On April 28, 1869, the Central Pacific railroad crews laid 10 miles of track in one day.
Early in the morning, crews faced a days work, and then some. Before them stretched a smoothly graded path in the Utah desert, the final product of a sizable army of Chinese graders that shoveled, chiseled, blasted, and bored their way nearly 700 miles from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada mountains, then across the desert toward a mountainous peninsula on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.
The graded path stretched beyond their range of vision. If the crews could deliver on the boast of the railroad’s promoters to lay ten miles of rail in a single day, they would claim an unbeatable record.
At 7 a.m., the lead supply train blasted its whistle, and the machine of men swung into action. Chinese laborers unloaded the first train of kegs, spikes and bolts, bundles of fish-plate fasteners, and rails. “In eight minutes, sixteen cars were cleared, with a nose like the bombardment of an army,” wrote one correspondent.
At the end of the track stood eight men with tongs to grab the rails. A wood-framed device that ensured 4 feet 8 1/2 inches separated each new rail pair, was moved ahead by two additional men. Two men were at the head and tail of each rail. As the forward pair seized each 30-foot rail, the rear pair helped guide it over the rollers and onto the cross tie. As soon as the rail was in place, one gang started the spikes, eight to each rail, and bolted fishplates at each rail joint; another gang finished the spiking and tightened the bolts.
As end of track moved onward, ten yards at a clip, track levelers followed in its wake, lifting ties and shoveling dirt under them as needed. At the rear of the column, which eventually stretched out some two miles, were 400 tampers, with shovels and iron bars to give the road bed a firm set. Whenever a workman tired or faltered, a fresh replacement took his place. Horses tired easily on the steep grade and were changed every two hours.
Progress that day was phenomenal. At a pace that one might average on a day’s walk, the Iron Horse was galloping across the desert. “I never saw such organization,” marveled an Army officer. “It was like an army marching over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.”
After an hour’s lunch break, the crews returned to action. For almost an hour the most important task, conducted with hammer, wood blocks, and eyesight, was bending rails for the upcoming curve. As the shadows lengthened, the last supply car was unloaded. By seven in the evening, the ten miles of new track, plus 56 extra feet, was complete. The effort had consumed 25,800 ties, 28,160 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and 3,524 rails. In 40 minutes, the superintendent ran an engine over the new ten-mile track to prove its soundness.
Michael Corbin Ray and I spent months on research for our debut novel, The Long Way. Although the story is fantasy, the locations and historical background are very much real. We took pains to be as true to the people and reality of the times as possible. This involved a great deal of research across a wide variety of subjects, often from first-hand accounts, including the timelines and methods of construction of North America’s first transcontinental railroad.