The itinerary along the first transcontinental railroad line between New York and San Francisco was done by following closely the route used hundred and thirty years earlier by the Jarret & Palmer Special. Thanks to historic maps and timetables, it was possible to find former railroad lines and to count more than five hundred stops. Through twelve states and three thousand three hundred miles, it is today possible to provide an inventory of American railroad stations I visited.

The concentration on this precise route during my fellowship allowed me to create a framed report on the American railroad heritage. Through these discoveries, it was possible to get step by step account of American architecture. This route shows an incredible variety of railroad stations of all periods and styles, from impressive terminals of megalopolises to simple depots in the smaller towns.

All the main stages of the fellowship along this historic railroad were naturally made by using the train as means of transportation. Half of the route was done along the original railroad line in the East side between New York and Chicago and on the West side between Ogden and Sacramento. The original railroad line in the center of the country having been abandoned, the car was necessary.

These stops allowed me to reform a survey of these railroad heritages as they stand today.

New York
San Francisco
Promontory Summit

There is probably no more a dramatic symbol of the Industrial revolution in the United States than the railroad network and its emblematic railroad stations. These buildings are the symbol of the economic power of a country which knew how to unify and develop the territory thanks to the railroad and the transportation of passengers and goods.

Deep in the History

To understand the importance of the railroad network and their symbols, it is important to understand its development. From its infancy, the railroad network became a major factor in the planning of the territory. It allowed the country to change from an agrarian economy with a reduced sphere of influence to an industrial economy based on the masse transport.

As in Europe, the development was made by lines of short distances. The American adventure begins on May 24th, 1830 with the inauguration of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The line is only thirteen miles but it is already active with goods and passenger trains. For two decades, the construction of a canal remained less expensive than a railroad line but the speed was very limited. On the Erie Canal, the route was made at the speed of four miles an hour one way and was halved the other way direction. At the same time, the common speed of a locomotive was around ten to twenty miles an hour. In the 1840's, "railroad fever" seizes the country. Numerous projects appear on the East coast and everybody wanted to be part of it.

On the West coast, pushed by the Gold Rush, the first railroad line appears only in 1856 with the Sacramento Valley railroad. The project was confided to a young promising engineer, Theodore Judah. The line was established between Sacramento and Folsom for a distance of twenty two miles.

From the 1850's, longer lines were built between main cities of the East coast such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. After some years, territories East of Mississippi was connected from Bangor to Savannah and from Chicago to New Orleans. The canal system was declining as a result of the push for the railroad network which reaches more than 29,000 miles in 1859. The American Civil War was going to bring to light this means of transportation which was found to be an asset for the military and the industrial power.

Between 1870 and 1890, all efforts were concentrated on the planning of the territory. In 1869, the first transcontinental line was finished and connected the railroad network of the East coast and the West, going from Omaha to Sacramento. It opened the way to numerous lines which grew across the country. In 1890, the United States possessed more than 93,200 miles of railroads which added up to almost one third of the world's network.

The United States had a golden age during the 1920's and 1930's where monumental railroad stations, gigantic viaducts and railroad networks grew rapidly before they declined with the emergence of new transport.


1830 (end) :
1860 :

1890 :
1900 :
1920 :
1940 :
1960 :
1980 :
Today :

37 Km
49.286 Km

150.094 Km
311.183 Km
406.935 Km
376.869 Km
350.104 Km
294.625 Km
250.000 Km
Map of the American railroad Network in 1918

Map of the American railroad Network in 2006 Source : National Railroad Passenger Corp

The transcontinental, from the origins to the Railroad Act

The first visionaries

In 1832, four years after the opening of the first American railroad line, a publisher in Michigan dreamt of a railroad line from New York to the Oregon situated between the 41st and 42nd parallels of Mississippi to the Rocky Mountain. Sweet madness, when we know that at this time, the United States counted for only 228 miles of tracks. A century later, this road would be used by the companies Union Pacific and Oregon Short Line.

In 1840, Asa Whitney (1797-1872), a New York merchant who had made a fortune in Chinese Trade proposed a coherent project with a line towards the Pacific. He was confident that this corridor was going to allow the trades between Asia and Europe bring the United States into the center of the attention. He makes it according to his own words, his crusade: "If they [the Congress] will allow me to be their instrument to accomplish this great work, it is enough; I ask no more.” In January, 1848, he presents to the congress a report allowing him to make the construction of a railroad between Lake Michigan and Pacific Ocean possible*. In the same year, the United States, after their victory on Mexico, annex California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, a part of Colorado, of the Wyoming and New Mexico made the project of Asa Whitney possible.

