Western Expansion for Kids - The Transcontinental Railroad of 1862 Illustration

Western Expansion for Kids - Transcontinental Railroad of 1862

For Kids

What does the term "transcontinental" mean? Transcontinental means going across a continent. In the US that would mean from coast to coast.

What was the Pacific Railroad Bill? Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Bill in 1862.  Abraham Lincoln signed the bill. Two private companies were hired to build a railroad that would connect railroads coast to coast. This act was the approval (and funding) to build the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Before the transcontinental railroad, how did people travel across the country? In the mid 1800s, going across continental United States took months of travel. You could travel by wagon train, by stagecoach, or on foot. You could also travel by boat, but ships had to go around the bottom tip of South America, or 18,000 miles from coast to coast. Whichever route you took, the trip took months. It was exhausting, expensive and dangerous. 

After the transcontinental railroad was built, how long did it take by train to travel from the east coast to the west coast? About one week. A ticket in a 3rd class sleeper cost around $65. The transcontinental railroad made the exchange of people, goods, ideas, and news much faster and cheaper than ever before.

How did the Federal Government (the Union) help to make the transcontinental railroad possible?  Congress paid for construction with Federal land, money and loans. The two companies selected to build the railroad received million of acres and millions in government grants. For each mile of track, the railroad companies received 10 square miles of land adjacent to the track in a checkboard pattern - the first 10 miles were on the right of the track, the next 10 miles were on the left side of the track, and so on. The railroad companies sold plots of land to settlers to pay for the construction of the railroad and make a profit.

How did the Homestead Act affect the railroads? The Homestead Act, signed into law by President Lincoln, also in 1862, offered land on the other half of the checkboard pattern. The Homestead Act allowed families to claim 160 acres of free land provided they lived on their land for 5 years and improved it. Or, you could buy land from the railroads, as much land as you could afford. These two acts combined rapidly settled the frontier with two types of owners. Big ranchers bought land from the railroad. Families, mostly farmers, used the Homestead Act to own land in the west. 

What two cities were the starting points of the transcontinental railroad?  Some railroads were already in operation, but they did not connect all the way to the west coast (or to each other.) There was no railroad at all beyond Nebraska. So the two starting points were Omaha, Nebraska (laying track west) and Sacramento, California (laying track east.)

What two companies were responsible for building the railroad? The Union Pacific (building west) and the Central Pacific (building east.) These two companies were to meet somewhere in the middle to complete the track and connect rail from coast to coast.

What were some of the challenges workers on the railroads faced?

  • Through the Sierra Nevada Mountains: Natural passes were not always available or were in the wrong place. So tunnels had to be built through the mountains. Workers were lowered in baskets. They pounded blasting holes in the rocks. They stuffed the holes with explosives. Then they blew up that section. They used nitroglycerin. They had to keep it steady or it would blow up on its own. With this system, they were able to build about one foot of tunnel each day. 
  • Across the Great Plains: Sharp shooters were hired to get the buffalo out of the way. This made Native Americans very angry. It was in violation of treaties. The Pawnee tribe was friendly to the workers. The Pawnee were hired to keep other tribes away from the railroad track.
  • Laying track was hard work. Men were injured and some died for many reasons including snake bites, exhaustion, avalanches, heat stroke, freezing weather, fever, disease, Indian attacks, and fights.

Who were the railroad workers? Railroad owners advertised for workers in the United States but also in Europe and Asia. Immigrants came from all over the world. The Irish came in large numbers seeking work with the Union Pacific. Many Chinese came to work on the Central Pacific track. Some workers were former soldiers in the Civil War. Some were Americans seeking a good paying job.

What are two reasons that Chinese workers were actively recruited to work on the railroads? They were hard workers and willing to work for lower wages. If they were careful with their pay, they could find themselves with $20 left over from their expenses at the end of each month. Most Chinese workers had come from extreme poverty. To them, $20 was a lot of money. They endured a great deal of discrimination. The Chinese were not allowed to become citizens, own property, vote, testify in court, or live with whites. White men who worked on the railroads made $35 a month plus room and board (a place to live and food to eat.)  The Chinese were paid $25 a month and had to pay for their own supplies. The Chinese were paid an extra $1 a month when working on the tunnels with nitroglycerin.

How long did it take to build the transcontinental railroad, how much money did it cost, and where did the two tracks meet? It took six years for all the track to be laid. It cost $50 million dollars, which amazingly was right on budget. The two lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah. There was an official ceremony. Officials pounded in a golden spike as the last track connector. That spike was replaced with a iron spike after the ceremony. The railroad was open for business.

What were some of the positive effects of the transcontinental railroad? It reduced travel across the country from six months to six days. The Pony Express, wagon trains, and stagecoach lines were replaced by the railroad. It opened the west for rapid settlement. In the 1800s (the 19th century,) the construction of a transcontinental railroad changed just about everything.

Central Pacific Railroad Museum

Chinese-American Contributions to the Transcontinental Railroad

Eyewitness to History - Driving the Golden Spike

Treasures of Congress - Transcontinental Railroad

Transcontinental Railroad - History Channel

What were some of the negative effects of the transcontinental railroad?

Games! Play some Transcontinental Railroad games, interactive, flash games removed - good luck!

For Teachers

Transcontinental Railroad Lesson Plans and Classroom Activities