Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad

On May 10, 1869, the last spike of the Transcontinental Railroad was ceremoniously driven in at Promontory Summit, Utah, joining the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroads to form one continuous railroad to connecting the east to the west. We are recognizing the 150th anniversary of this important event by featuring a few Cartographic records related to the Transcontinental Railroad.

One significant holding related to the Transcontinental Railroad is a single map, located with Record Group (RG) 77, the Civil Works Map File, which shows “Correct Location of the Pacific Railroad.” The map is an 1856 printed map which was annotated to show the location of the railroad tracks in Utah. Their meeting point, at Promontory Summit, is marked with a red flag.

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Cropped view of map showing the “Correct Location of Pacific Railroad,” from RG 77, Civil Works Map File, W-123. This map has been cropped to show a closer view of the portion of the map showing the meeting of the tracks at Promontory Summit, Utah. The meeting location is marked with a red flag. The complete map is located below.
rg77_cwmf_w-123
Map showing the “Correct Location of Pacific Railroad.” From RG 77, Civil Works Map File, W-123. A cropped view of the map showing the meeting of the tracks is shown above.

The meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah, concluded what had been a decades-long struggle to select a route and construct a transcontinental railroad connecting east to west. By the 1850s, support for building a transcontinental railroad had become widespread, especially after the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and California’s subsequent statehood in 1850. In 1853, Congress appropriated money for the Army Topographic Corps to conduct surveys of potential routes to determine which was most suitable for such a railroad. Four main routes were identified and surveyed.

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Map of Routes for a Pacific Railroad, 1855. From RG 48, General Maps and Plans for a Transcontinental Railroad (Entry 26). This map shows the proposed routes for a transcontinental railroad west of the Mississippi River.

The Cartographic Branch holds numerous series of records related to these surveys These records include printed, annotated, and manuscript maps and profiles and are filed under Record Group 48, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior. Maps relating to the survey of the northern-most proposed route are held within the series Maps and Plans for a Transcontinental Railroad Near the 47th and 49th Parallels (Entry 27). A second route near the 38th and 39th parallels, which was surveyed by Captain Gunnison, is covered by the series Profile for a Transcontinental Railroad Near the 38th and 39th Parallels (Entry 29). Gunnison was killed by hostile Native Americans while before completing his route survey. Lieutenant E.G. Beckwith continued the survey along a route near the 41st parallel, which is covered by maps and profiles within the series Maps and Plans for a Transcontinental Railroad Near the 41st Parallel (Entry 28). A third route along the 35th parallel is covered by the series Maps and Plans for a Transcontinental Railroad Near the 35th Parallel (Entry 30).  The southern-most route, along the 32nd parallel, is covered by Maps and Plans for Transcontinental Railroad Routes Near the 32nd Parallel (Entry 32) and includes maps and surveys by Lieutenant J.G. Parke and Captain John Pope.  A fifth survey, under the direction of Lieutenant R.S. Williamson, studied and located mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada and Coast range in California. Maps and records associated with this survey are held within the series Maps and Plans for Transcontinental Railroad Routes in Southern California (Entry 31).

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Map of Passes in the Sierra Nevada. From RG 48, Maps and Plans for a Transcontinental Railroad Near the 35th Parallel (Entry 30).  This map showing passes in the Sierra Nevada mountains serves as an example of the type of printed maps found in the various series related to the Transcontinental Railroad Surveys.

Others series related to the government surveys include:

General Maps and Plans for a Transcontinental Railroad (Entry 26)

Maps and Profiles for Railroad Routes in Oregon and California (Entry 33)

Maps and Profiles Published to Accompany Reports of Explorations and Surveys for a Transcontinental Railroad (Entry 34)

All the completion of the survey, all routes proved to be viable options for a transcontinental railroad route. However, northern and southern politicians, entangled in the sectional politics that eventually led to the American Civil War, disagreed about which route should be selected. No agreement was reached before the Civil War began in 1861.

In 1862, after the southern states had seceded from the United States, Abraham Lincoln signed the Railroad Act of 1862, authorizing the construction of a transcontinental railroad. When constructed, the Pacific Railroad most closely followed the route surveyed by Beckwith along the 41st parallel. It connected California and the West Coast with the East Coast, allowing for the quicker, safer, and less expensive transportation of goods and people from coast to coast.

We invite you to visit the Cartographic Research Room in College Park, Maryland to learn more about our records relating to the Transcontinental Railroad or to view the records featured in this post. The Cartographic Branch also holds ICC Railroad Valuation Maps and Revised Railroad Valuation Maps dating from the early 20th century, which cover railroad lines across the United States. More information about researching these records is available in our past blog post, I’ve Been Working On the Railroad, and You Can, Too!

References:

“The Transcontinental Railroad.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/railroad-maps-1828-to-1900/articles-and-essays/history-of-railroads-and-maps/the-transcontinental-railroad/

Heynen, William J. Revision of Preliminary Inventory (PI) 81, “Cartographic Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.” National Archives and Records Administration. 1993.

 

 

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