An unavoidable necessity

In the 1850's, three solutions joined the East coast to the West coast. The first, 13,350 miles long, bypasses Cape Horn by boat in five months. The second solution, 5,250 miles long, mixes a boat trip to the Panama, the crossing of the forest with a risk of catching malaria, and another boat for thirty five days. The last leg, without comfort and regardless of great dangers, crosses Overland between Saint Louis and San Francisco for a distance of 2,800 miles in thirty days.

From the 1850's, what started as a sweet dream becomes a national necessity to unify the country. In March, 1853, Congress releases 150,000 dollars to allow a study "to find the most practical and economic route from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean" but the debate sinks on the choice of the road and the mode of financing. In 1854, the senator Stephen A. Douglas, author of Kansas - Nebraska Act*, suggests building three transcontinental railroad lines.

With the Civil War, the Confederates did not contribute further to the debate, leaving the field open to the Union to facilitate the line of the North. The connection would allow a closer move to California, a loyal state in the cause against slavery, to take advantage of the gold and silver of the West and to provide along the way the troops more inclined to conflicts with Indians. In 1862, Lincoln signs an act in favour of the transcontinental railroad line, "An Act to aid in the Construction of a Railroad and Telegraph Line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure to the Government the Use of the same for Postal, Military and Other Purposes."

The Union Pacific Railroad Company was built from the 100th meridian passing by Cozad, Nebraska and close to Fort Kearney to the border of California. Leaving Omaha, it borrows the "Iowa Branch", one of four sections authorized by the congress to connect cities along the Mississippi, before continuing towards California. On the West side, the state of California had already charged the Central Pacific Railroad Company to build a railroad between San Francisco and the East border of California according to the same terms and conditions granted to the Union Pacific. The first of the two companies who could arrive at this border could continue in the direction of the other one without a meeting point. Every forty-mile section of tracks, each company received United States bonds amounted to $16,000 per mile on the plains, $ 32,000 on the plateau between the Rockies and the Sierras and $ 48,000 dollars in the mountain regions. They received the right-of-way through the public domain and an outright grant on half the land situated ten miles on both sides of the tracks. The year of 1862, the country possessed 32,120 miles of tracks of which the longest built by Illinois Central was 700 miles.

Commercial Map of the United States showing the principal connecting lines of the Railroad across the Country, also the Proposed Railroad Routes to the Pacific, from Warren's Geography, Philadelphia, H. Cowperthwait & Co., 1859

Realization and completion of the transcontinental linebetween Omaha and Sacramento

The Civil War was going to delay the extension of the railroad network to the West that was planned by the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. From the end of the Civil War in 1865, the importance in the construction of a transcontinental line in the unity of the United States was even stronger at both an economic and political level.

In 1869, the first transcontinental line between Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California connected the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States. This human and technical feat was made possible thanks to the political will of the president Abraham Lincoln and the perseverance of Theodore Judah, civil engineer who drew the line. Two railroad companies, Union Pacific, leaving Omaha and Central Pacific, leaving Sacramento, would have been opposed. After several years, both companies met on May 10th, 1869 at Promontory Summit in the state of Utah during the Golden Spike Ceremony. The last golden spike engraves the "May God continue the unity of our Country, as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world". All in all, 1777 miles of tracks will have been laid (690 miles by the Central Pacific and 1,087 by Union Pacific).

Photograph at the time of the Golden Spike Ceremony
A Human Adventure

Theodore Dehone Judah is considered as the "father" of the first transcontinental railroad line. He became in 1852 the chief engineer of the new Californian Company, Sacramento Valley Railroad. In January, 1857, he published a booklet, "A Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad", in whom he records his observations for the construction of a transcontinental railroad line. He describes a route leaving California towards Iowa by crossing the Sierra Nevada, the desert of the Nevada until Salt Lake City before continuing through the plains of Nebraska. In 1861, Theodore Judah founds the Pacific Railroad Company with four merchants: Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, popularly named "The Big Four". They convinced the government that a law on railroads was necessary and at the end of 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act was signed.

The transcontinental railroad line was the last major construction made in American before the introduction of good explosives, successful earthmoving machinery and modern techniques of construction. The work for the men was painful. In the East side, the workers of the Union Pacific essentially consisted of the former soldiers of the Civil War and Irish immigrants. The very hard work contributed to conditions of a difficult life. The resistance of the Indians in the invasion of their land also did not helped. In the West, the Chinese immigrants since the gold rush, played a decisive role in the construction of the railroad line of Central Pacific. In the peak of the construction, more than 10,000 Chinese workers worked on this colossal work.

