Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, 1869

The word “transcontinental” means “from one side of a continent to the other side.” The world’s first transcontinental railroad was built in the United States between 1863 and 1869. It connected the existing eastern U.S. rail system with the Pacific coast.

Before railroads, a trip across North America — which had to made on a horse, in a wagon, in a stagecoach, or on foot — took several months. Horse-drawn travel was slow, dangerous, expensive, and unpredictable. But after the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the trip took much less time, cost much less money, and was much safer.

The Transcontinental Railroad line was begun when Abraham Lincoln was president, but it wasn’t completed until four years after his death. To complete the track, builders coming from the west met up with builders coming from the east at a place called Promontory Summit in Utah. To finish the job, California’s governor, a man named Leyland Stanford, tapped in the last railroad spike, which was partially made of gold (It was about 73% gold and 27% copper). Known as “the Golden Spike,” it is now on display at at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Transcontinental Railroad Stamp

More Fun Facts

Fun Fact: The First Transcontinental Railroad has also been known as the Pacific Railroad, and the Overland Route. It was completed on May 10, 1869.

Fun Fact: The First Transcontinental Railroad replaced wagon trains and stagecoach lines that transported people and goods from the East to the West.

Fun Fact: The First Transcontinental Railroad also replaced a long and dangerous sea journey from the east coast to the west coast. In those days, ships had to sail south, all the way around South America’s southern tip, in order to get from one coast to the other.

Fun Fact: With help from the government, three private companies built the First Transcontinental Railroad. Those companies were: the Western Pacific Railroad Company, the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, and the Union Pacific Railroad Company.

Fun Fact: Most of the workers for the Central Pacific Railroad Company were Chinese immigrants; most of the workers for the Union Pacific Railroad were Irish.

Fun Fact: The Golden Spike wasn’t pounded into the railroad tie. It was dropped into a pre-drilled hole and then gently tapped in by Leyland Stanford. Since the spike was made with a soft medal (gold), Stanford was careful not to damage it.

Fun Fact: The Mystery Ryders’ Adventure #1, The Mystery of the Disappearing Dogs, takes place at Stanford University, where the Golden Spike is on display.

Quotes About the Transcontinental Railroad

“The railroad must be built.”
President Abraham Lincoln Speaking About the Transcontinental Railroad

“About 12 o’clock the work of driving the last spike commenced, amid the deafening shouts of the multitude. In less than two minutes the great continental highway from ocean to ocean was an accomplished fact.”
The Highland Weekly News, May 20, 1869