History of the Transcontinental Railroad

Link up at Promontory Point, May 186910 miles of track in one dayLaying track in Utah's west desert

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad grade represents an epic achievement in American history, linking east to west in the new nation.  Today, the landscape looks much the same as it did in 1869, but the rails, the towns, and even the lonely rail siding are gone.  Now the visitor can only imagine the effort of those who struggled to build the nation's first transcontinental railroad.

The Central Pacific Railroad began laying track east from Sacramento in 1863.  After tackling the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and crossing the Great Basin, the railroad reached Utah in March 1869.   The Byway follows the last 90 miles of grade laid by the Central Pacific before their rails met the Union Pacific's at Promontory Summit. As you travel west from Golden Spike National Historic Site, you can see two parallel grades.  In an effort to reap greater government subsidies, the two competing railroads laid grade along side each other for over 200 miles.

On April 28, 1869, The Central Pacific crews laid 10 miles of track in one day, a record which resulted from a bet between the two railroads.  The Central Pacific crews rested at Camp Victory (Rozel), just west of the back country byway information site.

Nine of every ten men who built the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese.  Renowned for their reliability and industrious work ethic, they labored into Utah ten thousand strong with little more that picks, shovels, and black powder.  Subsisting on tea, rice, and dried vegetables from China, they lived in segregated quarters in camps such as Lucin and Terrace.

After the rails were joined on May 10, 1869, the new railroad had to be operated and maintained.  Along the Promontory Branch, 28 sidings, stations, and associated towns were built to service up to ten trains a day.  From Kelton, with a population of about 700, a major stagecoach line and mail and freight route supplied Idaho, Oregon, and the Intermountain North.  Terrace, with nearly 1,000 residents, was the largest community and served as the maintenance headquarters for the Salt Lake Division.  The town included a roundhouse, a machine shop, and an eight-track switch yard, along with hotels, a saloon/justice of the peace, a library/bathhouse, and many other thriving businesses.

The Promontory Branch of the railroad was replaced in 1904 by the Lucin Cutoff, a shorter route built on pilings across the Great Salt Lake.  The original grade saw only local use afterwards, and railroad facilities and dependent towns were soon abandoned.  The rails were removed in 1942 for use in the war effort.