By BILL OUDEGEEST  |  Moonshine Ink

Today, California is one of the largest, richest, and most advanced economies in the world. If it were a separate country it would rank fifth in annual gross domestic product, thanks to three 19th century events: the Gold Rush, statehood, and the building of the transcontinental railroad.

It’s easy to take the transcontinental railroad for granted as it doesn’t overtly affect our daily lives, but in truth, the transcontinental railroad is responsible for shaping the North Tahoe/Truckee/Donner Summit area you see today. As one past president of the Truckee Donner Historical Society said, “it all started because of the railroad.” And it all started exactly 150 years ago this year.


The railroad brought travelers and migrants and made crossing the Sierra relatively painless. It enabled the local lumber and ice industries. Because of the railroad, Truckee (previously named Coburn’s Station) was born. It brought artists and writers to capture the beauty of the area. It brought tourists. It made early winter sports successful and spawned the ski and snowboard industries in the area. It also paved the way for other methods of linking the country. The first transcontinental highway followed the railroad’s general route, as did the first transcontinental telephone line, the first transcontinental air route, and the interstate.

Picture America during the Industrial Revolution, on track to a Gilded Age. It was a time of wonder, experiment, and expansion, but it suffered from one large constraint. During the Gold Rush a clipper ship took three to four months to go from New York to San Francisco. In the 1850s a wagon train traveled 10 to 15 miles a day and took four to five months to get to California from Missouri. In 1858, the stagecoach could travel 15 miles an hour and the trip from Missouri to California took 25 days.

Fast forward to two days before the railroad’s completion and the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point in Utah, linking the eastern and western tracks for the first time. On May 8, 1869 The Sacramento Union said the railroad was “a victory over space, the elements, and the stupendous mountain barriers separating the East from the West, and apparently defying the genius and energy of man to surmount. Every heart was gladdened by the contemplation of the grand achievement.”

The building of the transcontinental railroad was a wonder, going 3,000 miles over and through mountains, deserts, ravines, and rivers. When it was completed, trains traveled at the incredible speed of 25 miles an hour and the trip, all the way across the country, took only 19 days!

The results, too, were admirable. The new railroad tied the country together. It opened California to the country and to the world. The land of dreams and better lives — the Golden State — was accessible. Emigration to California was spurred and California’s goods could get to the rest of the country. Mail was faster, the transportation of products was faster. Besides California, whole areas of the country were opened, the resources to be used by a growing nation. Towns and cities were born. News could travel and be read while it was still relevant. Innovation was spurred.

Albert Richardson, in his writings Beyond the Mississippi, listed the benefits he saw for 19th century America: The road will protect our military interests, open natural resources, revolutionize trade and finance, and strengthen us socially and politically.

“Great indeed must be the vitality of the republic when the warm blood from its heart pulsates to these remote extremities,” he wrote. “The railroad would do away with isolation; cut through the mountains! This enchanter’s wand will make New York acknowledged queen of cities and San Francisco her eldest sister — this magic key will unlock our Golden Gate, and send surging through its rocky portals a world-encircling tide of travel, commerce, and Christian civilization.” You can almost hear the stentorian cadence of someone giving a speech and exhorting the audience with each item.

There were negatives as well, of course. The coming of the railroad was a harbinger to the destruction of the great buffalo herds and the Native Americans. It was a nail in the frontier’s coffin and many small towns, bypassed by the railroad, simply disappeared, upending lives. But California 150 years ago, confronted with an achievement that had forever altered its place on the national stage, rejoiced.

In Sacramento, Gov. Henry Huntly Haight addressed his constituents. “Fellow citizens — we meet today to celebrate one of the most remarkable events of this eventful age, one whose influence upon the future of our country and upon human destiny it would be difficult properly to measure; one of the greatest triumphs of American enterprise, engineering and constructive skill and energy of which our history can boast … A vast population will pour into this Canaan of the New World. Tourists will be attracted by the most sublime scenery on the continent, and thousands will come to repair physical constitutions racked by the extremes of climate, the inclement air, and the miasma of the states east of the mountains.”

Looking around today, it seems Haight was pretty close to the mark.


The Donner Summit Historical Society, Truckee Donner Historical Society, and the Truckee Donner Railroad Society are planning a long list of events stretching from May 10 (the day of the driving of the Golden Spike that completed the railroad in 1869) to Labor Day 2019.  An art contest is in progress. Look for talks, walks, and hikes focusing on the railroad and other historical events. There will be “passports” to take from one historical exhibit to another that people can get stamped, articles in the newspapers, a book signing, “then and now” exhibits of Truckee, and more. Keep an eye on the Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration Facebook page for updated information.


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