Completing the transcontinental railroad 150 years ago at Promontory Summit forever changed Utah and the nation — driving radical transformation in everything from the economy to the environment, from settlement to the culture.
“The changes were sweeping and pivotal,” said Brigham Young University history professor Brian Cannon.
Maybe Americans on May 10, 1869, excitedly sensed the magnitude of the shifts coming. Historian Stephen Ambrose said more cannons were likely fired that day in celebration nationally than ever took part in the battle of Gettysburg — including 220 in San Francisco and 100 in Washington, D.C.
Chicago threw the parade of the century — seven miles long, with tens of thousands participating. The Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City was packed with 7,000 celebrating people. Cities nationwide closed businesses to await the news via telegraph and to erupt in jubilation.
“Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the transcontinental railroad … was the greatest achievement of the American people in the 19th century,” Ambrose wrote in his book “Nothing Like It In the World.”
The Salt Lake Tribune searched writings of historians — and interviewed several modern ones — to look for ways that the railroad changed the world and the state. Here are the top 12:
• Immigration became faster, easier, cheaper and safer. Before the railroad, “It took about three months to come to Utah by wagon. The train cut that down to a week” or less, Thomas Alexander, an emeritus BYU history professor, said in an interview.
Cannon added that, “You could get all the way from Omaha to Salt Lake City in about 30-31 hours if everything worked correctly.”
The trip also was safer and cheaper.
“It was actually more expensive to travel by wagon than by train,” Alexander said. And death was common in wagon trains from cholera, dysentery and other illnesses — but not on trains.
The cost to cross the Plains by wagon was about $1,000. A week after the Golden Spike completed the railroad, people could travel from New York to San Francisco for $150, first class (with sleeping cars) and $70 for emigrant class.
The Golden Spike officially ended the pioneer era. Cannon notes people can join such pioneer heritage groups as the Daughters of Utah Pioneers only if their ancestors immigrated before 1869.
• It literally changed the sense of time and space. Brad Westwood, senior public historian at the Utah Division of History, noted that for thousands of years, people could travel no faster on land than a horse could carry them.
The train changed that in a generation — and, in 1883, would even lead to creating standard time zones to aid train schedules (instead of every city figuring that noon was when the sun hit its highest point in the sky there).
“The sense of time and space changed,” he said, including how far people figured they could easily travel, send their goods or buy things. “We have Amazon Prime now that delivers things in 24 hours. People had a version of that in the 19th century,” where people could buy most consumer goods from catalog companies that delivered via rail.
Homemade pioneer furniture and clothing started disappearing, replaced by factory goods. The market for farm products became national instead of local. That included creation of many middleman companies “that made their money by basically taking your crop, putting it in storage bins and transporting it when needed,” he said.
Locally produced dried foods and hardtack no longer were necessary to survive winter. “For the wealthy, cuisine changed," Westwood said. “You could buy your favorite foods” from around the country.”
• It helped create Utah’s mining industry. Before the train, it was not economical to haul ore in wagons from Utah mines, refine it and ship it to the outside world. That changed with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, and rail spurs were quickly built to mines.
“The output of the mines increased sevenfold in the first year after the railroad’s completion,” Cannon said, noting that “$1.4 million worth of gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc were taken out of Utah mines in 1870 alone.”
Those metals soon became the state’s main exports and the cornerstone of its economy for decades. It created some millionaires. Cannon noted the famous mansions along Salt Lake City’s South Temple street were built mostly by mining magnates who benefited from the train.
“Silver, gold, timber, wheat, coal, livestock, corn and more would eventually pour back out of the region and transform the national economy in ways irreversible,” said Ryan Dearinger, a history professor at Eastern Oregon University who wrote a book about construction of the transcontinental railroad.
• It increased ethnic and religious diversity in Utah. The railroad and the mining boom attracted outsiders. Lots of them.
“So you get ethnic groups that had largely been absent from Utah with the Mormon population,” Cannon said.
Some of the Irish workers who had helped build the Union Pacific remained in Utah and were drawn to work in the mines. Most Chinese workers who came with the Central Pacific left, but some remained — especially in Ogden.
Before the transcontinental railroad, 91 percent of Euro-Americans who had settled in Utah were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By 1890, church members made up only 66 percent of its population, according to research by Alexander.
The railroad “also created religious competition,” Cannon said. “You get the Methodists and Episcopalians beginning to hold services in Ogden after the railroad’s arrival.”
• The railroad helped kill many Utah industries. Cannon said that consumer goods shipped in by train often were cheaper and of superior quality than what was produced locally — which was a death knell for many local industries.
“So, if you’re manufacturing clothing locally, it’s going to have to compete with clothing that’s produced and shipped in on the railroad,” he said. “It helped at times to undermine the local industries — with the exception of mining.”
Alexander said, “For a while there were woolen mills in Provo, for instance, that were successful but eventually they died because the mills simply could not compete with” mass production by large mills in the East.
