“The war was about dividing the country; the railroad was about bringing it together.” --- David Von Drehle, author of a new book on Abraham Lincoln and the tumultuous year 1862
Abraham Lincoln often paced the White House long after midnight, but he lost no sleep over legislation signed 150 years ago today to build the first transcontinental railroad.
When President Lincoln signed the bill creating the Union Pacific Railroad and a coast-to-coast railway on July 1, 1862, he set in motion a vision suggested by a Council Bluffs land surveyor three years earlier. It was an idea reinforced when Lincoln himself reportedly stood on an Iowa bluff overlooking the Nebraska Territory.
You could say the “Rail Splitter” and the surveyor agreed upon a route — west out of Omaha along the Platte River Valley — that would forever shape a city, a state and a nation.
“That decision guaranteed that Omaha would be Nebraska's metropolis, because it gave Omaha an economic leg up on every other city,” said James Potter, senior historian at the Nebraska State Historical Society. “It was an immediately significant decision that obviously is still significant today.”
Yet it also seems remarkable that a railroad project commanded the president's attention at a time when the future of the United States was in grave doubt.
By 1862, the Civil War understandably deprived Lincoln of many a night's sleep. The year started with hopes for a quick end to the rebellion, but that optimism was soon crushed by a series of Union setbacks and savage battles.
Even as he prepared to sign the railroad legislation, Lincoln must have been deeply disappointed with war developments. In late June and early July, Rebel forces under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee unexpectedly routed the Union Army led by Gen. George McClellan just as the federals were closing in on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va.
Throughout the year, Lincoln also was looking for the right time to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. (He announced Sept. 22, 1862, that slaves would be freed Jan. 1 if Rebel states had not rejoined the Union by then.)
In addition, Lincoln made time to tend to the legislative agenda of the Republican Party he had helped create.
Unencumbered by Southern Democrats who left Washington to form their own government, the 37th Congress passed two laws that would transform America: the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act. Both created land-grant systems — the Homestead Act to encourage settlement of the West, and the Morrill Act to build public colleges and universities in every state.
But Lincoln wanted another grand act: a transcontinental railroad.
Given the jagged cliff the nation stood upon in 1862, connecting states east of the Missouri River with the territories of the Louisiana Purchase and beyond would logically seem destined for a back burner.
But that assumption ignores the politics, economy and history of the era, said David Von Drehle, editor at large at Time magazine and author of the forthcoming “1862: Abraham Lincoln and the Making of America,” which documents the events of that pivotal year in U.S. history.
Look to Lincoln's annual letters to Congress, the author said, where the president writes of the prosperous, peaceful and promising future that awaits — if only the states can truly unite.
So on this day 150 years ago, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act to help attain his highest aspirations for the nation.
“There's no greater expression of that vision for the future than the transcontinental railroad,” Von Drehle said. “The war was about dividing the country; the railroad was about bringing it together.”
Some scholars argue it's difficult to gauge Lincoln's interest in the project because the president wrote so little about it. But Von Drehle and others say Lincoln would have been deeply interested and involved.
Long before Lincoln won the presidency, he had embraced the power of modern transportation. In his first political campaign at age 23, he ran for the Illinois Legislature on a platform supporting construction of a railroad across Illinois — before he had ever seen a train.
“Railroads were the leading and most important expression of American modernity. Lincoln saw that. He was an avid admirer of the latest technologies as a positive force shaping the country,'' said William G. Thomas, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln historian and author of “The Iron Way,'' a new book about railroads and the Civil War.
Other insights about the importance of the railroad to the president are gained from the personal writings of Grenville Dodge, the Council Bluffs surveyor whose association with Lincoln began with a conversation the two shared on a Council Bluffs hotel porch.
Dodge, who would become Union Pacific's chief civil engineer during construction of the first transcontinental line, had surveyed rail routes in Illinois and Iowa for the M&M Railroad — later known as the Rock Island — and was scouting potential routes across Nebraska and elsewhere.
“By the late 1850s, Dodge was in Council Bluffs picking the brains of returning government survey teams and adding it to his knowledge,'' said Patricia LaBounty, collections manager at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in the Bluffs.
Dodge's on-the-ground intelligence paid off in August 1859.
A clean-shaven Lincoln traveled by rail from his home in Springfield, Ill., to St. Joseph, Mo., and then up the Missouri River on a steamboat to Council Bluffs. He made the journey to check out parcels of land he'd been offered as collateral on a loan.
Dodge had just returned from a topographical survey expedition west of the Missouri. Lincoln, always interested in railroads, heard of Dodge's work and sought him out.
They talked on the Pacific House hotel porch for two hours.
Dodge wrote in his memoirs that Lincoln showed great interest in what Dodge knew of the land west of the Missouri.
Dodge proclaimed the Platte River valley across Nebraska as far superior to other options, including any starting point between Sioux City, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo.
“This seemed to please Mr. Lincoln,'' Dodge wrote. “He stated that there was nothing more important before the nation at that time than the building of the railroad to the Pacific Coast. He ingeniously extracted a great deal of information from me, and I found the secrets I had been holding for my employers in the East had been given to him.''
Lincoln's visit caused a stir in Council Bluffs, a bustling town of about 2,000. (Omaha was about the same size.) He had lost his U.S. Senate bid to Stephen Douglas the previous year and was not actively running for president, but was widely known as a great orator.
While in the Bluffs, Lincoln gave an anti-slavery speech to a large crowd at the Concert Hall. He climbed a bluff to look into Nebraska and the territorial communities of Florence, Omaha and Bellevue. He also attended a luncheon hosted by friends whose house, coincidentally, stood on the current site of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum.
Thomas, the UNL historian, said Lincoln had watched Illinois rapidly develop and its population soar as new rail lines crossed the state during the 1850s. The first federal land grants to fund the construction of railroads were made in Illinois.
“He saw towns created out of the prairie,'' Thomas said. “He saw the railroad as the powerful engine to economic and social change and growth. He said that society was being transformed by locomotion.''
And lawyer Lincoln pursued railroad legal business. He represented railroads. He represented people filing claims against railroads. He set precedence in railroad law.
“A lot of litigation followed in the wake of the railroads and Lincoln — a lawyer with an energetic practice — was right in the middle of it,'' Thomas said.
Nine months after their meeting in Council Bluffs, Lincoln was the Republican Party's presidential nominee. Dodge traveled to the Chicago convention to lobby the Iowa delegation in support of Lincoln.
After the election, Dodge met Lincoln at the inauguration in Washington, D.C. They talked about the South's secession movement.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Dodge created the 4th Iowa Volunteer infantry regiment and was appointed colonel by Iowa's governor. He was severely wounded in the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas, a Union victory in one of the first major engagements of the war in March 1862. He was promoted to brigadier general.
Four months later in Washington, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. The law authorized two railroad companies — the newly chartered Union Pacific and the existing Central Pacific — to construct the lines in exchange for huge grants of land.
The rail line would spawn communities and support military outposts. It would move settlers west. It would tie the new states of California and Oregon to the Union.
Few details escaped Lincoln's involvement in building the Union Pacific. In January 1863 he signed an executive order establishing the gauge of the track at 5 feet wide.
But one key detail was yet to be decided. While the Central Pacific would build eastward from Sacramento, Calif., the starting point for the westbound Union Pacific was being debated.
Even though far southern routes were no longer being considered, a group of business interests in Kansas City wanted the route to pass through their town. And they used influence, including bribery, to sway lawmakers in Congress to select their preferred route, said the author Von Drehle from Kansas City.
But they were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Dodge was repairing Southern railroads for the Union and earning the friendship of two key Union generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
In spring 1863, Lincoln summoned Dodge from his post in Mississippi to discuss the eastern terminus.
“He remembered our interview on the Pacific House porch in 1859 and called my attention to it,'' Dodge wrote later. He said he told Lincoln what surveys showed.
“He listened and discussed this question with me for a long time,'' Dodge wrote. “I saw from his talk and his indication that his views coincided with mine, and I have no doubt he made his decision at that time, as recommended by me ...''
On Nov. 17, 1863 — two days prior to his Gettysburg Address — Lincoln issued an executive order setting the railroad's eastern terminus in Council Bluffs, exactly where Dodge advised. (With no bridge over the Missouri River at that time, Omaha became the actual starting point for the railroad and remains U.P.'s headquarters.)
Lincoln and Dodge also talked about how to finance the construction, with Dodge suggesting the federal government do the job, which he thought was too big for private enterprise.
“The law of 1862 had been passed but the promoters of the road had been unable to raise a single dollar,'' Dodge wrote.
Thomas said the enormous cost of fighting the war, coupled with the movement of private capital into U.S. government bonds for the conflict, left little money for building the railroad.
But Lincoln agreed to change the law and entice investors by ranking bonds of the railroad company ahead of bonds for the government. Opponents argued that gave unfair advantage to a private corporation, but failed to stop the plan.
Dodge eventually returned to the battlefield and was shot and wounded in the head at the siege of Atlanta in August 1864.
In October 1864, Grant sent Dodge to Washington to see Lincoln. The president questioned Dodge about the Army of the Potomac and Grant's leadership. Dodge said he was confident that Grant would defeat the Confederate army.
“He took my hand in both of his and very solemnly said, ‘You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that,''' Dodge wrote.
Dodge never saw Lincoln again, but while serving as military governor of Missouri, he exchanged letters with the president on how to handle Union versus Confederate factions.
The Civil War was over and Dodge was at his St. Louis headquarters when he received a late-night telegram from the War Department in April 1865 that Lincoln had been shot.
"The Great West Illustrated"
Andrew J. Russell's work chronicling the construction of America's first transcontinental railroad goes on display Saturday in an exhibition marking Omaha-based Union Pacific's 150th anniversary. Learn more about the Joslyn Art Museum exhibit and see more of Russell's work here.
Dodge attended Lincoln's funeral in Springfield. “It was the saddest day of my life. Those streets were lined with thousands and thousands of people.”
In May 1866 he gave up his Army commission and signed on as Union Pacific's chief engineer. His job was to examine the terrain and draft the railroad's route across it. He resigned after building the Union Pacific to its completion at Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869.
LaBounty said the nation quickly felt the impact of the transcontinental railroad. Passenger service began within days. Travel between New York City and San Francisco now took less than a week, compared with monthslong perilous wagon or sea trips.
The tracks were a lifeline to settlers. Trade flourished between the coasts. Trains carried not only freight but ideas. As books, newspapers and people crossed the continent, Americans everywhere could participate in the same national conversation, LaBounty said.
“Driving the Golden Spike at Promontory was as exciting as putting a man on the moon,'' she said.
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