The hammering of the Golden Spike into place 150 years ago this month at Promontory Point, Utah, launched Omaha and our nation into a dramatic new era. The sesquicentennial provides an occasion to recognize how the 19th-century railroads, and the Transcontinental Railroad above all, spurred extraordinary transformations in national life.
The consequences for Omaha and the nation’s mid-section were, of course, decisive. Throughout the 1850s, political figures in Washington had hotly debated the question of which specific route the “Pacific Railroad” should take. As the Civil War raged in the early 1860s, the Union Pacific Railroad at last settled the question: The eastern terminus would lie in Omaha.
That all-important decision launched what was then a modest riverfront settlement on a remarkable upward trajectory into a major regional city.
It was true that the Transcontinental Railroad wasn’t a straight line that stretched directly from the East Coast to the West Coast — but that didn’t matter, because Omaha and neighboring Council Bluffs were eventually connected eastward to Chicago’s remarkable network of rail lines.
The railroad had transformed Chicago dramatically since the 1830s, when it was originally platted to facilitate canal construction. It was a humble village at the time, with economic prospects considered far inferior to those of larger, older Midwest cities. But the rise of railroads before the Civil War launched Chicago into prominence as a vital rail hub. By the late 1800s, Chicago “was the unquestioned rail capital of the nation; myriad rail lines reached out from the city in all directions,” historian Jon Teaford writes.
Railroad companies found the Midwest and Plains states, with their generally level ground, to be especially cost-effective for construction. “A thick web of rail lines overlay the map of each Midwestern state,” Teaford writes, and the region’s major cities “were all rail hubs.”
Rail historian H. Roger Grant describes a common site in Nebraska and other states: “On the Plains … it became common to have Main Street run at a right angle to the depot and tracks. The resulting ‘T-town’ was immensely practical. The retailing core stood directly adjacent to the depot.”
Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, only four years after the conclusion of the Civil War, fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a continental nation directly linked, east to west. The burgeoning rail connections helped create a truly national market and transformed West Coast port cities into bustling commercial centers with trans-Pacific connections — ports that provide some of UP’s largest business to this day.
The rise of railroads was not a purely positive process. The westward push displaced native tribes, shattering their way of life. The dynamiting of Central Pacific Railroad passes through California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, on the way to Promontory Point, involved arduous, dangerous work that sometimes took the lives of Chinese laborers.
For these many reasons, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad 150 years ago stands as a landmark for our nation and Omaha, to be understood in its full complexity and significance.