The country, from its commerce to the environment to even its concept of time, was profoundly altered after the completion of the railroad"s 1,776 miles of track.

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There was a time when traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast meant riding for months in a horse-drawn wagon or stagecoach, or sailing southward to Panama and then crossing the Isthmus to board another ship for a journey up the other coast. But that all changed on May 10, 1869, when railroad baron Leland Stanford whacked in a ceremonial gold spike to mark the joining together of the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad in Promontory, Utah, to form the transcontinental railroad. The new rail connection eventually made it possible to travel in a train car from New York to San Francisco in just a week’s time.

Some 21,000 workers—from Irish-American Civil War veterans, freed slaves and Mormon pioneers to Chinese laborers—had been recruited to perform the hard and often dangerous work of laying the 1,776 miles of track. By one estimate, the project cost roughly $60 million, about $1.2 billion in today’s money, though other sources put the amount even higher.

While the railroad's construction was a mammoth undertaking, its effects on the country were equally profound. Here are some of the ways that the first transcontinental railroad—and the many other transcontinental lines that followed it—changed America.


Map of the transcontinental route of the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad and its connections, circa 1883. 

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1. It made the Western U.S. more important. 

“What the transcontinental railroad did was bring the West into the world, and the world into the West,” explains James P. Ronda, a retired University of Tulsa professor and co-author, with Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, of The West the Railroads Made. In particular, it helped turn California from a once-isolated place to a major economic and political force, and helped lead to the state’s rapid growth.

2. It made commerce possible on a vast scale. 

By 1880, the transcontinental railroad was transporting $50 million worth of freight each year. In addition to transporting western food crops and raw materials to East Coast markets and manufactured goods from East Coast cities to the West Coast, the railroad also facilitated international trade.

The first freight train to travel eastward from California carried a load of Japanese tea. “The Constitution provided the legal framework for a single national market for trade goods; the transcontinental railroad provided the physical framework,” explains Henry W. Brands, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Dreams of El Dorado: A of the American West. “Together they gave the United States the single largest market in the world, which provided the basis for the rapid expansion of American industry and agriculture to the point where the U.S. by the 1890s had the most powerful economy on the planet.”


3. It made travel more affordable. 

In the 1860s, a six-month stagecoach trip across the U.S. cost $1,000 (about $20,000 in today’s dollars), according to the University of Houston’s Digital website. But once the railroad was built, the cost of a coast-to-coast trip became 85 percent less expensive. That made it possible for Americans to visit distant locales that previously they might only have heard about.

4. It changed where Americans lived. 

During the railroad’s construction, numerous temporary “hell on wheels” towns of tents and wooden shacks sprung up along the route to provide living quarters for workers. Most of them eventually disappeared, but others, such as Laramie, Wyoming, evolved into towns that provided rail terminals and repair facilities. Additionally, about 7,000 cities and towns across the country began as Union Pacific depots and water stops. And, as Ronda notes, the first transcontinental railroad and the other lines that followed made it easy for immigrants to spread across the nation. “People come across the Atlantic on ships, get on trains, and end up in places such as western Nebraska,” he says.

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5. It altered Americans’ concept of reality. 

In an 1872 article, naturalist John Muir wrote that the transcontinental railroad “annihilated” time and space. As Ronda explains, it changed the way that people viewed distances. “When you’re walking or riding a horse, you experience the world one way, but when you’re sitting in a railroad car, you see it differently,” he says. “In the West, where the distances are so great, the railroad brought near and far closer together.” The railroad schedules also helped to push the United States into changing how it marked time, leading to the adoption of standard time zones in 1883.