A Technical Adventure

This adventure was made possible due to large progress in railroad technology which appeared from the 1850's: rail "T", airbrakes, headlight reflectors to operate at night, coal replacing the wood of combustion, drilling of tunnels, technology of bridges …

The construction of the transcontinental was to be a major technical achievement operated by both private companies, Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, through plains, plateaus and mountains. They created innovative infrastructures: bridges, tunnels...

Before 1868, the maximum distance of railroads laid in one day was four miles. The same year, Union Pacific managed to lay four and a half miles. In answer to this exploit, Central Pacific lay six; those to whom the Union Pacific responded by laying seven miles and three quarters. The vice president of the Union Pacific, Thomas Durant, then made a $ 10,000 bet with his opponent. Central Pacific organized a plan. April 28th, 1869, in a military way, teams began at six o'clock in the morning to finish at seven o'clock in the evening. During the day, they managed to place 25.800 ties, to lay 3.520 rails, to hammer in 28,160 spikes, and to turn 14,080 bolts. In the end, they laid more than 10 miles of tracks.

Route of the first American Transcontinental railroad from Sacramento, California to Omaha, Nebraska in 1869

The Central Pacific laid 690 miles of tracks starting in Sacramento, California:

- Sacramento, California
- Newcastle, California
- Truckee, California
- Reno, Nevada
- Wadsworth, Nevada
- Winnemucca, Nevada
- Battle Mountain, Nevada
- Elko, Nevada
- Humboldt-Wells, Nevada
- Promontory Summit, Utah

Later, the route was extended to the Alameda Terminal in Alameda, California, and shortly thereafter, to the Oakland Long Wharf in Oakland.


The Union Pacific laid 1,087 miles of tracks starting in Omaha, Nebraska:

- Omaha, Nebraska
- Elkhorn, Nebraska
- Grand Island, Nebraska
- North Platte, Nebraska
- Ogallala, Nebraska
- Julesburg, Colorado Territory
- Sidney, Nebraska
- Cheyenne, Wyoming
- Laramie, Wyoming
- Green River, Wyoming
- Evanston, Wyoming
- Ogden, Utah
- Brigham City, Utah
- Corinne, Utah
- Promontory Summit, Utah

The Jarret & Palmer Special

In 1876, Henry C. Jarrett and Harry D. Palmer, two New Yorker impresarios, had the incredible idea. After the last representation of the play Henry V by Shakespeare played in New York, they wanted to play it by the same actors - Lawrence Barrett, famous actor, and his two accomplices, Patric Thorne and C.B. Bishop - four days later in San Francisco, in the McCullough’s California Theater. At this time, the railroad was the fastest form of transportation to cross the country, but the regular trains took at least seven days. In connection with the various railroad companies along the transcontinental line, both protagonists charter a special train, the Jarrett & Palmer Special, which has the objective to cross the United States in less than twice the normal time or in 84 hours. In addition to this audacious project for this time, the New York Herald newspaper and the Post Office Department, join forces to deliver newspapers and mail along the railroad to San Francisco and afterwards on the Pacific Coast.

The train consists of three cars: the luxury Pullman Hotel Car Marlborough, a coach car and a baggage car with scenery and costumes. Four companies succeed to bring this special train to its terminus: Pennsylvania Railroad between Jersey City and Pittsburgh, Chicago & North Western Railroad between Pittsburgh and Grand Island, Union Pacific Railroad between Grand Island and Ogden, and Central Pacific Railroad between Ogden and Oakland. Priority all along the route, the great majority of the itinerary is made on a unique track. The convoy is acclaimed during the route. People wait for it along the tracks, at the railroad station during the changes of the locomotives (20 all in all), during the provisioning in water and in coal, either during the addition or the suppression of a locomotive or a car to add supplementary power or on the contrary to have more brakes (72 stops all in all). The D-day, having taken the ferry from New York City, the departure is made in Jersey City on June 1st, 1876 at the 1:03 am. The arrival on June 4th to San Francisco, after 3,313 miles of tracks and the last one crossed in ferry at Oakland Pier, ends after 83 hours, 53 minutes, 45 seconds according to the official photography (84 hours and 17 minutes according to the other sources). The thirteen passengers would have crossed the country in forty miles per hour including all stops. This record will be beaten only fifty years later.

Arrived at Oakland Pier, California.

Other transcontinental raildroads

1882. « Atchinson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway », between Kansas City and Los Angeles.

1883. « Northern Pacific Railway », between Chicago and Seattle.

1883. « Southern Pacific Railroad » between La Nouvelle-Orléans and Los Angeles.

1883. « Great Northern Railroad » between Saint Paul, Minnesota and Seatlle.