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Progress of the Railroad

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By William Francis Bailey in 1906

Grading was commenced in July, 1864, and track-laying the spring of 1865. The start was not auspicious, the line was originally located directly west from Omaha, but after one hundred thousand dollars had been spent, it was abandoned on account of the hills and consequent heavy grades, and two new lines were surveyed, one to the north and then west and the other south nearly to Bellevue, Kan., and then west. This latter was called the "Ox-bow Route" and was finally selected by the Company, notwithstanding violent opposition on the part of the people of Omaha, who feared that the Company would cross the Missouri at Bellevue, thus leaving Omaha out.


September 25th, 1865, saw eleven miles finished, and in November an excursion was run from Omaha to the end of the track, fifteen miles.


Railroad building on the great plains

Railroad building on the great plains, by Alfred Waud, Harper's Weekly, July 17, 1875. This image available for photographic prints and  downloads HERE!




This was gotten up by Vice-President Durant, who took an engine and flat car, inviting about twenty gentlemen to go with him on the first inspection trip to Sailing's Grove. Among the excursionists was General Sherman who gloried in the undertaking and expressed regret that at his age he could hardly anticipate living until the completion of the work. The party was very enthusiastic, and as the narrator naively puts it "as the commissary was well supplied, the gentlemen enjoyed themselves."

For a number of reasons the work dragged. It took one year to complete the first forty miles. The lack of rail connections east of Omaha were, previous to January, 1867, when the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad reached Council Bluffs, a very serious occasion of expense and delay. The work was new, those in charge were not at that time experienced, funds were scarce, and the credit of the Company not yet established, and as a result the average rate of progress during the first twelve months was but a mile a week.


"The work was military in character and one is not surprised to find among the superintendents and others in charge, a liberal sprinkling of military titles. Surveying parties were always accompanied by a detachment of soldiers as a protection against Indians. The construction trains were amply supplied with rifles and other arms and it was boasted that a gang of track-layers could be transmuted into a battalion of infantry at any moment. Over half of the men had shouldered muskets in many a battle."

The same facts are brought out by the following extract from a newspaper of that day.


"The whole organization of the road is semi-military. The men who go ahead (surveyors and locators) are the advance guard, following them is the second line (the graders) cutting through the gorges, grading the road and building the bridges. Then comes the main body of the army, placing the ties, laying the track, spiking down the rails, perfecting the alignment, ballasting and dressing up and completing the road for immediate use. Along the line of the completed road are construction trains pushing 'to the front' with supplies. The advance limit of the rails is occupied by a train of long box-cars with bunks built within them, in which the men sleep at night and take their meals. Close behind this train come train loads of ties, rails, spikes, etc., which are thrown off to the side. A light car drawn by a single horse gallops up, is loaded with this material and then is off again to the front. Two men grasp the forward end of the rail and start ahead with it, the rest of the gang taking hold two by two, until it is clear of the car. At the word of command it is dropped into place, right side up, during which a similar operation has been going on with the rail for the other side, -- thirty seconds to the rail for each gang, four rails to the minute. As soon as a car is unloaded, it is tipped over to permit another to pass it to the front and then it is righted again and hustled back for another load.


"Close behind the track-layers comes the gaugers, then the spikers and bolters. Three strokes to the spike, ten spikes to the rail, four hundred rails to the mile. Quick work you say, -- but the fellows on the Union Pacific are tremendously in earnest."


Railroad construction workers, 1860's, Andre Russell.


Or as another writer has it, "We witnessed here the fabulous speed with which the line was built. Through the two or three hundred miles beyond were scattered ten to fifteen thousand men (?) in great gangs preparing the road-bed with plows, scrapers, shovels, picks, and carts, and among the rocks, with drills and powder were doing the grading as rapidly as men could stand and move with their tools. Long trains brought up to the end of the track, loads of ties and rails the former were transferred to teams and sent one or two miles ahead and put in place on the grade, then spikes and rails were reloaded on platform cars and pushed up to the last previously laid rail and with an automatic movement and celerity that was wonderful, practiced hands dropped the fresh rails one after another on the ties exactly in line.


Hugh sledges sent the spikes home, -- the car rolled on and the operation was repeated; while every few minutes the long heavy train behind sent out a puff of smoke from its locomotive and caught up with its load of material the advancing work. The only limit to the rapidity with which the track could thus be laid was the power of the road behind to bring forward material."


