The Railroad

How Railroads Transformed the American West
Jessica Record

Steam Engine; Photo by: Rosemary Irvine; Travel Town Museum, Los Angeles.

Steam Engine; Photo by: Rosemary Irvine; Travel Town Museum, Los Angeles.

Steam-powered railroads and their ability to transform the West were Frank Spearman’s infatuations. After providing a significant impact on the outcome of the Civil War, railroads became responsible for “civilizing” the landscapes and lifestyles of the American West. Through the transcontinental railroad, iron tracks connected the East Coast to the West Coast, settled the frontier, introduced new national communications systems, and propelled the American economy like never before. The building of the transcontinental railroad was a massive national undertaking that represented the optimism, perseverance, and industriousness of Americans. The railroads propelled the progress of the nation as a whole, and for that reason, they hold a special place in American history.

New opportunities to get rich quick appeared in the form of a gold rush in California in the 1850s. Miners and entrepreneurs flocked to the Golden State, which stimulated new economies on the West Coast. However, it took months to travel or send supplies from the East by stagecoach or by ship. The commercial and economic drive to connect the coasts provided an incentive to create a faster mode of transportation connecting east to west.

At the urging of many congressmen and entrepreneurs, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. The act granted national control of the railroads to the federal government and designated the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroad companies to connect the established eastern rail system to the Pacific Ocean. The Union Pacific Railroad would lay track beginning in Omaha, Nebraska, and work its way west to the Pacific Ocean while the Central Pacific would begin in Sacramento and work its way east. The two railroad companies met at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, where a final golden spike marked the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.

Other railroad companies branched off and profited from the transcontinental railroad line. One notable company is the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Company that ran through the town of McCook, Nebraska, where Frank Spearman made his home and drew his inspiration for the characters and settings of his Western novels. In his most popular novel, Whispering Smith, Spearman addresses the challenges of geography, communications, railroad owners and labor, safety, sabotage, and living conditions for the railroad workers—all of which were influenced by the railroad’s creation.

Treacherous Geography and the Engineers Who Persevered

Railroad Tracks; Photo by: Rosemary Irvine; Travel Town Museum, Los Angeles.

Railroad Tracks; Photo by: Rosemary Irvine; Travel Town Museum, Los Angeles.

In Whispering Smith, George McCloud is an engineer and regional superintendent of a railroad who prides himself on building track despite the extreme terrain. He is charged with ensuring that the railroad is successfully built through the rugged mountains, over unpredictable rivers, and through sprawling valleys. These natural challenges were the same ones faced by the major railroad companies of the time.

John Hoyt Williams explains in his book, A Great and Shining Road, that for the Central Pacific, the engineering task of laying railroad track through the Sierra Nevada Mountains was an extreme and novel challenge. Paths were created to hug the mountainsides while bridges and tunnels were engineered to traverse peaks and valleys. Crews worked long days despite severe weather conditions. For the Central Pacific, engineers struggled to determine the most effective means of traveling through the mountains. In some cases, workers used thousands of pounds of explosives to tunnel through the mountains if it was deemed more efficient than going over or around them (Williams 163).

The Union Pacific faced its own share of challenges. Following the North Platte River, workers in the wide-open plains died of heat exposure in the summer and froze to death in the winter. The temperature changes tended to manipulate the iron in the track, which led to extra work (Williams 148). The unsheltered plains also made railroad workers vulnerable to attacks by Native Americans.

A Breakthrough in Communications
The successful completion of the transcontinental railroad expedited the transformation of communication systems in the United States. Letters and packages, which were being carried by Pony Express before the railroad’s development, could now be carried on the iron rails faster, more securely, and with fewer employees.

Alongside the railroad tracks across the country, railroad companies erected telegraph poles. Telegraph lines served their own needs of communication by ensuring railroad financing and supplies. These telegraph poles also served nearby towns and provided the possibility of instant messages through Morse code as opposed to waiting for letters to be delivered.

As technology improved, the same infrastructure set up for the use of telegraphs was used for telephone wires. The novel, Whispering Smith, makes significant use of the telephone throughout the story. While the characters cannot solely rely on the limited telephones in town for their communication needs, the accessibility of telephones aids in completing the railroad and apprehending the criminals of the story.

Railroad Owners as Captains of Industry
In Whispering Smith, President Bucks is a powerful authority figure, often mentioned but rarely seen. He is wealthy and well educated. Bucks rides the rails in his private rail car ensuring the efficiency of his railroad’s completion. Railroad owners held a notable place as captains of industry orchestrating monumental industrial projects and living lavish lifestyles with their profits.

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 authorized the U.S. government to name 158 men to act as directors of the Union Pacific Railroad. They answered to five government appointed commissioners to ensure national interests were the railroad’s top priority (Williams 45). Jon Dix was elected president of the Union Pacific Railroad and Thomas Durant was elected Vice President. Durant became known for his role in the Crédit Mobilier scandal where shares of stock were sold in speculation to congressmen who in turn illegally profited from the building of the railroad (Williams 281–283).

Four entrepreneurial minds, known as “the Big Four,” stepped forward to establish and manage the Central Pacific Railroad. The Big Four included the railroad’s president, Leland Stanford; Collis Huntington, the vice president; Mark Hopkins, the company’s treasurer; and Charles Crocker who supervised construction. The Central Pacific had less federal oversight since it began as a private company, but government commissioners were still assigned to oversee progress.

Williams explains that the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies were issued bonds at $16,000 per mile for “gentle terrain,” $32,000 per mile for “desert wastes,” and $48,000 per mile for mountains (46). The bonds were to be repaid with six percent interest thirty years after the completion of the railroad. For every forty miles of satisfactory completed track, the railroads were given 6,400 acres of land per mile, which could be used by the railroad or sold to homesteaders to raise funds for construction costs. Unused land would revert to public domain three years after the completion of the railroad (Williams 46). Government grants made the railroad construction possible but were also used to fleece taxpayers for the owner’s profit.

