Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Central Pacific Railroad / Railroad Museums

central pacific railroad sign
Central Pacific Railroad depot sign
The building of the Central Pacific Railroad and it's successful route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains created the first reliable and relatively comfortable link between northern California and the east. The story about the Central Pacific is as big a part of California's history as was the great Gold Rush itself.

There is probably no better place to experience this story than at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Town Sacramento. Not only will you learn all about the creation of this vital rail link to California but you'll also have the opportunity to see vintage locomotives and rail cars all under roof in an enormous exhibit area.
Part of the Original Transcontinental Railroad

The greatest significance of the Central Pacific Railroad was that it represented the far western link of the transcontinental railway. Another significant achievement of the Central Pacific was that it was able to lay it's rails over what what surely the most rugged and difficult geography on the entire transcontinental route, the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Building the transcontinental railroad over this mountain chain was a monumental task. The first rail construction for the Central Pacific line was laid in 1863 and as most know the completion and hookup with the transcontinental railway occurred in Utah in 1869.

The Construction Crews

central pacific railroad station
Central Pacific Station, Sacramento
Finding a workforce to construct the railroad was a different matter altogether.The workforce wanted was white males.

While there were certainly white males in California during the early 1860's, there weren't enough willing to help build a railroad when possible riches could be attained in gold mining and then silver mining in Virginia City Nevada. To get the job done it was absolutely necessary for the Central Pacific to hire Chinese workers.

Not only were the Chinese laborers more plentiful than the available whites but they also were known to work harder and longer without threatening work stoppages.

A sometimes overlooked fact in the actual construction of the railroad was the large proportion of Chinese laborers hired by the Central Pacific. Chinese laborers were estimated at about 12,000 comprising ninety percent of the railroad's construction crew.

Typically, a Chinese work gang would comprise thirty laborers with an "Irish" crew boss. The Chinese workers proved to be extremely effective in working along the cliffs and in preparing cliff side holes to place blasting powder. To be sure, the work in the Sierra's was dangerous enough even without the required blasting. A work week lasted six days, sunrise to sunset. Sunday was reserved for personal chores.

Chinese Immigration to California

There's some interesting facts regarding Chinese migration to California  In the book Anybody's Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson, it is pointed out that in 1848 there were only seven registered Chinese residing in what would become the state of California. By the middle of 1852 there were about 20,000 Chinese registered in the young two year old state. Obviously the lure of gold affected the Chinese the same way it did for all people throughout the world. By the early 1860's there was an estimated 40,000 Chinese workers in California.

There was friction between Chinese workers and their white counterparts which would eventually reach the California state legislature and result in restriction laws. It's an interesting and controversial part of California's history which you may want to explore further.

You'll also enjoy our Western Trips photo article on Texas Railroads 

Texas Railroads

Building Eastward from California

southern pacific rail car
Southern Pacific passenger car
The Central Pacific Railroad laid 690 miles of track which began in Sacramento California and ended at Promontory Point Utah.

The most difficult part of the construction was during the first phase going eastward. The granite cliffs of the Sierra Nevada's coupled with the severe winter weather at the higher elevations made this first stage quite a challenge. Because of the heavy snowfall in the Sierra's it was necessary to construct snow sheds at certain points on the route.

The story of the unfortunate Donner party is an example of winter in the Sierra's. The story of the building of these snow sheds is very interesting, and as you drive through the Sierra Nevada's on Interstate 80 today you can still see the snow sheds that now protect the Amtrak California Zephyr.

The Key Central Pacific People

Congress authorized the building of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1862 with the issuance of thirty year bonds bearing 6% interest. The railroad itself was planned by an engineer by the name of Theodore Judah. Judah, who had a difficult time finding San Francisco investors eventually enlisted several wealthy Sacramento California merchants as partners. These partners would would help secure federal government aid and they would go on to mange the financial backing of the project as well as it's construction. These financiers behind the Central Pacific Railroad were given the name, the "Big Four".

The Big Four included Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker. These are names that most people in California still recognize. Judah was eventually crowded out of the partnership by the Big Four.

The relationship between Judah and his new partners was not good. In 1863, not long after the partnership was created, and while Theodore Judah traveled to New York via the Panama Isthmus on a search for investors to buy out the Big Four, he contracted and died of yellow fever. Traversing the tropical Panama jungle between ship ports was fatal to many. Unfortunately, Theodore Judah never lived to see the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad which, although constructed by the Big Four, followed his survey and plans almost perfectly.

southern pacific locomotive
Southern Pacific Railroad diesel locomotive
To put the difficulty of this project in America's relatively remote west coast in perspective, the first locomotives for the Central Pacific Railroad had to be purchased from builders in the country's northeast, dismantled and then sent to California by ship via Cape Horn. Much the same route taken by gold seekers over a decade earlier.

The Central Pacific Railroad leased itself out to the Southern Pacific Company in 1885. While it was operated as the Southern Pacific Railroad, it remained as separate entity on the Southern Pacific Company books all the way until 1959. At that time it was merged into the parent company and all was eventually sold to the Union Pacific in 1996.

The route taken by both the Central Pacific and then the Southern Pacific Railroad was the old Overland Route taken by most western pioneers between Omaha Nebraska and the San Francisco Bay area. Passenger service on this route is now handled by the federally managed Amtrak system.

Visit the California State Railroad Museum

The California State Railroad Museum is located in historic Old Town Sacramento. This is one of the best railroad museums in the U.S. and if you are in northern California or in particular the Sacramento area I highly recommend you stop by.

When you're inside the museum you'll notice how the rail car displays can be changed using a roundhouse adjacent to the large exhibit area. It's a fascinating visit. Steam train rides are offered during the warmer months.Whether it's a weekend trip or a California vacation, putting this museum on your trip planner is well worth it.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your comments...