Fact Checking Claims about the Transcontinental Railroad

2011 January 26
by Leah Nahmias

Last night in his State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned the Transcontinental Railroad as an example of historical infrastructure-building projects that employed thousands.  While I would like to see investment in green transportation solutions and stimulus spending that provides jobs rather than tax breaks for people who do not need them, I am always bothered when politicians make rosy claims about the past.  Many organizations and individuals set out to fact check the president’s State of the Union address each year, but I thought it might be worthwhile to give a bit more context to his claims about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

From Who Built America?:

Between 1867 and 1873, railroad companies laid 35,000 miles of track in the United States–as much as was built in the three previous decades. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress had chartered the Union Pacific and Central Pacific corporations to construct a line between Omaha, Nebraska, and Sacramento, California. In 1869, a golden spike–hammered into place with great ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah–marked the completion of the link between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

The largest government subsidies in U.S. history financed the railroad boom. Between 1862 and 1872, Congress gave the railroad companies more than 100 million acres of public land and over $64 million in loans and tax breaks…

Obama had this to say about the Transcontinental Railroad:

America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System.  The jobs created by these projects didn’t just come from laying down track or pavement.  They came from businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp.

In asking for similar federal investment in infrastructure projects today, the president makes basically two claims about the benefits of the railroads then: they created opportunities for business and they employed thousands of people. While I would like to see investment in green transportation solutions and stimulus spending that provides jobs rather than tax breaks for people who do not need them,

It is absolutely true that railroads spread commerce, but it is important to note how especially good railroads were for big business. In addition the subsidies for railroad companies described above, mining and lumber companies gobbled up millions of acres of cheap public land along railroad routes–by paying homesteaders to file bogus claims that they never intended to farm or by filing spurious claims themselves. Government subsidies helped create powerful corporations, completely unregulated, that employed thousands of workers and hired “armies of lobbyists” to guarantee further subsidies and land grants.

Heavy snowfall sometimes buried tracks so deep that rotory snow plows could not operate. Then it was necessary to employ shovel gangs to clear tracks. This photo shows (a) group of Chinese workers on the switchback near the summit of the Cascades, in 1886.

Heavy snowfall sometimes buried tracks so deep that rotory snow plows could not operate. Then it was necessary to employ shovel gangs to clear tracks. This photo shows (a) group of Chinese workers on the switchback near the summit of the Cascades, in 1886. (Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries)

It is also worth considering what kinds of jobs the railroads created in the 1860s and 1870s: grueling, poorly paid, and dangerous. Further, mostly immigrants built the rail network.  In the east, most laborers were Irish and in the west, most were Chinese. The Central Pacific railroad recruited laborers directly from China, paying for the worker’s passage to the U.S. and promising payment of $75 after seven months of work. (Chinese workers were also a significant part of the labor force in the mines that opened up along railroad lines; immigrants from northern and eastern Europe filled the timber camps of the Northwest.)  Especially on the Central Pacific workers faced brutal conditions, including snowstorms, rockslides and explosions that claimed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands; railroad workers everywhere faced an unrelenting pace and low wages. Chinese workers were only paid about two-thirds of the wages for white workers.

Again, from Who Built America?:

The dramatic increase in immigrants and wage laborers and the enormous expansion of industry and wealth raised fundamental questions about the survival of traditional American ideals and values. Business leaders and their intellectual supporters tried to create a rationale for these vast changes in American economic and social life by combining two concepts: “laissez-faire” and “Social Darwinism.”  …Not all Americans agreed. Even the generally conservative New York Times expressed concern in 1869 that the increasingly rapid descent of the independent mechanic to the level of a dependent wage earner was producing “a system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed [in] the South.” …More than any other single fact, the development of industrial capitalism and the attendant deterioration of working conditions lay behind the rapid growth of the American labor movement in the years after the Civil War.

When one considers the boon to big business that the original federal investments in infrastructure created, it is surprising how ardently opposed the modern Republican Party is to similar investments today. And given the Republican Party’s ambivalent, if not hostile attitudes about the safety of workers, especially when the workers in question are immigrants, is doubly surprising that these proposals are met with such scorn.  If Obama’s proposals do go forward–doubtful in today’s political climate–it is likely that corporations will again take advantage of the opportunity. However, one hopes that the jobs that are created will generally be safer and more fairly paid than in the past.  On that point, we’ve made some improvements, though there is of course a disturbing pattern of failing to adequately prosecute companies that do not protect their workers in this and other recent administrations.

Note: As for Obama’s claims about brining electricity to rural communities, see this earlier post from Now and Then for a little historical perspective.

Last 5 posts by Leah Nahmias

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