Today, we build the first transcontinental
railroad. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
We all know how a golden spike, driven in northern
Utah in 1869, finally let us travel by rail from
Atlantic to Pacific. But did you know that the
first transcontinental railroad was finished
fifteen years earlier, in 1854, and not in the
It began with three speculators in New York in the
late 1840s. They were financier Henry Chauncey,
merchant William Henry Aspinwall, and John Lloyd
Stephens who needs some explaining. Historian David
McCullough calls Stephens a diplomat, lawyer,
raconteur, amateur archaeologist, and writer of
The three decided it'd be profitable to create a
proper trade route to the Mexican province of
California. Aspinwall already held a government
franchise to deliver mail to California. Now the
trick was to carry people and heavier goods. But
America's west was hardly charted, and
covered-wagon traffic had hardly begun. Not even
Pony Express service would be running before 1860.
For now most trade with California had to cross the
Isthmus of Panama.
Typically, a combination steam and sailing ship
would leave New York and make the 2000-mile journey
to Panama. The overland trip through terrible
mosquito infested jungles from Atlantic to Pacific
was only 47 miles, but it took the better part of a
week. Then another ship made the 3500-mile trip to
San Francisco. That 47-mile leg was a huge
impediment, and these businessmen set out to
replace it with a rail link.
It was Stephens who became on-site president of the
railroad company. He dove into Panama's jungles,
driving the initial work while it still seemed
impossible. Then, in 1852, he died of cholera. That
same year, Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Isthmus
with several hundred soldiers headed for
California. He lost 250 people. As an old man, he
talked more about the horrors of Panama than the
horrors of the Civil War. When the railroad was
finished in 1855, it'd cost eight million dollars
and an estimated 6000 lives. It cost more than any
stretch of railroad we've ever made.
So many workers died of cholera, malaria, and
worse, that body disposal became a problem. The
company finally began pickling the dead in barrels
and selling them to medical schools. They used the
proceeds to fund a hospital.
Thirty years later the French lost 20,000 lives in
an abortive attempt to dig a Panama Canal, and they almost
bankrupted France. America didn't finish the Canal
until 1914. All the while this visionary railroad
tied one ocean to the other. It was immensely
profitable from the day it opened and it staked out
the route for the canal that would, in a far
future, completely change the game.
Today we talk about the Golden Spike and forget our
first transcontinental railroad -- which, on the
eve of the Civil War, many people called America's
greatest engineering feat.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds