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Building the Transcontinental Railroad, the moonshot of the 19th century

Building the Transcontinental Railroad
Building the Transcontinental Railroad 06:38

It's something railroad enthusiasts believed they might never see again: one of the biggest steam locomotives ever built in America back on the tracks, rumbling west under its own steam. As Union Pacific # 4014 pulled out of Cheyenne, Wyoming, crowds lined the tracks, waving at engineer Ed Dickens, urging one more pull of the whistle.

"I don't know what it is about that whistle," he said. "We hear whistles, we hear horns in our life, but the steam locomotive is really something that just moves you."

The Union Pacific steam locomotive 4014.  CBS News

Dickens led the small team of Union Pacific workers who spent five years toiling to bring the massive machine back to life.

4014 is one of just 25 locomotives built in the 1940s, aptly named "Big Boys" – 132 feet long, weighing more than a million pounds, producing 7,000 horsepower. But when the Age of Steam came to an end in the late 1950s, 4014 became obsolete, until Dickens and his team brought it back to life.

Their goal was to get 4014 rolling again in time to celebrate one of the greatest rail accomplishments ever: the Transcontinental Railroad, built at the urging of President Lincoln.

Dickens said, "It's very humbling. All of the sacrifice, all of the tremendous human effort to build something as complex as a set of railroad tracks across territory that many people have never even been across before."

One hundred and fifty years ago, crews working west from Omaha and east from Sacramento (including up to 20,000 Chinese laborers) constructed a 1,776-mile-long railroad across an untamed frontier. CBS News

Crews worked from both the East and the West, finally meeting on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was, one enthusiast called it, "the moonshot of the 19th century. It was an impossible dream."

At Golden Spike National Historical Park, rail fans dressed in style to mark the anniversary … if not always with historical accuracy. An Abe Lincoln impersonator, once he got off his cellphone, told Blackstone, "I wasn't the only one that had the idea, but I was thankful to have a big part of it."

Replicas of Victorian steam locomotives rolled in for a re-enactment of the legendary photo celebrating the driving of the golden spike.

But the faces in that photo from 150 years ago look much different from those gathered here this time.

Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869, and today. CBS News

"It took 150 years to gain that recognition. So our history is now coming alive!" said Sue Lee.

They are descendants of the Chinese laborers who made up about 90 percent of the workforce on the western portion of the railroad.

"The workers on the line who cleared the way for the railroad, who laid the roadbed and laid the track, laid the ties and so forth, then especially did tunnels, [were] almost exclusively Chinese," said Gordon H. Chang, a history professor at Stanford University. He is author of a newly-released book, "Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad"

The gold rush had brought thousands from China to California in the 1850s. When construction of the railroad began in 1864, the Chinese were not the first choice to work on it.

Chang said, "There was belief that they were either temperamentally or physically unfit for railroad work. But workers they hired on did very, very well for them. They were very, very pleased. Ultimately, they hired up to 20,000 workers."

Chinese laborers made up a significant part of the work force that built the Transcontinental Railroad. CBS News

Not only was the Chinese labor force plentiful, the workers were paid less than whites doing the same job. And the work was hard. They took on the most challenging portion of the Transcontinental Railroad: California's granite mountain range, the Sierra Nevada. 

Houghton Mifflin

Fifteen tunnels had to be blasted and carved out through the Sierra Nevada. "The Chinese carved out those 15 tunnels, the longest one being over 1,600 feet in length," said Chang. "It took more than two years using only hand tools and black powder."

In the newspapers of the day Chang found recognition for the contribution the Chinese rail workers were making to a growing nation. 

Jeff Lee, a retired dentist from San Jose, California, is inspired by the hard work his great-grandfather did.

"They don't come over like Hulk; they come over as pretty much [like] me. Right?" Lee said. "And they learn to adapt to what they had to do physically, mentally and emotionally, as individuals and as a group."

Lee is proud of where these tracks have taken his American family: "Doctors. Dentists. Architects. UC Berkeley. Yale. Princeton."

But soon after the railroad was finished, the nation's mood began to turn against the hardworking immigrants from China.

"Well, with the rise of the anti-Chinese movement, the earlier history of what they did in California is erased," Chang said. "Chinese are driven out in town after town and their homes destroyed. The Chinese became undesirable. And therefore, you don't want to include them in the history of the country."

That erasure is what the descendants gathered at Promontory Summit wanted to set right.

"This is my great-great-grandfather," said one woman with a period photo. "He came here when he was 12. He was on his way back to China when he stopped in San Francisco and said, 'No, this is my home. I love America.'"

CBS News

Much has changed in 150 years, for families, and for the railroad.  The old steam locomotives that originally traveled these rails were replaced by massive machines like 4014.  But even this giant had to finally give way to modern diesels.

Still, there's value in preserving the memory of all that came before … the locomotives, the tracks, and those who built them.

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Story produced by John Goodwin.

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