How Much do You Know About America's First Transcontinental Railroad?


By: John Miller

6 Min Quiz

Image: YouTube

About This Quiz

In the 19th century, Americans set out to complete construction of one of the most challenging engineering feats in the history of humankind -- they wanted a new railroad that crossed the plains and mountains of the West. How much do you know about this daring plan?

When was the first transcontinental railroad constructed?

As the Civil War raged, America took up a great challenge -- that of completing the first transcontinental railroad system. The project was a long and dangerous undertaking that crossed America's frontier lands.


How many possible routes did engineers present to U.S. Congress?

In the end, after analyzing the possibilities for crossing America, engineers presented just two routes to Congress -- a central route and a southern route. Both routes were potentially treacherous for the crews called to build the rail lines.


Which American president was in charge during the railroad's construction?

Abraham Lincoln was an avid supporter of the railroad. He authorized the railroad's construction and he came to see it as part of a larger effort to win the Civil War.


The route of the first transcontinental railroad started in ______ and ended in ______.

In the 1860s, the federal government approved a route from Omaha to Sacramento. But the route approval was just the first step in a project that greatly tested human engineering capabilities.


What was the geography of the route chosen for the transcontinental railroad?

America is one of the biggest countries in the world, one with varied terrain. The route from the Midwest to the West Coast meant crossing everything from plains to rivers to mountains and everything in between.


Before the railroad, it took a long time to cross the continent. How long did it take to travel across the country by stagecoach?

In the mid-1800s, cross-country travel wasn't a one-day flight -- it was an epic ordeal. It took five or six months to cross the nation by stagecoach, and it was expensive, too.


At its completion, how long was the transcontinental railroad?

The transcontinental railroad was an audacious undertaking from the get-go. When the dust finally settled, the route was more than 1,900 miles long.


Was is NOT another name often used for the first transcontinental railroad?

No one's found the Underworld Route yet, and if they do, they're probably not coming back alive. The first transcontinental railroad was sometimes called the Pacific Railroad or the Overland Route.


Three companies worked on the railroad's construction. Which company built the most miles of track?

Union Pacific's company lore is full of references to the transcontinental railroad, and why not? U.P. built more than 1,000 miles of the railroad, more than the other two companies combined.


What was the relationship between the companies building the railroad?

The government pledged to pay the companies by the number of miles of completed track. So the process was literally a race to see which company could make the most money.


The western portion of the tracks had to pass through mountainous terrain. How did the construction teams build tracks?

Western construction crews were immediately challenged by the Sierra Nevada mountains. They used explosives to blast tunnels … sometimes making frustratingly slow progress of about 12 inches per day.


The central route for the railroad basically followed what other famous path?

The central route chosen for the railroad followed stretches of the Oregon Trail, a path from the Midwest to the West Coast. In the mid-1800s, the Oregon Trail was a dangerous place threatened by violent natives, disease, and natural disasters. Sometimes, people died of dysentery. (Video game joke)


To what did the phrase "Hell on Wheels" refer?

As the railroad construction crews laid tracks, small, temporary towns followed them. These "Hell on Wheels" areas featured saloons, brothels and other capitalistic enterprises that made a profit from the working men.


In order to build the railroad, Congress had to grant the companies right of way through the frontier. How wide was the right of way?

The railroads were given right-of-way through the frontier to complete the project. That right-of-way was 400 feet wide, just wide enough to complete the line and to set up various facilities along the way.


Before the transcontinental railroad, people on East Coast had to take a ship around which continent to reach California?

In the days before the Panama Canal, the sea voyage to the West Coast was ridiculously long -- about 18,000 nautical miles. It took five to eight months to make the journey. The railroad was much, much faster.


How did the government's pay rate for construction vary depending on the terrain?

Government officials were aware that building railroads in the mountains would be extremely difficult … and expensive. So they paid the construction companies more for building the line through the arduous terrain.


How much did the government pay the railroads for 1 mile of track on level terrain?

The government paid the railroads about $16,000 per mile of track on level land. That amount shot to nearly $50,000/mile in the mountains, where it was much more difficult to build.


True or false, did the American president who authorized the railroad live to see its completion?

Abraham Lincoln was convinced of the railroad's importance to America. And although he witnessed its progress, he didn't live to see the project's completion -- he was assassinated before the Civil War's end.


The railroad companies built toward each other to complete the line. Where did the construction teams finally come together?

In 1869, at Promontory Point in Utah, the east and west sections of the line were finally joined. The final spike was driven on May 10, 1869.


Which people made up the bulk of laborers building the Union Pacific (eastern) stretch of the railroad?

Irish laborers, many of whom were veterans of the Civil War, traveled West to help build the Union Pacific line. They were the most common group of people building this stretch.


The last spike was driven into the railroad in 1869. What's the nickname of that spike?

In 1869, a wealthy robber baron named Leland Stanford drove the final ceremonial spike of the railroad. It was called the Golden Spike, the spike that joined two immense railroad projects into one.


What happened to the famous Golden Spike immediately after it was driven into the railroad?

Knowing that the Golden Spike would make for a famous bit of thievery, officials immediately removed it from the ceremonial tie. Then, they replaced the golden spike with a regular iron spike.


In addition to paying the railroads for their construction efforts, how else did the government reward the companies?

The government paid the railroads and also gave them 6,400 acres of frontier land for every 10 miles of completed track. The railroads could then sell the land to settlers and make a bigger profit.


When construction began, which area of construction moved more quickly?

Union Pacific was responsible for building the eastern portion of the tracks, and they began work near Omaha, NE, where the terrain was fairly flat and forgiving. U.P. quickly laid down hundreds of miles of track across the Great Plains. In the west, the struggle was much more difficult.


Huge crews of laborers were needed for construction. How did the railroads feed all of these men?

Professional hunters were paid by the railroads. They hunted thousands of bison for their meat, and in the process, decimated populations of what was once a common native animal.


Which ethnic group made up the bulk of the labor force for the Central Pacific, which was laying the western portion of the tracks?

Many Chinese immigrants landed on the West Coast looking for new opportunities. Many of them wound up working on the railroads, living in squalid and dangerous conditions doing physically hazardous work.


What is the highest point of the transcontinental railroad?

In Wyoming, the railroad reached its apex -- a place called Evans Pass. It is more than 8,200 feet high.


True or false, did the transcontinental railroad cross the entire country?

The name is a bit misleading -- the tracks didn't cross the entire continent. The tracks ran from Omaha to Sacramento.


When the railroad was complete, how much did it cost passengers to cross the country?

During Gold Rush days, it cost about $1,000 to cross the country by stagecoach. With the railroad? It was a matter of scraping together $150 for a ticket.


Once the railroad was complete, how long did it take to travel across the country?

The railroad was a revolution in cross-country travel. Whereas before it took five or more months to travel across America, on the railroad it took just a week. The railroad completely changed life on the frontier and altered America's economic and cultural landscape.


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