The Transcontinental Railroad Lesson Plan

The first Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was a feat of ingenuity and engineering. It was the result of visionaries and dreamers as well as shrewd businessmen and hardworking laborers. It opened up the way for new cities, new industries, and new opportunities for immigrants and settlers. However, it also led to the decimation of Native American nations and the environment as well as a racist backlash against immigrants. The railroad was a contradiction, but what is certain is that the United States would not have become the industrial superpower it became without it.

Student Activities for Transcontinental Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad

The first transcontinental railroad was a transformative moment in American history. Before its completion in the 1860s, there was no railway that traversed North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Railroads had been built in the east since the early 1800s in Boston, New York, Pennsylvania, as well as the Baltimore Ohio (B&O) railroad in 1827. However, when gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill, California, it sparked the gold rush. After the adoption of California as a state in 1850, visionaries began dreaming of an overland route that would be faster than the traditional horse and buggy. It normally took four to six months to travel the 2,000 miles from the Missouri River to California by a horse-pulled carriage or stagecoach.

Asa Whitney was a successful merchant who envisioned a transcontinental overland route by rail. He lobbied Congress to pass an act to build the transcontinental railroad as early as 1845, but was unsuccessful. The mountainous terrain appeared too difficult for building. But that didn't stop people from continuing to find a way. Theodore Judah was an engineer and visionary who was determined to find a route. In 1860, Judah surveyed a possible route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the Donner Pass. Abraham Lincoln was another staunch supporter of building the transcontinental railroad, saying, "There is nothing more important before the nation than the building of the railroad to the Pacific."

After determining the route, Judah assembled investors called the Big Four: Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker to create the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR) and convinced Congress to act. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, which authorized the CPRR to build a line of track from Sacramento, California and the Union Pacific Railroad Company (UPR) to build from Omaha, Nebraska. They would meet somewhere in the middle. The two companies were given land grants with 6,400 acres of land (which traveled directly through Native American territory) and $48,000 in government bonds for each mile built. The Central Pacific began building October 26, 1863 and the Union Pacific began December 2, 1863.

It took years of blasting tunnels through mountainous terrain and backbreaking work in all kinds of treacherous weather to build the railroads. There were tens of thousands of workers, mainly Chinese immigrants (for the Central Pacific) and Irish immigrants (for the Union Pacific) as well as German immigrants, newly freed African Americans, Confederate and Union veterans from the Civil War, and Mormons. The common wage for this arduous labor was $1 a day. There was no meeting point set and the railroads had an incentive to keep building for more money, so at one point they even passed each other! Eventually the meeting point was set at Promontory Point, Utah just north of the Great Salt Lake. On May 10, 1869, the final "golden spike" was driven, connecting 1,776 miles of track.

This new Overland Route connected the East Coast to the West Coast for people to travel faster, safer, and cheaper. It provided a means for mail, supplies, and trade goods to be able to be shipped across the country in a matter of days rather than months. Businesses grew, such as the Sears Roebuck company, which began as a mail order catalog that would ship everything new homes and farms out west would need from the east. During the first 10 years of the railroad, it shipped $50 million worth of goods!

Despite the great gains in industry created by the railroad, there were losses as well. Land rights were stripped from Native Americans as the U.S. government broke treaties and forcibly (and violently) moved nations like the Cheyenne and the Shoshone who had been living there for thousands of years. In an effort to force Native Americans from their land, the U.S. government perpetuated a campaign of slaughtering the buffalo, an animal crucial to Native Americans' livelihood. There were about 30 million buffalo in the United States in 1800; in 1886 they were slaughtered to near extinction. The Smithsonian Institute observed that they "had difficulty finding 25 good specimens." By 1890, the majority of Native American nations were moved from their ancestral lands to reservations. In addition to these injustices, invaluable contributions by thousands of Chinese laborers were ignored when the United States passed the "Chinese Exclusion Act" in 1882, which prohibited any further immigration of people from China. The act was part of a racist backlash against immigrants in the 1800s and was especially egregious given the crucial role that Chinese immigrants had played in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed by Congress until 1943, prompted by self interest as China was a crucial ally during World War II.

It is important for students to study the positive as well as the negative effects of the transcontinental railroad in order to understand a broad range of perspectives and its historical impact. As the Northern Shoshone Tribal Leader, Darren Parry, said "History connects us to our humanity and our inhumanity. And, history offers us a way to move forward." Despite it all, the construction of the transcontinental railroad is widely considered to be one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the 19th century.

Essential Questions for the Transcontinental Railroad

  1. What was the transcontinental railroad?
  2. Where was the transcontinental railroad built? What major cities did it connect to? Where did the tracks from the two main companies begin and meet?
  3. When was the transcontinental railroad built? What else was happening in the United States at the same time?
  4. Who was involved in the construction of the transcontinental railroad from engineers to investors to politicians to laborers?
  5. How did the transcontinental railroad impact the development of the United States? What were some positive outcomes and what were some negative effects?

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