Who Started the Union Pacific Railroad?

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Union Pacific, one of a handful of large Class I railroads remaining in North America after decades of mergers, is unique because it retains its original name. Headquartered in North Platte, Nebraska, the Union Pacific has a long and successful history that dates back to the early 1860s, when journeys from the Great Plains to the West Coast could be made only via long, arduous, dangerous trips in stagecoaches.

Government Action

Union Pacific was created in 1862, during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. That year, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act, establishing UP and tasked it with building a rail line westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The UP line would meet that of Central Pacific, which was building rapidly eastward from Sacramento, California.

Funding

Government land grants proved inadequate to finance the expensive rail project across the rugged West. A second act of Congress, the Pacific Railroad Act of 1864, doubled the grants and facilitated the sale of bonds to pay for construction. Oliver and Oakes Ames, Boston-born brothers who had made a fortune selling Gold Rush shovels and Civil War armaments, saw in the UP bonds a tremendous investment opportunity.

A Huge Gamble

The Ames brothers sunk more than $1 million of their personal fortune into UP and strained their credit to the limit to keep the project going. Overseeing construction was UP's vice president and general manager, Thomas Durant, a respected number cruncher. Durant hired trusted associate Grenville Dodge, a former officer for the Union Army, to be UP’s lead civil engineer. One of Dodge’s most frequent tasks was to defend against continual attacks by Native Americans, who resisted the opening of their land to white settlement and commerce.

Logistical Challenges

As construction moved through the wilds of Wyoming, where few towns lay, wooden ties were cut from nearby trees. The rest of the materials necessary for building the right of way, including rails, spikes, tools, fuel and human provisions, came by train from Nebraska. The coordinator of it all was UP’s chief of construction, Samuel Reed, whose workers were predominantly Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans. Finding lumber to cut in treeless areas and maintaining ever-lengthening supply lines, plus the ceaseless Native American attacks, challenged Reed and his crew.

Leading the Construction Crew

Jack and Dan Casement supervised the men who lived for years along the railroad. Jack was a railroad contractor and former Union general, while Dan, a colonel, had a background in bookkeeping and finance. The notoriously tough Casement brothers were in charge of laborers who endured extraordinary heat and cold, insects, floods, arrows, illness, and long hours of poorly paid and grinding work seven days a week to keep the UP line advancing westward. The only laws were those imposed by the brothers. As a result of superb organization and pitiless disciplinary enforcement by the Casements, the distance covered each day averaged more than a mile and, on one occasion, surpassed 8 miles.

Driving the Spike

The well-documented climax of the first transcontinental railroad built was the ceremonial driving of silver and gold spikes into the tie that joined the UP and Central Pacific routes. This was at the summit of Promontory Point in Utah on May 10, 1869. Swinging the hammers were UP’s Grenville Dodge and the president of Central Pacific. UP, which has grown into a vast empire since that day by absorbing other railroads, continues to provide freight service to huge areas of the West and the Plains.

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