Utah soon became primarily an exporter of raw minerals and agricultural goods, and an importer of finished manufactured products. Alexander said that also lowered wages in Utah and made its economy heavily dependent on mining until about World War II, when defense industries started to arrive.
However, Cannon noted that it also lowered the cost of living and the cost of most consumer goods — and increased the sorts of most materials that Utahns could afford.
In Ogden alone, “If you look at the city directories in 1867 and compare them to directories in 1870, there’s a 45 percent increase in the number of stores.”
• The train changed the LDS Church, and fueled anti-polygamy attacks. Leaders including Brigham Young pushed hard for the railroad — investing in it and helping build it — because it could ease members’ international immigration and missionary travel. It did that.
The construction of spur tracks to canyon quarries also helped to speed construction of the faith’s Salt Lake Temple.
Cannon said the end of Utah’s isolation from the rest of the country also turned up pressure and attacks against polygamy decades before the church officially ended the practice in 1890.
“It was well known that Mormons were practicing polygamy before the railroad arrived, but it made it far easier for politicians from the East, ministers, and social-opinion journalists to visit and interview disaffected Mormons and non-Mormons,” Cannon said. “It increased the notoriety of polygamy and opposition to it.”
He said it also helped foster a retrenching by Latter-day Saint leaders against outside influences, including reinstituting the “united order,” a form of communalism in which members shared ownership of goods and land. It was eventually disbanded.
“That’s another kind of a last-ditch attempt following the arrival of the railroad to seal off Latter-day Saint communities economically from the outside,” Cannon said.
• The train helped settle the West. Ambrose noted that before the transcontinental railroad, the only major white city along its long route was Salt Lake City. Soon settlements sprouted along its entire length.
Historian Edward Kirkland wrote that cheap immigration because of the train “settled the West with the rapidity of a prairie fire.”
Historian Leonard Arrington wrote that within 20 years of the completion of the railroad, the population of Nebraska rose from 100,000 to more than a million. The population of the Dakotas rose from less than 15,000 in 1870 to more than 500,000 in 1890.
“Wyoming is made a state because of the railroad” and the towns that grew up to service it, Westwood said. Railroads worked hard to sell off land they were granted to build the railroad to farmers and ranchers, he said. “It really was sort of an ‘if you build it, they will come’ sort of thing.”
• It changed the environment. “We eliminated vast quantities of old-growth forests not only for railroad ties to build the railroad, but to fuel the ever-consuming locomotives," Westwood said.
Tracks changed migration by bison. Mining scarred the land, and trains led to more production of coal, especially in Wyoming, to fuel trains. Westwood noted that one engine at the Golden Spike ceremony burned wood (with the large chimney) and one burned coal (with the narrow chimney).
• It sped the displacement of American Indian tribes. “It’s a contributing factor to the downfall of the entire First Nation universe,” Westwood said.
As railroad companies surveyed and tried to attract more settlers, “the Indians are attacking the surveyors, so they start bringing more military out here," he said. “You can take a thread and go from the railroads to the near destruction of the Native Americans."
• The train created the Utah tourism industry. “It made it very easy for people to travel coast to coast, and for them to stop and tour Utah,” Cannon said. Many did so.
Alexander said, “There were tourists who came through Utah before that. But, yes, the railroad was extremely important in promoting the tourist industry.”
That included trains eventually making Zion and Bryce Canyon popular spots for tourists.
Alexander said Union Pacific owned a subsidiary called the Utah Parks Co. “In 1923, the Union Pacific built a spur line into Cedar City and Cedar City became the jumping off point for people that wanted to go to Zion and Bryce national parks and the northern rim of the Grand Canyon.”
The company “had a fleet of trucks and a fleet of buses that took people from Cedar City.”
• The train created a disparity of wealth in some Utah areas. Cannon said Ogden, for example, would attract some poor drifters who hopped off the rails. It also attracted wealthy businessmen and mine magnates who profited from dealing with goods via rail.
Cannon said some Utahns complained that the drifters and rail workers increased crime in places such as Ogden and Salt Lake City.
“In 1870, 60 percent of the railroad workers in Ogden were single," he said, "and so there’s some inherent instability with that type of a population” at the time.
• The train united the states. “The railroad converted a nation of diverse sections into ‘one nation, indivisible,’” Arrington wrote.
Alexander said California was a state in 1850, Oregon in 1859 and Nevada in 1864 — but they were separated from other states by vast territory until the railroad arrived. Soon, intervening areas also became states.
He added that the economy of all states soon became interdependent because of the railroad, with barriers disappearing as all sectors traded good and depended more on one another.
And the railroad helped weave many immigrants into the fabric of America.
“The hardworking armies of laborers who build the roads and spike the rails that eventually knit together a transcontinental United States in 1869 were by and large immigrants,” Dearinger said. “American progress was built on the back of people deemed second-class citizens at best.”