The Transcontinental Railroads: Expansion vs. Progress

When we were discussing the advent of locomotives and its impact on the West, travel, and the National Parks, I couldn’t help but think back to a famous photograph we covered in History of Photography this summer (the featured image).  I’ve decided to discuss this because I’m curious to see how many people are familiar with how the transcontinental railroads were constructed.

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley, 1855

I think it’s safe to say that this painting by George Innes that we discussed in class, “The Lackawanna Valley,” depicts a train and the railroad as symbols for pushing westward and for American progress. But what I find interesting is that practically no paintings (that I am aware of) give the viewer a sense of the reality of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroads.

So what is this “reality” that I mentioned? The fact that the Transcontinental Railroads were not made in an East to West manner. It was actually a little more complicated than that. For a Transcontinental Railroad to be built, workers actually started building in two locations, and headed toward a meeting point somewhere in the middle. In the instance of the first Transcontinental Railroad, two railroad companies, the Central Pacific Railroad of California, and the Union Pacific Railroad, the construction process began in Sacramento, California and Omaha, Nebraska, respectively.

These two separate railroads, branching from other railroad lines on either side of the continent, were constructed with a labor force consisting of Civil War veterans, and Chinese and Irish immigrants. Trains carrying the construction materials traveled from both sides. The two railroads met in Promontory Summit, Utah, and with its meeting, a golden spike was hammered into place using a silver hammer; a symbolic act. The result is a rather iconic photograph from Andrew J. Russell.

The Joining of the Rails

Andrew J. Russell, “The Joining of the Rails”, 1869, Promontory Summit, UT

This photograph is obviously set-up with workers mugging for the camera, but nonetheless it depicts the First Transcontinental Railroad’s construction teams meeting. Even the two locomotives, “No. 119” and “Jupiter,” are still on the rails and facing each other.

So if you want to think about the symbolism of locomotives for a minute, consider this.  The First Transcontinental Railroad, also known as the Pacific Railroad and Overland Route, linked both ends of the country by train for the first time. This is a major technological feat, and it is reflected in some of the paintings and writings we discussed in class.  The George Inness painting and the excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden depict the locomotive as a symbol for progress, for good or bad. It is a symbol for industrialism and conquering the landscape, as the landscape itself had to be altered to make way for the railroad. However, is it really a symbol for expansion in such paintings? The construction of the railroad was a remarkable feat and made traveling westward easier. The railroads even made the first National Parks more accessible. However, in order for the railroads to be built, those many people that went west to conquer the wilderness had to do just that. The construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad was made possible by workers traveling from both East and West towards a center point, where a connecting spike joined two separate railroads.

I’m not sure how the symbol of the train was viewed back when the railroads were being built. But today, it seems like that the railroad would be easily viewed as a symbol for westward expansion as well. But if you know the history and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and its successors, it kind of seems like an odd symbol for Westward Expansion as well, as it was not solely an East to West construction plan. Being over a century distanced from this time frame makes this part of history a little less known to the average person, I suppose. I didn’t realize myself how the railroad was actually constructed until this past summer during History of Photography, when the A.J. Russell photograph was discussed. About the only relevant thing I can remember from anything pop-culture related within my lifetime was the golden spike ceremony scene from the Will Smith film, Wild, Wild West. But back when that came out, I didn’t know much about that era nor did I understand that movie in general.

So in short, maybe we should take the idea that the railroad symbol involves expansion witha grain of salt. And by no means am I suggesting that the railroads weren’t a symbol for the West. After all, they did connect the ends of the country, and are definitely a triumph of contemporary engineering. But as a symbol for Westward Expansion? Not so much.


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