Laying the Groundwork for the Transcontinental Railroad

by Sandra Merville Hart

Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, wanted a railroad that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His goal was to make trade with China easier after returning from a trip to China in 1844.

In 1845, Whitney petitioned Congress for federal funding of a sixty-mile strip and proposed that land be granted as wages for workers. He didn’t give up when his request was denied. In 1849 he published Project for a Railroad, which outlined possible routes. Congress didn’t accept his ideas, but their interest was growing.

Whitney continued to talk about his dream and the public noticed. A transcontinental railroad brought many benefits. Train travel for passengers was faster and safer than stagecoaches and wagon trains. Mail delivery would be accomplished more quickly. Goods from the east could reach western customers in a timely manner. There were many merits to building it.

Others made proposals but Congressmen didn’t agree on the eastern terminus. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sent four men to lead the exploration of potential routes for the transcontinental railroad. They learned that any of them worked. The least expensive was the route along the 32nd parallel.

Because routes along the South didn’t please Northern Congressmen and vice versa, debates continued.

Whitney stopped lobbying for the railroad in 1851, but a new champion came along in 1860. Theodore D. Judah believed the Donner Pass was the perfect area for the railroad to navigate through the Sierra Nevada mountains. As the engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, he wanted to build the new railroad.

He brought Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins in on the project, leading to the establishment of Central Pacific Railroad Company of California.

Judah traveled to Washington City (as Washington DC was then called) where he talked with Congress. President Abraham Lincoln backed the idea and the first Pacific Railway Act went into effect on July 1, 1862. It stated the Union Pacific was to start in Omaha, Nebraska, and build toward the west. The Central Pacific started in Sacramento, California, and built toward the east to meet them roughly halfway.

It was a long journey of many years and several key people to make the decisions laying the groundwork for the Transcontinental Railroad, not the least of whom were Asa Whitney and Theodore Judah.

The hero in my novel, Avenue of Betrayal, Book 1 of my “Spies of the Civil War” series, dreams of participating in building the Transcontinental Railroad. The fictional Union officer hopes that the war doesn’t last so long that he misses his opportunity. I was thrilled to use such an important part of our history in the story.  


“Asa Whitney,” Wikipedia, 2022/02/26 Editors. “Transcontinental Railroad,”, 2022/02/22

“Pacific Railway Acts,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022/02/22

“The Beginnings of American Railroads and Mapping,” Library of Congress, 2022/02/26

“The Transcontinental Railroad,” Library of Congress, 2022/02/26

“Transcontinental Railroad,”, 2020/06/19