The Transcontinental Railroad: A Unit Study

The Transcontinental Railroad: A Unit Study
The Transcontinental Railroad: A Unit Study

Amid all the stories of the Golden Spike and the cross-country race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, many have lost sight of the facts behind the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Why did the government want to build it? Who came up with the idea? What was the role of the Federal government in the project? What impact did the railroad have on America?

The Transcontinental Railroad Conception

The idea for the Transcontinental Railroad was conceived even before the Oregon Trail began. As early as the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, visionaries wanted to connect the vast reaches of the continent in a union that stretched “from sea to shining sea.” The notion gradually gained steam until in 1845 Asa Whitney, the railroad’s foremost proponent, roughly followed the fledgling Oregon Trail across the continent to prove that such an enterprise could be carried out. He tried to pass a resolution in Congress to fund a railroad, but it was not to be. Even in that early day a powerful contest between North and South was boiling. The latter region resented the fact that, while the railroad and therefore the subsidies would go to the Northern territories, most of the tariffs to fund the enterprise would probably fall on the Southern states. Instead, they presented their own idea, a southern route through the Sonora Desert of Arizona. Naturally, the North did not approve, and the debate ended in gridlock.

Although a considerable sum was spent on surveys throughout the 1850s, the gridlock did not end until the Southern states seceded at the dawning of the Civil War. At that point, the North was free to act. On July 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the bill that endorsed the Central Pacific and chartered the Union Pacific. Subsidies and land grants were to be awarded per mile of track built. The race was on.

The Transcontinental Railroad Corruption

The next six years erupted in a volcano of corruption, from the rough-and-tumble track layer seeking to gratify his various pleasures after a day of hard work, to the sophisticated politician accepting bribes from railroad lobbyists. Thomas Durant, who during litigation involving his Mississippi and Missouri Railroad had hired Lincoln to represent the company, managed to gain control of half of the Union Pacific stock, even though the Pacific Railroad Act had stipulated that no one could own more than 10 percent. For two-and-a-half years the Union Pacific meandered aimlessly across Durant’s lands, never venturing forty miles from Omaha, the starting point, but amassing a considerable amount of government money in the process. Under Durant’s influence, a “revised” Pacific Railroad Bill was passed in 1864, doubling the land grant and removing the restriction on stock ownership.

The Transcontinental Railroad Connection

The Transcontinental Railroad: A Unit Study

However, when the Civil War ended, the government had more time to supervise the railroad’s construction, and the Union Pacific suddenly began tearing across the country to meet the Central Pacific coming from Sacramento. In seemingly no time the railroads were ready to connect. Making the connection, however, was not so easy. If the track were no longer being built, neither company could collect the subsidies, and therefore the companies were reluctant to finish the job. Months of closed-door meetings in Washington were necessary to settle on Promontory Summit in Utah as the place and May 8, 1869, as the date of the meeting, and even then things weren’t so simple. Both railroads had produced some slipshod work in their hurry to collect more government money, and a heavy rain washed out a bridge. Not only this, but Union Pacific workers blocked the line in protest of the fact that they had not yet received their wages. May 8 was given up, and May 10 became the day of the ceremony.

An engine from each company was drawn up until they were face-to-face for the world’s first mass-media event. The golden spike was dropped into a pre-drilled hole in the laurel tie. The tie and a silver hammer were wired up to the telegraph so that every stroke would be heard across the country. Something went wrong with this ingenuous wiring job, however, and the telegraph operators were forced to manually send a click for every hammer stroke. Leland Stanford, the president of the Central Pacific, swung the hammer, missed the spike, and hit the tie. Durant, on behalf of the Union Pacific, had the next try; he missed track altogether. At last, a regular railroad worker was chosen from among those present. He swung the hammer and hit the spike. “DONE!” clicked the telegraphs. The railroad worker had united America.

The Transcontinental Railroad Conclusion

What happened next? Well, both railroads had been built so hastily that they needed frequent repairs, not to mention rerouting to correct some of the inefficiencies created in the race for subsidies. Before long, both companies were bankrupt and a scandal broke loose. A Congressional committee investigated the affair, but accomplished very little.

