A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Part II-Chapter 8 : Railroad Barons  >  Transcontinental Railroad  :  Previous  1 -  2  Next

   The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad  

Ever since the first steam powered railroads started passenger and freight service for such pioneering railroads as the Baltimore & Ohio or the Mohawk & Hudson, forerunner of the great New York Central, the goals of railroad construction were continuously raised. At the time when Eastern railroads were struggling to cross the Alleghenies and reach the Ohio or the Great Lakes, pioneering spirits already dreamed of a railroad that would cross the American continent.

One such pioneer was Asa Whitney (1797-1877), a New York tea merchant who returned with a fortune he had made in China, where he lived from 1842-44. Haunted by the prospects a transcontinental railroad promised for the China and East India trade, in which he was an expert, Asa Whitney was the first to promote the idea of such a railroad on a grand scale. He declared himself ready to undertake the project to build a railroad from Lake Michigan through the South Pass to the Pacific, backed with a land grant 60 miles wide along the length of the road. He managed to bring his proposal to Congress in 1848 where it was voted down, on the grounds of its unrealistic construction scheme. A better prepared proposition was again presented to Congress in 1850 and 1851, but failed to get support because of the conflicting interests between the Northern and Southern states, the latter being frankly opposed to the project altogether. Whitney then turned to the English government and proposed a similar scheme for a transcontinental railroad through Canada. After all these attempts failed, Asa Whitney ran out of money and gave up his public campaigns in favor of the Transcontinental railroad, retiring on a dairy farm in 1852. Ten years later the Pacific Railroad Act finally granted government support to a transcontinental railroad.

In the meantime the Pacific Railroad was not left aside. The discovery of gold in California not only created the first important transcontinental traffic (much of which was channeled through Panama or Nicaragua), but also significantly changed the public attitude towards the territories that joined the United States after the Mexican War and the Oregon compromise. Suddenly the West was no longer a wasteland of mountains and plains, or just a reservation of land that could be used to resettle Indians. Suddenly everybody found scores of reasons to try a new life in the West, which now meant territories beyond the Mississippi stretching through to the Pacific Coast. In 1853, Congress passed an act providing for the survey of possible railroad lines from the Mississippi to the Pacific. At least five routes were surveyed and each received support from a different section. Private interest swarmed around the political backers, mainly interested in the building of potentially lucrative feeder lines. The multitude of diverse interests and the increasingly profound rift between North and South made an agreement on a route impossible.

Railroad Barons  >  Transcontinental Railroad  :  Previous  1 -  2  Next

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