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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester

The Union Pacific.

The Union Pacific.—As we leave Ogden; we begin our journey upon the Union Pacific Railway, whose history lacks all romance, and is only distinguished in the vastness of the undertaking, the great amount of capital required, and the energy which the managers showed in surmounting obstacles and carrying their road over a mountain range which the Engineers had declared impassible. The road was completed, and trains were running seven years before the law required, and before the best friends of the enterprise had dared to hope. Although the road was a Government necessity, still it never would have been accomplished within the time allowed by the Act (1876), had not individuals given to it their energies and their lives. In riding over the road we were struck with the seemingly unnecessary turns and twists upon some of the plains, where a straight course could have been taken. An engineer who laid many of these grades told me, that, in many places, the line might have been shortened. At least one is forced to the conclusion that the road was built upon the principle that ‘one good turn deserves another;’ for, if there was a necessary curve, another was made, even if of no seeming use. With the large amount in bonds and lands which the government gave this company, it is not surprising that they should make the road-bed as long as convenience would allow.

We were struck with the smoothness of the track since the repairs, always made in Spring, had been completed; and the vast amount of work which had been done since Spring was apparent. The rolling-stock is in good order, and the cars are far more comfortable than those on the Central Road. The dépôts and station-buildings are commodious; and, in some instances, they seem to be built upon expectation of what will be required. We, of course, should expect many blunders to have been made, the wrong locations selected for repair-shops and round-houses, sidings not where they should be, &c.; but, upon the whole, we are surprised and amazed that the work could have been done so nearly right for the requirements of the road.

The snow blockade in the winter of 1871 caused serious trouble; but the almost incredible exertions of Superintendent Sickels and his assistants saved the lives of those in the trains, and supplied the passengers, so that they suffered only delay. The winter was exceptional; and, if there had been only snow on the track, they could have cleared it away; but the snow and sleet together formed a mass which was nearly as solid as ice, weighing, in many places, thirty-six pounds to the cubic foot—a mass against which the powerful engines contended in vain. This year they were fully prepared to contend with the snows; and, although they have been very deep and badly drifted, no delay or serious trouble has been occasioned; and it is probable that a blockade for any considerable time will not again occur.

We were very agreeably surprised at the uniform courtesy and kindness of the conductors and their men; and, from lady-passengers especially, I heard remarks of admiration of the gentlemen who passed through the trains, as well to see that all were comfortable as to collect tickets.

Now that I have spoken of the good points, let me note some of the failings. In the first place, some arrangement must be made to check the baggage through from Chicago to San Francisco. We Americans demand that the companies look out for our baggage. In England your baggage is never checked; such a thing is unknown. There you place your portmanteau in a car which they call the luggage-van; and, when you arrive at your destination, it is thrown out, and you must ‘go for it,’ or some one else will.

Next, the inconvenience of dealing with that Transfer Company at Omaha must be remedied. The passage of that treacherous stream, the Missouri, caused more hard words to be spoken than can be erased from the big book for many a day.

Some of the proprietors of the eating-stations ought to be promoted to higher callings, for they are evidently above hotel-keeping. The best table was found at Evanston, and it was kept by a coloured man; and the next were at Laramie City and Sidney.

The Union Pacific Company own 149 powerful locomotives, 40 passenger-cars, and some 2,000 freight-cars, the number of which is being increased as business demands. In every passenger-train which is made up to run through, there are from two to four ‘Pullmans,’ which relieve the company from owning a large number of passenger-cars.

Daily new discoveries of resources are made along the line: coal and iron exist in great abundance, and useful minerals in large quantities. The great variety and extent of these discoveries excite the wonder even of those who have often passed over the road.

I will add, by way of recalling the history of this ‘grand thought’ of laying a track across the continent, a list of the different surveys which were made for a route, but none of which were followed as the exact line. These surveys furnished the groundwork of all the plans, and were the means through which we became acquainted with our ‘western country.’


