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Ellen Terrell, Business Reference Specialist, Science, Technology & Business Division
Created: May 2018
Last Updated: December 2020
By connecting the existing eastern U.S. rail networks to the west coast, the Transcontinental Railroad (known originally as the "Pacific Railroad") became the first continuous railroad line across the United States. It was constructed between 1863 and 1869.
The idea of a railroad that went from the east coast to the west didn’t start when building began. It is a story made up of a series of events and filled with a cast of people and companies that made it happen—here are just a few of note:
The rail line, also called the Great Transcontinental Railroad and later the "Overland Route," was predominantly built by the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California (CPRR) and Union Pacific (with some contribution by the Western Pacific Railroad Company) over public lands provided by extensive US land grants.
The railroad opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869, when CPRR President Leland Stanford ceremonially drove the gold "Last Spike" (later often referred to as the "Golden Spike") at Promontory Summit in Utah.
But the story of the railroads in the United States, and these two companies in particular, was really just getting started. The original Union Pacific, entangled in the Crédit Mobilier scandal and hit hard by the financial crisis of 1873, was eventually taken over by the new Union Pacific Railway in 1880 with its major stockholder being Jay Gould. It continued on, eventually becoming Union Pacific Railway. Central Pacific also went through changes including consolidation with the Western Pacific Railroad and the San Francisco Bay Railroad Co. under the name "Central Pacific Railroad Co." In 1885 it was leased to Southern Pacific and three years later the ICC listed it as non-operating. In 1899 it was reorganized as Central Pacific Railway and in 1959 it merged into Southern Pacific.
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The following resources created or digitized by the Library of Congress can be used to find out more about the railroad as well as the events of the day.
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