I’m so pleased to be here for the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony, marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad. This is a great day to commemorate the seminal contribution that railroads and railroad workers — including approximately 12,000 or more Chinese laborers—who risked everything to make the Transcontinental Railroad a reality.
The Transcontinental Railroad was a tremendous feat of engineering, innovation and manpower that was key to unleashing the economic power of the United States.
Within three years of its completion, trains could travel from New York City to San Francisco in just one week. Prior to that, travelers endured up to 6 months or more of dangerous travel by ship or covered wagon to cross the continent.
The ability to move people and goods across the continent, at much lower cost, led to rapid economic growth. The benefits were felt not only in the big coastal cities, but in the rural interior, which gained access to new markets. Within ten years of completion, the intercontinental railroads were shipping $50 million of freight from coast to coast each year.
The act of building the transcontinental railroad was transformational in and of itself.
The government provided land and other resources to encourage private sector investment in the railroads. Innovation and planning guided the project. Standard gauge track was adopted on a national basis. Telegraph lines were built along the track right of way. Nitroglycerin gradually replaced less powerful black powder when blasting tunnels through the Sierra mountains. The railroad workers became so skilled that on April 28, 1869, a legendary team of workers built 10 miles of track in a single day. They were spurred on by a competitive zeal and a fierce desire to show that nothing was impossible.
Today, we pay special tribute to the diverse workforce that built this seminal project. Civil war veterans from both the North and the South worked together on the transcontinental railroad, along with Mormon settlers, African-Americans, native Americans, and of course Chinese laborers.
The Union Pacific, building from the East, hired many Irish immigrants to lay track across the Great Plains. Building from the West Coast, the Central Pacific Railroad hired 15,000 workers, of whom 12,000 or more were Chinese immigrants. The Chinese workers blasted and chiseled their way through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. Using manual hammer drills, pickaxes and explosives, they dug 15 tunnels through hard granite. Snow fell so deeply in the mountains that they had to build roofs over 37 miles of track so supply trains could make it through. The conditions were merciless, dangerous and harsh. An estimated 500-1,000 Chinese workers lost their lives.
But the Chinese workers persevered, and played a key role in building one of the greatest pieces of infrastructure in the world. This occurred despite the fact that many of the Chinese laborers did not have the opportunity to bring their families with them or to become citizens of the United States. So, it is especially fitting that as the first American of Chinese heritage to be U.S. Secretary of Transportation, I have this poignant opportunity to fully acknowledge the contribution of the Chinese railroad workers to this great infrastructure project.
So much has changed in railroading since the Golden Spike Ceremony. Steam engines have given way to diesel and electric locomotives. Telegraph wires have been replaced by satellite and wireless communications. Manual track laying has been replaced with automated track-laying machines. Hand operated brakes have been replaced with connected air-operated brakes. And what was once a dangerous, injury-prone, high-risk industry is today one of the safest modes of transportation.
This great history, which helped transform our country, was made possible by a diverse group of people. People who were proud, dedicated and motivated by a “can do” spirit. People who were willing to brave every danger to help the United States become a truly continental nation. The railroad workers and innovators of 150 years ago helped unite our country in a manner every bit as consequential as the digital revolution that binds the world together today.
Today, we pay tribute to all the workers—especially the approximately 12,000 or more Chinese laborers—who risked so much to make this great dream a reality, the benefits of which we are still receiving today.
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