The above description applies to the later period of construction, when the forces had become thoroughly organized and the work systematized. The following table shows the rate of construction:


Ground broken at Omaha December 2nd, 1863
Work commenced at Omaha Spring, 1864
11 Miles completed to Gilmore September 25th, 1865
40 Miles completed to Valley December 31st, 1865
47 Miles completed to Fremont January 24th, 1866
50 Miles completed March 13th, 1866
100 Miles completed June 2nd, 1866
247 Miles completed to the 100th Meridian October 5th, 1866
305 Miles completed December 31st, 1866
414 Miles completed to Sidney, Wyoming August, 1867
516 Miles completed to Cheyenne, Wyoming November 13th, 1867
573 Miles completed to Laramie, Wyoming May 9th, 1868
745 Miles completed December 31st, 1868
1033 Miles completed to Ogden, Utah March 8th, 1869
1086 Miles completed:  

To Promontory, Utah

April 28th, 1869

Formal connection made

May 10, 1869

Regular train service commenced 

July 15th, 1869
Completed according to Judicial decision November 6th, 1869


The progress made was daily wired East and published in the principal newspapers. Thus in the "Chicago Tribune" items such as "One and nine-tenth miles of track laid yesterday on the Union Pacific Railroad" appeared in every issue.


High water train, 1907During the construction of the line, headquarters were established at different points at the front, which were used as a basis of operations for the construction of the section beyond. These places enjoyed a temporary boom, some of them like Jonah's Gourd to wither up and die away, others profiting by the start are today points of importance. The first of these was North Platte, Nebraska, its selection being caused by the delay incident to bridging the river. This was the terminus of the road during the fall of 1866 and up to June 1867. During this time it was the distributing point for all the country west. The mixture of railroad laborers, freighters, etc., all of them with more or less money, inaugurated a rough time and was the beginning of the wild scenes that attended the construction of the line. The town during the winter had a population of five thousand and over a thousand buildings.


With the completion of the line to Sidney, Wyoming, in June, 1867, the rough element left and established themselves at that point, leaving at North Platte about three hundred of the more sedentary law-abiding class who had determined on that point for their home. In moving to the front, houses were torn down, loaded on cars to be taken to the new site and there re-erected.


When it was known that Cheyenne was to be the terminus for the winter of 1867-1868, there was a  grand hegira of roughs, gamblers, prostitutes from all along the line and from the East. The population jumped to six thousand. Dwellings sprang up like mushrooms. They were of every conceivable character. Some simply holes in the ground roofed over, known as "dug outs," others of canvas, while some few were of wood and stone. Town lots were sold at fabulous prices. The only pastimes were gambling and drinking. Shooting scrapes with "a man for breakfast" were an every day occurrence, and stealing so common as to occasion no comment. It is said of old Colonel Murrian, the then Mayor of Cheyenne, that he advanced the City's script eighteen cents on the dollar, by inflicting a fine of ten dollars on those who "made a gun play" i. e. shot at any one,-- and that it was his custom to add a quarter to the fines he inflicted, making them ten dollars and twenty-five cents or twenty-five dollars and twenty-five cents, with the explanation that his was dry work and the extra quarter was to cover the stimulant his arduous duties required.

Such conditions brought about an uprising on the part of the more respectable element. Vigilance committees with "Judge Lynch" in command, took hold and from his Court there was neither appeal, nor stays. Witnesses were not held to be essential. The toughs were known and the judgments of the Court generally right. At least the defendants were not left in a condition to make complaint or appeal.  The Vigilance Committee during the first year of its existence hung or shot twelve of the desperadoes, and were instrumental in sending as many more to the Penitentiary. The effect was to compel the tough element to either leave or abide by the laws and to put the decent element in control.


The next headquarters was Benton, Wyoming In two weeks (July 1868) a city of three thousand inhabitants sprang up as if by the touch of Aladdin's Lamp.


It was laid out in regular squares, divided into five wards, had a Mayor and Board of Aldermen, a Daily Paper and volume of ordinances for the City Government. It was the end of the freight and passenger service and the beginning of the division under construction. Twice a day, long trains arrived from and departed for the East, while stages and wagon trains connected it with points in Idaho, Montana, and Utah. All the passengers and goods for the West, came here by rail and were re-shipped to their several destinations.


Tent SaloonTwenty-three saloons paid license to the city, while dance halls and gambling dens were even more numerous. The great institution was the "Big Tent." This was a frame structure, one hundred feet long and forty feet wide, floored for dancing, to which and gambling it was entirely devoted.


A visitor to the city thus described it: "One to two thousand men and a dozen or more women were encamped on the alkali plain in tents and shanties." Only a small proportion of them had aught to do with the road or any legitimate occupation. Restaurant and saloon keepers, gamblers, desperadoes of every grade, the vilest of men and women made up this "Hell on Wheels" as it was most aptly termed. Six months later, all that was left to mark the site was a few rock piles and half destroyed chimneys together with piles of old cans. The city after a tumultuous existence of only sixty days had "got up and pulled its freight" to the next headquarters.


Green River, Bryan, Bear River City, and Wasatch were the headquarters successively. The first, owing to the railroad having made it the end of a division and located shops there, has survived; the other three are but memories.


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