Transcontinental Routes.—The Preliminary Surveys.— Mr. Asa Whitney was the first man to call public attention to a railroad to connect the Mississippi with the Pacific Ocean. Between the years 1846–50 he addressed meetings of citizens, sent memorials to State legislatures, and petitioned Congress. The first plan was to begin at Prairie du Chien on the great river, cross the Rocky Mountains by South Pass, and reach the ocean at Vancouver’s Sound. The first incentive for the road was, of course, to furnish the government with transportation; next to make a highway for Asiatic commerce. The rapid settlement of California furnished another strong argument in 1850 and succeeding years. Benton of Missouri was a zealous advocate of the scheme, both in the senate and before the people. After much labour and many defeats, the friends of a railroad obtained, in March 1853, an appropriation of $150,000 to defray the expenses of surveys; and accordingly six companies were formed, and began the work. As from these exploring parties all the information was obtained upon which all future plans were matured, it is well to recall the routes taken by each, and note the results attained. In the thirteen quarto volumes published by Congress all the reports are found, and elaborate illustrations of scenery, flora, and animals.

The first expedition was led by Governor Isaac I. Stevens, formerly of the army, on the line of the forty-seventh and thirty-ninth parallels of north latitude. It consisted of four separate parties. One, under Governor Steven’s personal supervision, penetrated from St. Paul westward towards the mouth of White Earth River, thence by the prairies lying along the Missouri River, to the Rocky Mountains, and among the passes of that region. Another, under Capt. McClellan, U.S.A., began at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia, explored to the north-eastward, examining the passes of the Cascade Range, and then eastward to join Governor Stevens. Another party, under Lieut. Donalson, U.S.A., examined the Missouri from its mouth to the Yellowstone, where a junction was made with that under Governor Stephens. The fourth party, under Lieut. Saxton, U.S.A., conducted a reconnaissance from Fort Walla-Walla to the Bitter Root Valley. The second expedition was on the line of the thirty-eighth and thirty ninth parallels, and was commanded by Capt. Gunnison, U.S.A. It started from Westport, Mo., and followed the valleys of the Kansas and Arkansas Rivers to the Rocky Mountains. After carefully exploring the savage region between the Sangre del Cristo Pass and Sevier Lake, a portion of the party, including Capt. Gunnison, was massacred by Indians. The command devolved upon Lieut. Beckwith, who proceeded to Salt Lake City, where he received instructions to extend the exploration westward upon the line of the forty-first parallel. This he did in the following spring, crossing the Sierra Nevadas near Fort Reading, and thence following the valley of the Sacramento to San Francisco. The third expedition, commanded by Capt. Whipple, U.S.A., was on the line of the thirty-fifth parallel. It started from Fort Smith, and took the route by the valley of the Canadian River and Auton Chico to Albuquerque; thence it proceeded westward by Zuni, the valley of the Colorado Chiquito, the valley of Bill William’s Fork, the valley of the Mohave and the Cajon Pass, to San Pedro on the Pacific. The fourth expedition, under Lieut. Williamson, U.S.A., was fitted out at San Francisco, and passing up the San Joaquin and Tulare Valley, explored the region about Walker’s, the Tejon and other passes, and portions of the Mohave and Colorado Rivers. The fifth expedition was over the western half of the line of the thirty-second parallel, and was commanded by Lieut. Parke, U.S.A., who was detached from Lieut. Williamson’s party for the purpose. It proceeded by way of Warner’s rancho to Fort Yuma, and up the Gila to the Pimo and Maricopa villages, thence by way of Tuscon and Dona Anato El Paso. The sixth expedition was on the eastern half of the line of the thirty-second parallel, and was commanded by Capt. Pope, U.S.A. It started from El Paso, and proceeded in almost a straight line eastward to Preston, on Red River, passing through Gaudaloupe Mountains, crossing the Pecos at the mouth of Delaware Creek, and traversing the Llano Estacado for a distance of 125 miles.

These explorations fully demonstrated the practicability of a road, save over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Additional appropriations were urged, and in 1854 $190,000 were voted. Other parties were organized; and two of them more fully explored the Sierra and Coast ranges, while the third examined the means of obtaining water for railroad purposes.

However unsatisfactory these various reports were in details, they furnished the groundwork upon which to build the plans which were to be matured, and afterwards carried to a successful completion—the union of the Atlantic and the Pacific by a band of iron, over which the locomotive should whirl, carrying along its precious freights.

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