Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad

Bain, David Howard

Penguin, 1999

pp. 239-240

Building a railroad through mountains was a monumental challenge. Trees had to be toppled by dynamite “in a swath from sixty to two hundred feet wide.” Stumps had to be “grubbed out” so that soil was clear to a point two to three feet below the roadbed. Then the bed had to be graded both horizontally and vertically (the latter to a maximum grade of 116 feet per mile). The mountain granite was so tough that even with repeated dynamite blasts, sometimes a crew would get only 7 inches farther in a day. The drilling and dynamiting were sometimes done by smallish Chinese men in waist-high woven baskets, lowered to the site by a team of workers above them. The basket men would drill a hole, fill it with dynamite, somehow light a fuse in the wind and frantically signal to be hauled up out of the face of the explosion. It was slow, dangerous work.

pp. 245-246

Then, in winter, as much as seven or eight feet of snow would fall each night and would have to be removed from the bed before building could resume. On top of that, avalanches triggered by the explosions were a constant peril.

pp. 310-312, 384-390, 478

In spring the ground turned to mud, making for arduous work and the danger of mud slides. Then, on the plains, Indians attacked. The plains tribes saw white and Asian men building an iron trail ridden by an iron horse, and saw that they were building right in the Indians’ hunting grounds. Towns sprung up, with their saloons and whores and gamblers, hotels and boarding houses, gunfights and general rowdiness. And the Indians didn’t appreciate all this Manifest Destiny even one little bit.