Transcontinental Railroad Completed

U.S. #922 was issued on the 75th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony.

On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed with the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah.

Talks about a railroad spanning America began as early as 1832, when Dr. Hartwell Carver suggested one from Lake Michigan to Oregon. Congress began to seriously consider the idea in the late 1840s, following the discovery of gold in California.

Did you know each of these stamps is “clickable?”  You can click on each one to learn more about it and buy it for your collection!
Item #CSA6 – As Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis oversaw early research into the railroad.

In the early 1850s, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis directed a series of Pacific Railroad Surveys to explore possible routes. Their extensive research produced 12 volumes on the nature and native people of the west. This research also led to the Gadsden Purchase, which acquired land in the future states of Arizona and New Mexico along the proposed route.

By 1856 the House of Representatives had formed a Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph. They declared that, “The necessity that now exists for constructing lines of railroad and telegraphic communication between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of this continent is no longer a question for argument; it is conceded by every one. In order to maintain our present position on the Pacific, we must have some more speedy and direct means of intercourse than is at present afforded by the route through the possessions of a foreign power.”

U.S. #77 – President Lincoln approved construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1862.

By the early 1860s, it was agreed that the railroad was necessary, but as the nation was embroiled in the slavery debate that would soon send them into Civil War, no one could agree if the eastern terminus should be in a Northern or Southern city. Talks stalled when the war began. But then in 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. This act gave the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies the responsibility of creating a transcontinental railroad route, roughly following the 42nd parallel from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. Railroad lines in Chicago were to be extended to meet the new railroad in Omaha.

The Union Pacific Railroad Company began heading west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, while the Central Pacific built eastward from Sacramento, California. For their efforts, Congress granted these railroad companies large tracts of land and millions of dollars in loans. The Central Pacific began work on their end of the railroad on January 8, 1863. Located thousands of miles from the eastern manufacturing centers, they had a long wait for their supplies, which were transported by ship around South America’s Cape Horn or through the Isthmus of Panama. Construction on the Union Pacific Railroad didn’t begin until after the end of the war, in July 1865.

When the war ended, many Army veterans worked for the Union Pacific along with Irish immigrants. Labor was hard to find in the West, but Chinese immigrants diligently pushed the railroad over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Item #MA1552 – Wells Fargo cover from1865-69.

Finally, on May 10, 1869, the tracks of the two railroads met at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. California Governor Leland Stanford had the honor of driving the final golden spike. The hammers and spike used in the ceremony were wired to the telegraph line so that each strike could be heard as a telegraph “click” across the nation (though the hammer didn’t register). The ceremonial golden spike was then removed and replaced with an ordinary iron spike and a telegraph was sent out simply stating, “DONE.” Celebrations immediately broke out at telegraph stations around the country. The 1,776-mile transcontinental railroad was complete. The journey that once took six months or more was now down to just one week.

This historic achievement marked the first time a railroad had spanned an entire continent. The transcontinental railroad did a great deal to speed the settlement and industrial growth of the U.S. By the end of the 1800s, the U.S. had five transcontinental rail lines. The “Pacific Railroad,” as it was first called, opened the west to trade, travel, and settlement. It marked the end of dangerous stagecoach and wagon journeys. Towns seemed to appear overnight along the route.

Click here to view photos from joining ceremony and more.

Click the images to add this history to your collection.

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  1. I am especially interested in anything Railroad as I am doing a Topical RR collection and would like to ad this history to my collection. Thank you for posting it.

  2. The Pacific Railroad was an astounding engineering and physical achievement of which this nation can be proud. However this article didn’t mention or even hint at the corruption, bribery, and outright theft that that was part of the entire effort. That wasn’t the intent of this short article, but let’s not sugar-coat our history.

    1. You want to see corruption? The 1912 mile Transcontinental railroad was built in six years (1863-1869) for around $3 billion in 2020 dollars. Honolulu is building a 20 mile elevated steel on steel route from west Oahu to Ala Moana center. So far they’re 16 years into the project and cost is projected to be ~$13 billion with another 10 years to go. Now that’s a modern day example of corruption, bribery and outright theft!

  3. It may be of interest to know that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) also pushed the construction of an east-west railway line during the same years, and with the acquisition of International Railway of Maine’s, the trunk line connecting Montreal (west side) with Saint John (east side) on the Atlantic coast, the line was complete in 1889, some 20 years after completion of the US line, and made CPR the first truly transcontinental railway company in Canada, a sizable feat for a nation of just over 3 million people at the time.

    The line permitted trans-Atlantic cargo and passenger services to continue year-round when sea ice in the Gulf of St Laurent [named so on St Laurent’s day in 1535 when Jacques Cartier sailed up the river to Stadacona, today’s Montreal] closed the port of Montreal during the winter months.

    No doubt railway aficionados will be able to provide further details comparing the two massive projects. Congratulations to Transcontinental Railroad for such a gargantuan achievement 147 years ago, and what it meant for USA expansion westward. GdR

    1. “There was a time in this great land that the railroad did not run…” Congratulations to Gordon Lightfoot for the greatest railroad song.

  4. My ancestors traveled west by wagon in 1859/60. I remember my first trip transferring from Maine to California long before the interstate system in this country was completed. Reducing travel from six months to six days must have seemed like a miracle. Even my first trip of five day by cars has been shortened. Amazing, how far we have come.

  5. I don’t understand what that Wells Fargo cover is (Item #MA1552). Can someone help?

    Thanks! :o)

    1. The 1849 California Gold Rush and other silver ‘rushes’ created the need for Western Express companies. Wells Fargo became the largest and most successful.

      In 1852 the American Express company refused to open offices in California. Henry Wells and William Fargo, both directors at American Express, decided to open their own company in California. Wells Fargo bought gold, sold paper bank drafts “as good as gold” and delivered valuables including mail. They used Pony Express riders, stage coaches, steamboats, and railroads. Wells Fargo and dozens more private express companies were indispensable to life in the primitive West.

      But the Post Office had a legal monopoly on first-class mail. To ensure payment, the clever people at Wells Fargo bought thousands of 3¢ U.S. Post Office stamped envelopes, printed “Wells Fargo” on the envelope and carried mail at a premium price. In the early 1890s the government forced Wells Fargo to stop carrying mail.

  6. The railroads built and expanded our great country. We just lack the vision of today’s leadership that was prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century. I am still a great fan for rail travel and look forward when high speed trains will someday become a reality like in the rest of the developed world. I plan to travel by train to go to a family reunion next year!

  7. The Railroads and Railroad Barons, for all their faults and foibles, have made an indelible impact on the growth of this country.

  8. As a model railroader, I have scale models of both steam engines on display. Been collecting railroad memorabilia for almost 60 years. The pane will look good in my Railroad stamp album. Thx.

    1. My great grandfather, Amos Bowsher, was the telegrapher that day at promontory.
      He later became a railroad engineer for many years. He passed away in 1932 at age 89, outliving his entire family. We have the famous Thomas Hill painting of the Last Spike event. We also have your stamps of the two locomotives. Keep up the excellent work!

  9. WOW !! A great background on the railroads with even MORE details in the attachment than you can shake a stick at !! Thanks, Mystric ! God bless you !

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