This is a year of momentous anniversaries.

It marks the 50th year since humans first landed on the moon. Buzz Aldrin, who joined Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 moonwalk, was in Seattle this past weekend and maintains an active Twitter presence. I’ll write about this mighty accomplishment later this year.

Meanwhile, this is the sesquicentennial of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. On May 10, 1869, the last spike joined the Union Pacific building from the east with the Central Pacific building from the west at Promontory Summit, Utah, now preserved as Golden Spike National Historical Park.

“Nothing Like It In The World,” the title of Stephen Ambrose’s history, aptly sums up the achievement.

But this was not the only railroad to the Pacific envisioned by the new, infrastructure-loving Republican Party.

Despite the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864. They provided federal loans and subsidies, primarily land grants, to build two transcontinental lines. The most famous ran from Omaha, Neb., to Sacramento, Calif. But the other was to the Puget Sound.

Lincoln signed the charter of the Northern Pacific in July 1864.

The railroads were built by hand, including by thousands of Chinese immigrants on the difficult Central Pacific route through the Sierra Nevada. In 1866, the CP gained congressional backing to build west to meet the Union Pacific. This turned what might have been a much longer enterprise into a race.


CP and UP each built as fast and far as possible to gain the most in federal loans and land grants. On April 28, 1869, CP crews set a record by building 10 miles of track in one day. But the UP ran through easier geography than its western competitor, assembling more than a thousand miles compared with the CP’s 690 when the last spike was laid.

That same sense of urgency didn’t apply to the Northern Pacific, which wasn’t completed until 1883. Former President Ulysses Grant attended the final spike ceremony. Beset by numerous ownership changes and financial panics, the NP’s celebration actually trailed that of the Southern Pacific, whose route was commissioned by Jefferson Davis when the future Confederate president was U.S. secretary of war.

Worse, from Seattle’s viewpoint, the Northern Pacific chose Tacoma for its western terminus. (This was only a temporary setback.)

Still, at the risk of making a crass oversimplification, for towns this was the Amazon HQ2 on steroids for 19th-century America. For the winner, the railroad connected the Puget Sound with the rest of the nation, opening new markets and bringing settlers from around the world.

The transcontinental railroads might have been American triumphs, but they came at enormous cost. They required the often-bloody conquest of scores of tribes and the theft of their land. They ensured the destruction of the massive bison herds. They represented “progress” but also robber barons, criminal speculation and exploited workers.

More from Jon Talton

One doesn’t have to go as far as Stanford professor Richard White, who argues that the railroads were largely an unnecessary waste, to recognize that the industry — epitomized by the transcontinentals — brought out the worst in unregulated capitalism.


(Stanford University was founded by Leland Stanford, one of the Big Four who launched the Central Pacific.)

“Transcontinental” is a bit of a misnomer, for it refers to railroads built from the Mississippi River, where they connected to the existing national rail system, to the Pacific coast.

These lines were highly coveted.

This explains why Seattle, with only 1,100 people in 1870, had offered the Northern Pacific a 30-foot strip along the waterfront, 3,000 acres, 7,500 town lots, $50,000 in cash and $200,000 in bonds.

No wonder city boosters were angry when the railroad chose the even smaller Tacoma as its terminal. Local railroad building allowed the NP to reach Seattle with a spur line. But relations between Seattle and the Northern Pacific were tense for years.

“Seattle’s railroad” was the Great Northern, the brainchild of Canadian-born James J. Hill. He parlayed a small Minnesota railroad charter into a project to launch a transcontinental north of the Northern Pacific to Seattle. Civil engineer John Stevens found an easy crossing of the Rockies at Marias Pass, Montana, and the Great Northern was completed in 1893. The main part of the GN was built without land grants.

Nor were the railroad builders done. The Union Pacific came north through Oregon’s Blue Mountains to reach Portland and eventually Tacoma and Seattle. The Southern Pacific (which absorbed the Central Pacific) also reached Portland. The most audacious, and perhaps unnecessary, line was the Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension, completed in 1909.

By the early 20th century, five transcontinental railroads served the Northwest. Four maintained extensive operations around the Puget Sound.

Hill was lionized as the “Empire Builder,” which also became the name of Great Northern’s premier passenger train — continued today by Amtrak. But he was also a robber baron who gained control of the Northern Pacific and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy. Along with J.P. Morgan, he formed the Northern Securities Co., which President Theodore Roosevelt went after as a monopoly.

Still, for decades, the railroads moved people and freight from the Puget Sound to and from points east, tying together new towns and employing thousands.

Later in the 20th century, the federal government subsidized highways and airlines, while the railroads were heavily taxed and regulated. This nearly killed off many before deregulation in 1980, by which time a skeleton passenger service was operated by Amtrak.

In a historical twist, the GN, NP and Burlington merged in 1970, then added the Santa Fe and other roads to become today’s BNSF. Along with the UP (which bought the SP and other lines), it is a backbone of rail freight service here.

America still lacks a true transcontinental railroad. The seven Class 1 roads serve either the east or the west. But the ghosts of federal partnership with private capital live on, for without it the great steel trails west could never have been built.


This article, published April 5, 2019, was updated April 8 to correct the name of the spot where the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads met.