Loco emotion;The big picture

26th February 1999 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Building America's first transcontinental railway was not without problems. Although an Act of Congress to encourage an east-west link was passed in 1862, construction did not start in earnest until the Civil War ended in 1865. Disagreements over the right gauge, the route, the materials and the finance disrupted progress. Above all, the two companies, the Central Pacific building east from California and the Union Pacific building west from the River Missouri, were rivals rather than collaborators.

In order to speed completion, the government offered generous land grants for each mile built. Profits from fares and freight were to depend on how much mileage each company controlled.

Thus it was that in 1869, the engineers of the Central Pacific, having successfully crossed the high mountainous Sierra at 7,018 feet, and having all their supplies from eastern factories shipped thousands of miles round Cape Horn, arrived at the appointed linking place at the Great Salt Lake. So, too, the Union Pacific, having faced attack by native Americans, and having hauled by oxcart 6,250,000 wooden sleepers and 350,000 tons of iron rails across the woods and plains, likewise arrived at the Great Salt Lake. And then - each side kept going, past each other.

Before the government resolved the dispute, the Union Pacific had built 225 extra miles. All but 50 of these were abandoned when, to widespread relief, the ceremonial Golden Spike was driven in on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah. It's a key moment in American history: on the left, the Central Pacific's locomotive "Jupiter" (No 60), a wood burner; on the right, Union Pacific's No 119, a coal burner. At the back, the train-drivers hold champagne held aloft; in front, the chief engineers shake hands. The spot is still a tourist attraction.

Some 30 years later, rationalisation of the route replaced the link at Promontory with a 21-mile bridge (the 'Lucin Cut-off') across the great Salt Lake. But hey, that's progress.

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