When the transcontinental railroad was first being discussed in the 1840s and 1850s, a vast railroad network already existed in eastern and parts of the midwestern US; however, the western states—some of which were not even official states yet—lacked reliable overland transportation systems, which had the effect of isolating them from the rest of the US and, most notably, from political control. According to Craghead, the push to develop the transcontinental railroad was primarily motivated by US politicians’ desire to have those in the west be better incorporated into the nation. To encourage a faster build (and to increase the likelihood of successful completion, given that overcoming the landscaping and organizational challenges at this level would be a tremendous feat), the build was awarded in 1862 to two companies that would build toward each other from opposite ends of the track: the Central Pacific, which was based in California (moving eastward), and the Union Pacific, which was based in Nebraska (moving westward).
The demographic makeup of the labor forces was different for each company, and was heavily influenced by the company’s location and connections. The Union Pacific employed primarily Irish immigrants as well as African Americans who had been enslaved prior to the Civil War. The Central Pacific, on the other hand, depended heavily on Chinese nationals, many of whom were brought over by Chinese labor brokers with the intention of working and then returning home upon completion of the project. And though they didn’t typically directly contribute to railroad work, it would be negligent to leave out an acknowledgment of the many Native American peoples who were significantly impacted by the railroad, as laying tracks often followed either a negotiated or a forceful takeover of tribal lands.
Though the railroad represented a variety of things to those actively involved with the project, public messaging and perception have tended to follow a more simplistic narrative, ignoring the reality of those with less financial and political capital. “The past may be the past, but history is the stories we tell about the past. Rather, it’s not what happened, but how we understand what happened, and it’s always open to reinterpretation,” said Craghead.