“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” isn’t true, no matter what Rudyard Kipling’s poem says. In America, this happened May 10, 1869, with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. That day, officials from railroads building East-to-West and West-to-East met to drive the final spike at the rail line at Promontory, Utah. Hurray! Travelers heading for the Wild West and goods and services going either direction could now use relatively speedy train travel.

Before, the options included six months by wagon train or a treacherous sea voyage via Cape Horn or Central America and the Isthmus of Panama. Also known as the Pacific Railroad and later as the Overland Route, the line extended 1,776 miles over hostile terrain. Begun in 1863, with the first tracks laid by the Union Pacific in Omaha in 1865, the Transcontinental Railroad would enhance the U.S. economy ever after. But its success came at a terrible cost in lost lives and strife.

The race is on

Decades earlier, the U.S. had realized not having a linked railway was hurting Westward Expansion and the free flow of goods across the country. A year into the Civil War, a Republican-majority Congress finally passed the Pacific Railroad Act assuring the needed land grants. It also tapped two companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to build independently and meet up. In a bit of weird history, they actually communicated so poorly that each built past each other and had to re-do portions of the line for the railroad to connect.

An exploited workforce

The Central Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad had difficulty finding workers. They failed to retain Irish immigrants or to hire Civil War prisoners, freed former slaves or Mexican immigrants as desired. Chinese laborers were the railroad barons’ saviors, eventually making up 80 percent of the Central Pacific railroad workforce. Many came from mainland China by boat. All worked tirelessly, sometimes using explosives, and risked their lives daily. American industry was overjoyed when the Transcontinental Railroad was complete, but an estimated 100-150 Chinese had died in the process.