Nevertheless, the Transcontinental Railroad unquestionably produced a change in the American way of life. It populated the West, transformed the Pacific Coast, led to the creation of Indian reservations, eliminated the American frontier, and introduced Westerners to East Coast philosophies and customs. Some things we come into contact with every day are the result of the Transcontinental Railroad, such as time zones and phrases like, “Time’s up.” What a revolution!

The Transcontinental Railroad has given way to more modern inventions. Now a network of interstate highways crisscross the continent, and airplanes fly overhead. The old rails were pulled up to make bullets in World War II. The laurel tie was destroyed in a fire after the San Francisco Earthquake. However, the Golden Spike still rests in state at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in California, and the stories still remain…as well as the way of life the Transcontinental Railroad helped to create.

Further Investigation

The Transcontinental Railroad
Find out how the Transcontinental Railroad transformed America into one nation in this History Channel video.

History of the Transcontinental Railroad
Concise summary.

Timeline: Transcontinental Railroad
Beginning with designs for the first steam engine and ending with the division of Sioux territory.  From PBS.

Asa Whitney (1791-1874) and Early Plans for a Transcontinental Railroad
Though his early proposal was defeated, he would live to see the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

A Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad by Theodore Judah
Civil engineer’s 1857 proposal that was accepted by Congress and became the Central Pacific Railroad.

Union Pacific: Railroad Construction
Photo gallery.

The Use of Black Powder and Nitroglycerin on the Transcontinental Railroad
Background on the explosive and how it was used in building the rail.

Driving the Last Spike
Summary of the Promontory, Utah, ceremony.

“Dot, Dot, Dot…Done!” – Golden Spike
Primary sources and photos from the ceremony. Very nicely done, from Central Pacific Railroad.

Four Special Spikes
During the ceremony at Promontory Summit, Utah, four special spikes were presented (download from the National Park Service).

Everlasting Steam: The Story of Jupiter and No. 119
The story of the two steam engines that met at Promontory Summit at the National Park Service.

A Moment in Time
Describes the famous photo taken by Andrew J. Russell (shown at the top) called “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail.” Included is a legend showing who’s who in the photo.

1881 “Overland Route” Timetable & Transcontinental Railroad Map
Old timetables and schedule of fares from the Central Pacific Railroad.


The Golden Spike
Great video from the History Channel.

The Great Race to Promontory
Great interactive at Union Pacific!

Golden Spike Ceremony
LEGO Ideas project.

Re-Enactment of Last Spike Ceremony
For grade-school-age and middle-school-age students. From the Golden Spike National Historic Site.


The Story of the First Trans-Continental Railroad by W.F. Bailey
Public domain work covering most aspects of the railroad’s history and construction. For older students.

The Transcontinental Railroad: A Unit Study

Ten Mile Day: And the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad by Mary Ann Fraser
Beautifully illustrated title covers the building of the railroad in amazing, carefully researched detail while focusing on the world-record effort of laying ten miles of track in a single day.

The Transcontinental Railroad: A Unit Study

Thomas the Tank Engine by Rev. W. Awdry
A favorite with young and old alike, and a must for a train-loving youngster!

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Transcontinental Railroad
All kinds of really well-done lesson plans aggregated by the Utah Education Network!

150th Anniversary: The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad
Lesson plan from the National Endowment of the Humanities.

The Transcontinental Railroad
Well-written lesson plan for middle- and high-school age students analyzing primary source material, the need for the railroad, and the effect the railroad had on America.

Ten Mile Day
Lesson plan from the Federal Reserve that uses the book and railroad theme to help younger students learn about competition, division of labor, and incentives.

All Aboard!
Subtitled “Trains in History, Folklore and the Future,” this unit study for primary grades covers language arts, history, geography, economics, music, and visual arts. 71-page download includes all types of activities, discussion questions, book connections, and website links. From the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

The Steam Locomotive: A Unit Study
One of our own with activities, lesson plans, printables, and book suggestions for everything train!

Trains Unit Study {Free}
Unit study from Jennifer Steward that includes research, writing, math, mapping, science, art, music, field trip suggestions, and other areas of interest. We’ve added a few additional resources.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Transcontinental Railroad Route
Map of completed lines perfect for notebook.

Profile Showing the Grades of the Different Routes
Amazing look at the obstacles to overcome no matter the route taken.

Train Engine Shape Book
For copywork, narrations, or wrapping up. Need more room? Add a car.

Transcontinental Railroad Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

Ready for More?