United States: "How long will it take to go from St. Louis to San Francisco? The answer is as short as the question. It can be run in three days, or 72 hours."

A strong supporter for us was President Abraham Lincoln. He really looked forward to the time when the new railroads would help bind the countries together. In 1862, the United States government gave two companies the job of building the railroad; the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. The Union Pacific started from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific (the one I work with) began at Sacramento, California. The United States government paid us for every mile of track completed. We were paid in land and money. As a result, we raced each other to see who could lay tracks faster. Geography gave the Union Pacific a head start. We thought that was not fair. They began building on the broad, flat plains of Nebraska. The Central Pacific, my group, had the difficult job of building in the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California.

The Union Pacific had some problems, too. One of their problems was finding enough workers in a region that was far from large towns and cities. Their problem ended after the Civil War in 1865. Thousands of Irish Immigrants who had served in the Union Army moved west to help them on the railroad. They also had former Confederate Army Soldiers and formerly enslaved African Americans' help.

When the tracks grew west, they were heading into traditional hunting ground such as the Cheyenne and Lakota. Then, the Union Pacific got in trouble with the Lakota Chief, Red Cloud. He told them to get off their hunting grounds because they were scaring the buffalo away.

Then, they got lucky because the United States government supported them. General William Tecumseh Sherman warned Native American leaders they would build iron roads and not stop the locomotive. The soldiers began guarding the Union workers and they continued moving west.

While the Union Pacific was ahead building on the Great Plains, we were stuck in steep slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. The owner, Charles Crocker, said "People laughed at the time of building a railroad across those mountains." Another problem we had was like the Union, we also had a hard time finding workers. Mostly, Chinese helped build the railroad and got paid $35 a month. Eighty percent of them made up the Central Pacific workforce. Most of them were teenagers and had a hard time blasting tunnels through the solid rock of the mountains. In one week, we used more explosives than in all the Civil War battles. Many of our people were killed in accidents, but we never stopped. We finally finished building the tracks through the mountains in 1867. We sped up as we built the tracks through the East Nevada Desert. We were done when the tracks met on May 10, 1869 in Promontory Point, Utah Territory. To show the end, they left a hole for a special golden spike to show the end and the success of the railroad. Leland Stanford, a representative for us, had the honor of hammering the spike into the railroad. The first swing he took missed, but everyone celebrated anyway. His second swing sunk the spike.

A telegraph, "Done," was sent from Utah to cities around the country. The railroad changed travel and lives in the United States.

Thanks to the perseverance of these workers, we can travel on railroads from East to West.

References: Social Studies Book; Growth of a Nation, by Scott Foresman

Web posted on Thursday, February 18, 2010

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