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Who Started the Union Pacific Railroad?

Updated on September 10, 2012

Who Started the Union Pacific Railroad?

The question of who started the Union Pacific Railroad can be answered by taking a look at the historical events of the time. By the late 1840's, tens of thousands of people were traveling across the vast distances of the American frontier to get their share of gold which had recently been discovered in California. Before railroads, the only way to get to the west coast of the U.S. was by stagecoach, wagon train, horseback, by ship or on foot. The quickest route required 25 days one-way by stagecoach which moved along at a then speedy clip of about 10 miles-per-hour. With more and more people living in the western U.S. frontier, the need for a reliable and fast transportation and trade route linking east to west became apparent. Railroads were prepared to meet the challenge.


Lewis and Clark Open the Western Frontier

From the time that Lewis and Clark returned from their Corps of Discovery Expedition in 1806, Americans would begin to discover the mysteries of the vast and unknown area known then as the Louisiana Purchase. Mapping this new American frontier would take another 50 years to complete. As early as 1845, the U.S. Congress considered various proposals to fund a railroad that would reach form the eastern U.S. to the Pacific Ocean. No bill was ever passed because Congress could never agree on a route. In 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California sparked the largest gold rush in American history. By 1850, more than 80,000 people had moved west looking for free gold.

More People Move to the Western United States Frontier

By the late 1850's, the Army Corps of Topological Engineers had surveyed and mapped the entire southwestern and northwestern boundaries of the U.S. The western frontiers of this country were now clearly defined and possible routes for a transcontinental railroad were seriously considered. Congress still debated over which route would be best. With more than 43% of the U.S. population living west of the Alleghenies on the Eastern Seaboard in 1850, and many of those living in California, a railroad linking the east and western parts of the U.S. was more important than ever to a rapidly growing population.


Congress and Lincoln Create the Union Pacific Railroad

Finally reaching an agreement on a specific route, Congress began working on a series of Acts to provide incentive for private companies to build a railroad linking the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1861 the Central Pacific Railroad was formed and quickly began laying track eastward from Sacramento, California over the treacherous terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The next year, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 into law on July 1.

The Union Pacific Railroad was officially chartered by Congress in Chicago, Illinois on September 1, 1862, and authorized to build a rail line west from Omaha, Nebraska. This Act and a series of subsequent congressional acts provided valuable incentives and land grants intended to promote competition in building the transcontinental railroad. Two brothers, Oliver and Oakes Ames, saw the value of investing in Union Pacific Railroad bonds and spent over $1 million of their own money to keep the railroad moving westward toward the Pacific. The Union Pacific Railroad met the Central Pacific Railroad on May 10, 1869, completing the transcontinental railroad.

The Union Pacific Railroad Today

In the years since the building of the transcontinental railroad, the Union pacific Railroad has remained. The modern day Union Pacific Railroad grew to be the giant it is now by absorbing smaller railroads and providing rail service throughout the Plains and Western states. Today, the Union Pacific Railroad operates three semi-autonomous units in the western, southern and northern regions of the U.S. on about 33,000 miles of track.



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    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Texas

      Thanks, Judi!

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judi Brown 

      6 years ago from UK

      I know next to nothing about the US rail road, but I enjoyed reading your hub. Great video too!

    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Texas

      mjkearn - Thanks for the positive response and the vote of confidence! M

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Hi Mkayo,

      Thoroughly enjoyed this hub and especially loved the video. I've worked on many things but never trains, just itching for an opportunity.

      Well written hub, fabulously laid out and engaging. Voted up and the rest,



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