Sunday, May 10, 2009

This Day in Western History (Transcontinental RR Completed)

May 10, 1869—A two-generation dream to bind America together by rail became a reality, as the “Golden Spike” was driven at Promontory, Utah, joining the Union and Central Pacific Railroads in a vast 1,800-mile network through some of the most desolate, even harrowing regions of the U.S.

No other occupant of the Oval Office has had virtually his entire Presidency defined by war as did Abraham Lincoln. I often wonder how his domestic policy might have turned out if the Civil War hadn’t interfered with his plans. I think that the First Transcontinental Railroad provides one clue.

Remember that Lincoln’s political hero as a young man was Henry Clay, a fellow Kentuckian who hoped to tie together the young republic through his “American System” of canals, roads and other internal improvements. As a former railroad lawyer himself (and the father of a future railroad executive, Robert Todd Lincoln), the President saw the Iron Horse as a natural adjunct of Clay’s schema.

The antebellum period witnessed not only a deadlock over slavery, but also over which route the proposed transcontinental railroad would take. The departure of the South after Fort Sumter left a Republican majority in Congress that assured that the route would not go through slave territory.

The day of the Golden Spike was a giddy one, remembered Alexander Toponce, who was furnishing meat under contract to construction camps associated with the grand enterprise. Liberal amounts of alcohol were consumed, not just by the common laborers whose imbibing was frequently derided by nativists, but also by the more well-heeled.

The capitalist who financed the railroad and pushed (and bribed) to get it built went a long way toward dividing their workers into opposing ethnic camps, but they did give them, at long last, something in common. As Leland Stanford of the Union Pacific and Thomas Durant of the Central Pacific wielded the sledge, each missed the spike on their first tries, eliciting unbridled cries of delight from their Irish, Chinese and Mexican workers.

In an essay in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America's Western Past (ed: William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, 1992), Sarah Deutsch summed up the changes wrought on racial and ethnic relations in the West:

“It was the railroad—symbolized by the completion of the transcontinental line in 1869—rather than the military that tipped the balance of power….The railroad, linking city to city, coast to coast, countryside to markets, symbolized national capitalism’s triumph over local autonomy. The railroad also revolutionized the demography and altered the pattern of opportunity in the West. And the two changes were intertwined.”

From now on, blacks, European immigrants, and Mexican and Chinese laborers could push to the farthest corners of the West in search of better wages, Deutsch explained. That, in turn, presaged the end of the Native American as the dominant force on the frontier.

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