Railroad Workers and Labor Strikes
Spearman’s Whispering Smith begins with a labor standoff after a train derailment. Similarly, railroad owners faced a shortage of labor to complete the transcontinental railroad because many men were either fighting in the Civil War or mining in California. The Central Pacific solved this issue by hiring Chinese immigrants who were often referred to as “Celestials.” Crocker started with fifty Chinese workers and was pleasantly surprised by their efficiency and resilience. The Central Pacific Railroad began recruiting workers directly from Canton by promising consistent work and good pay (Stover 72).

The Union Pacific hired ex-convicts, Mexicans, and freed slaves to complete their portion of the railroad. Irish immigrants also chose to work the railroad. Many of them had immigrated to the United States after the potato famine in Ireland and faced persecution for being poor and Catholic in New York (Wilson 124). Workers’ pay depended both on their ethnicity and nationality.

In the nineteenth century, the United States was heavily invested in a laissez-faire approach to business and labor. The lack of regulation regarding working conditions and compensation reflected free-market business ideals. In times of economic crisis, such as the depression of 1877, railroad companies slashed workers’ wages. Stewart Holbrook addresses railroad strikes in The Story of American Railroads. Railroad workers in West Virginia went on strike and workers across the country followed suit in solidarity. Striking workers shut down half the nation’s railways, crippling the newly completed and heavily relied upon rail system. The Railroad Strike of 1877 was the largest labor uprising in U.S. history. President Rutherford B. Hayes called in the army, which was also the first time the U.S. Army was used to break a strike. One hundred people died, and millions of dollars in property was destroyed or damaged. However, the strike encouraged many people across the United States to join organized unions (Holbrook 244–259).

Safety and Sabotage

Railroad Crossing Sign; Photo by: Rosemary Irvine; Travel Town Museum, Los Angeles.

Railroad Crossing Sign; Photo by: Rosemary Irvine; Travel Town Museum, Los Angeles.

Samuel Beck, a nineteenth century wealthy merchant and railroad traveler from Philadelphia, is quoted in American Railroads as saying:

If one could stop when one wanted, and if one were not locked up in a box with 50 or 60 tobacco-chewers; and the engine and fire did not burn holes in one’s clothes…and the smell of the smoke, of the oil, and of the chimney did not poison one…and [one] were not in danger of being blown sky-high or knocked of the rails—it would be the perfection of traveling” (17–18).

Clearly, traveling by rail came with an enormous cost in human lives and destruction from railroad accidents. There were few regulations or standards for railroad companies to follow. As a result, shoddy, wooden bridges collapsed; manual handbrakes failed; and train collisions resulted. Stories and pictures of train accidents, derailments, and the human casualties caused by them were frequently printed and read in newspapers and memorialized in folksongs. In his book, Death Rode the Rails, Mark Aldrich notes that “from 1882–1912, forty-eight percent of all deaths [in the United States] were from railroad accidents, in comparison to seven percent from typhoid fever, the next largest cause” (2). While mild compared with historical accidents, the train derailment at the beginning of Whispering Smith shows the potential for destruction and injury as the train derails in a treacherous mountain pass.

The issue of railroad sabotage is also reflected in Whispering Smith as it was in the American West. Replacing stagecoaches, trains carried capital from one location to another, and thieves adjusted their robbery plots accordingly. As a result, special law enforcement was designated to apprehend train robbers. Tom White’s article, From McCook to Whispering Smith, claims that Spearman’s Whispering Smith character is partly based on an actual Union Pacific railroad detective, Timothy Keliher who was hired to investigate train robberies (112–113).

Native Americans also attempted to stall and sabotage the “Iron Horse.” The land they had lived on for generations was bought, sold, and claimed by the U.S. government and then given to railroad companies for development. Tribes staged ambushes to kill workers, destroy property, and cut telegraph lines. After the Civil War, soldiers who were still primed to fight turned their skills and efforts to Native American tribes in an attempt to reduce their resistance (Williams 103–112).

“Hell on Wheels” Towns
Tent cities sprouted along the tracks in order to support workers and management along the way. Traveling with the workers, these makeshift camp towns became known as “Hell on Wheels.” Predominantly, the towns provided sleeping quarters for the workers. There were also tent churches that were dwarfed by the ever-expanding numbers of tent saloons, brothels, and gambling establishments (Williams 126–127). Since these towns were often racially diverse, inequalities and abuses surrounding services and living conditions abounded. Racism mixed with alcohol also led to extreme violence. Very few of these towns remained once railroad workers packed up and progressed beyond their limits.

A tame glimpse of this type of living can be seen in Spearman’s Whispering Smith in Chapter 20, “At the Dike” where McCloud and his men smoke, dry off in front of the fire, and relax among a series of tents after a long day working on the railroad. McCloud’s “field headquarters” is lighted by lanterns and modestly furnished with cots, folding tables, a telegraph, and a telephone.

With the expansion of the railroads, a pristine and wild wilderness was compromised by construction. Many Americans risked everything, and while some gained extraordinary power or riches, others lost it all. Native American nations were confined to reservations, and tribal identities were combined into the stereotype of the “Indian” or erased altogether through assimilation. In the end, the United States became the “Continental United States” when territories were settled and then incorporated into the union. The availability of low-cost land allowed for waves of immigrants to homestead and realize the opportunity for a better life. Despite the dangers and costs of the railroad’s construction, it expedited a monumental shift in the development of the country.


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