It allowed a continent to be crossed in just a week, where before it had taken six months or more. It enabled fast transport for trade goods of all kinds, connecting the economies of the continent's East and West coasts. And it unleashed a wave of settlement and colonization, which would have massive effects on the population spread & distribution in the West - and by extension, the history, politics, economics, and even geography of the country.
Snow gallery (a portion of the railroad), while under construction
But the Transcontinental Railroad has not been as admired of late as it once was. Part of this is due to changing attitudes about the environment, and there are valid points to be made here about the environmental destruction enabled (in both the short-term and the long-term) by the railroad's completion. Part of this is also due to changing attitudes about Native Americans, and there are valid points to be made here as well, about how the encroachment on Indian lands was largely enabled by the railroad.
Dale Creek Bridge, a portion of the railroad
But part of this is also due to changing attitudes about profit and the private sector. There are liberals who bemoan that railroad magnates became rich from the railroads, seeming to forget that the only way to accomplish such things is to reward people for doing them. There are liberals who conclude from the graft and corruption of this time that the private sector is inherently corrupt, seeming to forget that the graft and corruption of this time would never have happened without the government's direct involvement in it. And there are liberals who conclude from the railroad magnates' cost and billing deceptions that the private sector is essentially dishonest, painting a few isolated incidents as representative of the private sector, the way someone might paint undesirable behavior from minorities as representative of their races or ethnic groups - every bit as unfair, and almost as foolish.
Leland Stanford, one of the railroad magnates
To be fair, there really were cost and billing deceptions from the owners of the railroad companies, with deliberate underestimations of the cost in advance of the project to sell it to Congress, and deliberate lengthening of railroad lines beyond that needed to bypass natural obstacles to the railroads' proper functioning - a profitable thing to do when they were paid by the mile. This sort of thing happens everywhere, and we will never be able to abolish dishonesty in economic activities or any other; but to paint these things as representative of the private sector is wildly inaccurate, and ignores much dishonesty in government and the public sector that is comparable (including much found here in the railroad story). To say that there were crooked businessmen here is true; but to make sweeping pronouncements about the private sector and its supposed general inferiority to the public sector is something else entirely. We need not judge the entire private sector by the actions of a few individuals - that is not a logical thing to do.
Stepping off my soapbox, there is much more to this story than just the greed and corruption, and this PBS documentary covers all of it in great detail. The documentary mentions that the project was really begun during the Civil War, with Abraham Lincoln being the greatest force behind its commencement. There were significant military advantages to be gained by this, such as the ability to protect the distant Western settlements with speedy reinforcements - an important thing when much of the West was siding with the Confederacy. The railroad never got far enough to have much military importance during the war itself, but the military advantages were important for Lincoln when he began this project.
A train called the "Jupiter," in operation on the railroad
The project didn't really take off, though, until after the war ended; and the nation had time to focus on peacetime endeavors. The documentary covers the work that was needed to get the project started, with the plans for the route the railroad would eventually take, and the plan to have one company start from the East, and another company start from the Pacific in San Francisco. The main advantage of this was that the competition between the two railroad companies would reward speedy construction; since with each company being paid by the mile, the company that could lay more miles of track before their meeting in the middle would have a greater share of the profits. The free-market competition created here benefited the project well, and this monumental accomplishment built a railroad in rugged frontier regions, without the benefit of existing infrastructure there already. (Similar railroad projects in the East had benefited from preexisting American settlements and economic developments, but the railroad through the wilderness was much rougher territory; making the building of this railroad a much greater accomplishment.)
Chinese railroad workers in the Sierra Nevada
The documentary focuses much on the confrontations with Indians, whose lands were encroached on by the railroad, and the eventual tidal wave of white settlement that it would soon bring. These confrontations often turned into armed conflict, with some bitter repercussions for Native Americans (who would eventually lose in the confrontation). But the other race relations angle for the project is actually found in a different ethnic group - specifically, the Chinese. Chinese workers emigrating for the prospect of a better livelihood in railroad work made up the bulk of the project's workers, and faced much discrimination and other obstacles in their work on the project - including physical dangers from dynamite, and other hazards of the construction. (This situation would be duplicated, incidentally, in the building of the Canadian railroad.) One of the masterminds of the project is, in fact, a Chinese-American historian named Michael Chin, who gives some incisive commentary on these aspects of the story, and many others as well. (It was nice to have some commentary from a cultural expert on this part, and Mr. Chin gives an interesting commentary on other parts of the story as well - adding much to the movie's presentation.)
Ceremonial driving in of the Last Spike (a.k.a. the "Golden Spike") - Promontory Summit, Utah 1869
The documentary is also of interest to the minority group I belong to - specifically, Mormons. The place where the two railroad companies met was Promontory Summit, Utah; and much of the railroad went through Mormon settlements elsewhere in Utah as well. If I may be allowed a related anecdote from my religion's history, the Saints of that time were feverishly working on the Salt Lake Temple; and the construction project was slow going because of the primitive infrastructure of the Utah wilderness. When the railroad started coming from the East and getting closer to Utah, Brigham Young realized that this new railroad was an opportunity to have access to supplies from the East, delivered quickly and cheaply via the new railroad. Thus, he stopped work on the building of the temple temporarily, and reassigned the laborers to work on the railroad instead.
It must have seemed to Mormons like an abandonment of the temple project that they so greatly valued, as well as a connection with unwanted Eastern persecutors that they had largely moved West to escape. Nonetheless, the focusing on the railroad was the right decision; and both the temple and the Utah economy benefited greatly from the railroad's completion. (They soon had access to supplies from the East that were needed for the building of the temple, and so the work on the temple went much faster.) The Transcontinental Railroad is thus of tremendous importance to the Mormon heritage as well; and the subject has often been dealt with in Mormon cultural retellings of the Salt Lake Temple's construction.
Salt Lake Temple, around the time of its dedication in 1893 (still long after railroad's completion)
But the legacy of the railroad is not limited to Mormons - it is of broader importance for the entire history of America. I live in an area of the United States that could not have been colonized by Euro-Americans without the Transcontinental Railroad, so my presence here in Prescott, Arizona is largely owing to the construction of the railroad. Whatever one's feelings about the railroad, it is an important saga in the history of America; and this documentary at PBS may be the definitive retelling of it for the television medium. Whether you love the railroad or hate it, this documentary on the subject is much recommended to anyone interested in the subject.
The Transcontinental Railroad is an essential part of this country's history.
DVD at Amazon (expensive)
VHS at Amazon (significantly cheaper)
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Lewis and Clark movie
Panama Canal movie