|Photo: Andrew J. Russell, Restored by Adam Cuerden
While we could review much of the history of 19th century America in how the transcontinental railroad changed the course of history and formed the world we live in. Without it, much of America--and the world--would be different. It's not really possible to overstate it's role in forming the United States. But is it possible to oversimplify it or overstate certain facts? Absolutely! While we celebrate the transcontinental railroad with the Golden Spike ceremony, most of it is more symbolic than the actual formation of a transcontinental railroad.
True or False: The Golden Spike joined the nation by rail
FALSE -- The Golden Spike joined the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads, tying Omaha and Sacramento. A trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific by rail was not possible on May 10, 1869. While the Central Pacific did connect to Sacramento, it would not reach San Francisco Bay until much later that same year. Even with that gap filled, you would be forced to disembark your train at Council Bluffs, Iowa, to take the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry across the Missouri River to Omaha. While your travel time was cut from months to weeks, it would be over-simplifying to say the nation was joined by rail.
How was the nation joined by a truly coast-to-coast railroad connection? On August 15, 1870, two crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad met at Comanche Crossing at Strasburg, Colorado. By joining their rails together, it was possible to embark a train at Jersey City, New Jersey and disembark at Oakland, California. The Union Pacific would not complete its Missouri River Bridge until March 25, 1873. Until that date, the true transcontinental railroad actually passed not through Omaha but through Kansas City and Denver.
Ready for more?
True or False: Promontory Point has a museum run by the National Park Service
TRUE -- You can visit the museum and watch a re-enactment of the Golden Spike ceremony most days out west of Salt Lake City. Just don't look for parking on May 10th.
T/F: The Union Pacific still uses the Golden Spike route
FALSE -- While much of the route is still the same, the route by Promontory was shifted to a more favorable grade well to the north of that historic location. The Comanche Crossing site east of Denver, however, is still in use, even with a museum.
T/F: Union Pacific owns the full route of the transcontinental railroad today
TRUE -- On September 11, 1996, Union Pacific Railroad purchased and merged with Southern Pacific, which had itself been purchased by the Denver & Rio Grande Western only 8 years before. Southern Pacific purchased the Central Pacific in a series of maneuvers beginning in 1885.
T/F: Union Pacific is bringing a special locomotive to the party in May
Are you kidding? TRUE! Union Pacific took one member of the largest steam locomotive class in history from Pomona California back in 2014 and has put it through a full restoration. The Big Boy 4014 will be heading to Utah this May for the ceremonies. Union Pacific's "never-retired" steam locomotive 844 will also be on hand for the celebration. For more information, visit Union Pacific Steam.
In conclusion...So was it truly a transcontinental railroad? Depends on your point of view. Politically, yes. Businesswise, maybe yes to a degree. As a passenger? Well, if I had to hoof it over to a ferry and then wait six months for Sacramento and San Francisco to join... then no, not hardly. But, from Atlantic to Pacific in 1870 through Denver on the Kansas Pacific with my private railcar? Sure! I'd call that a railroad.⚒
Special note: Though the Comanche Crossing web site has been down for more than a year, it's archived page still survives and from all indications, the museum is still in operation, opening June 1st through the summer every year.
Comanche Crossing on the Kansas Pacific
Union Pacific Railroad