Sunday, May 3, 2009

From Promontory to Omaha

The joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869 thrilled the nation. But jubilation gave way to anger at the railroads in the years to come. Library of Congress.

At 12:47 p.m. on May 10, 1869, a telegraph operator’s simple message – “done” – thrilled a nation wearied by civil war and its aftermath.

The message signaled the joining of the eastbound tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad and the westbound Union Pacific in Promontory, Utah. A trans-continental railroad, the dream of speculators, politicians, and journalists for decades, had finally become a reality.

The ceremonial driving of the Golden Spike culminated frenetic years of railroad construction by Irish and Chinese laborers. Crews laid up to ten miles of track per day and worked off their frustrations in the saloons and dance halls that migrated along the construction route. Toil and back-breaking labor, along with engineering skill, made the triumphant moment possible.

Chicago greeted the news with a seven-mile celebratory procession. Other cities were no less jubilant. New Yorkers fired hundreds of guns, attended church services, and hung bunting. Philadelphia rang the Liberty Bell. “Well might a war-torn people cheer the forging of a new bond of union,” historian Ray Allen Billington observed.

But the jubilation that surrounded the driving of the Golden Spike dissipated quickly. Before the century ended, celebration had given way to hostility. Railroads once cheered for linking the continent and opening distant markets were widely viewed as malevolent forces that threatened the livelihood of farmers and corrupted state houses and Congress.

By 1892, public hostility toward railroads reached its zenith at the People’s Party convention in Omaha, where Populists warned in their party platform that “the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.”

The evolution of public opinion regarding railroads in the years between Promontory and Omaha is one of the most important political stories of the Gilded Age.

That shift began shortly after the rails joined in Utah, due in part to the actions of one of the dignitaries present at Promontory, Rep. Oakes Ames. The Massachusetts Republican sold discounted stock in the Credit Mobilier Company, formed to aid the Union Pacific in the financing and construction of the railroad west from Omaha, to other members of Congress as they considered subsidies for railroad construction.

Those implicated in the purchase of Credit Mobilier stock, or the receipt of money from railroad executives, constituted a Who’s Who of American politics in the years after the Civil War. Rep. James A. Garfield, R-Ohio, Rep. James Brooks, D-N.Y., Sen. James Harlan, R-Iowa, and Vice President Schuyler Colfax of Indiana numbered among those whose names were linked to the Credit Mobilier affair.

The bearded Ames came to personify the scandal. “He has a hard, rugged face, and one not calculated to win him the confidence of strangers,” journalist Edward Winslow Martin wrote in Behind the Scenes in Washington. “It is a determined face, and he looks as though he could be a dangerous man if pushed too far.”

As the Credit Mobilier scandal rocked Washington, farmers outraged by seemingly arbitrary freight rate pricing practices flocked to a new organization known as the Grange, which quickly took a leading role in advocating state regulation of railroad freight rates.

Anger at freight rates was widespread. Farmers in the Midwest wondered why it cost more for them to ship goods east than it did for goods to come to them. Merchants in small towns fumed as railroads charged less per mile to ship goods to distant cities such as Chicago than to send freight to towns such as Keokuk or Des Moines.

Citizens throughout the country were appalled by the Credit Mobilier disclosures as well as simpler forms of graft, such as free travel passes distributed by railroad lobbyists to legislators.

Granger-led “anti-Monopoly” movements swept to power in Iowa and other states, but the “Granger laws” these movements produced proved ineffective and were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Wabash v. Illinois.

Congress grudgingly responded to the growing public outcry with creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. Agrarian critics of the railroads hailed Washington’s decision to embrace the commerce clause of the Constitution, but soon became disenchanted with the agency.

As the Populist declaration shows, discontent with the railroads remained a constant factor in American politics throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Golden Spike commemorated the heroic feats of engineering and endurance that linked east and west, but also marked the beginning of a new era of tension between concentrated corporate power and the public.


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1974.

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Musuem:

Martin, Edward Winslow. Behind the Scenes in Washington. The Continental Publishing Co. and National Publishing Co., 1873.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, MN.: Edinborough Press, 2008.

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