1869: Moving West

Wyatt Tracy, guest writer

I, Michael Treacy and my family came from Ireland before the American civil war in an effort to escape the Irish Potato famine and disease. The United States promised a new hope and a fresh start. When war broke lose, I joined the Union ranks and faced many men, saw many people fall at the receiving of my own lead bullets, and upon the end of the war, I settled down on a small farm in the middle of Kentucky. In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act which provided financing and land for the Union and Central Pacific Railroad. The two railroads began to build towards each other shortly after the civil war ended. Within two years of the war, I realized my desperate financial situation. I decided that it was time to find a job and the railroad seemed to be a good fit. It was far more consistent than farming and paid more so I went to work for the Union Pacific. Long days, hard work, and angry fuming foremen; Not what the recruiter had said it would be. . .
* * * * *
In the early spring of 1868, we start making our way to the final goal, the end of the Central Pacific’s track. We have seen surveyors from our opponents at work staking out the line on the east side of the Rockies, sometimes even setting flags right beside our track. We had been working for several hours when the unmistakable sound of a Cheyenne raiding party rose to fill our ears. They swept across the open country with nothing to stop them except the workers. A short skirmish erupted and left three of my own coworkers dead along with two Cheyenne warriors.

Despite these setbacks, along with the flooding and destruction of miles of track, we promptly continue pressing west. Little did we realize that each time the camp moved so did the “community”. There is very much a lack of civilized society in this vast expanse and it gets worse when the men get drunk. Many nights I have the unfortunate privilege of seeing men so drunk that they can’t even walk a straight line. I am still haunted by the experience of stepping straight into a duel between two drunken workers and nearly getting myself killed.
* * * * *
The work ahead is intimidating as we head straight past the foot of the Rockies. Me and thirty other men are busy laying track within the confines of a cut when the unmistakable sound of horses stunned us. One of the workers climbed up the embankment to see what was happening and began to yell down to me,
“Michael, Get your gun, we have got Indians”
Most of us quickly scrambled while others echo the words, “get your guns”
“Where are they John?”, I question.
“Their coming strai. . .”

Before he could utter the rest of his sentence he came tumbling down with one slight addition, an object of a rather peculiar form. This means one thing, trouble. I scramble for the nearest cover which happens to only be a small pile of ties and begin to fire in the direction of our fallen man. A sense of helplessness began to envelope us all as we gazed at John, lying cold with an arrow protruding from his chest. With many war-whoops and shots zinging by, the Indians turned on their heels and went on towards the camp several miles east. We quickly turn back to work again. As we wrapped up the day we took John’s cold, dead body back to the camp where we began the toilsome work of burying his body and paying him our own respects.
* * * * *
One relatively calm afternoon, I was out at the end of the line laying new track. Far off on the eastern horizon a large plume of smoke could be seen, not like that of an iron-horse, but rather a grass fire. Some of the men from other teams are sent to battle the blaze, by now threatening the track. The blaze could be seen for miles as it stiffly marched its way across the plains. These grass fires are not new, as a matter of fact, they are common. Despite the size and intensity of the blaze, I know of no one who has been killed trying to stop one. Yet.
The weather has already begun to change for the worse. Not only is there less time in a day, but the temperature is beginning to slow the work. Bracing ourselves for the winter ahead is our newest priority. It’s easier said than done, each time we decide it’s time to move camp we are farther into the rockies. There is talk of finally finishing the rail line before the summer arrives. To many it seems far too optimistic, but I hope and pray that the line will be complete before the summer heat sweeps across the plains again.
The founders of the Union Pacific are pushing for the removal of more and more Native Americans by threatening them with either submission or death. This seems to be enraging them more than it is helping our cause. Each day a man is killed, even more came to take their place in the construction.
* * * * *
My dreaming is quickly interrupted by a persistent shaking, one that seems to be shaking my bones with such force that the marrow will ooze out. My arms and legs are numb to the bitter cold. Searching for warmth consumes the next three hours of the night. Fresh snow blankets the area and blows through the gaps and cracks in everything. The winds howl and race past with tremendous freedom and force. Only slightly warmed from the continuous effort to keep on moving, I reluctantly go back to my quarters to spend the next three hours cold and wide awake.
When the light begins to break through the walls of the tent, I grudgingly walk outside. A new layer of about a foot of snow blankets the entire camp, the only source of warmth is the cooking fires. Today, we get a slight mixup of routine. Instead of laying track, we have to keep the existing track open enough for trains to get through. To achieve this, hours upon hours of backbreaking work is necessary. This has been a daily routine for what feels like an eternity. It has become less frequent in the last several weeks as spring breaks from the ground. With only a matter of miles between the two lines, the pressure to complete the task before us is almost unbearable.
We press on west through snow, ice, and floods. We enjoy thinking of the Central Pacific crews struggling to meet their deadlines, though they are moving along just as rapidly as we are. Once they cleared the Sierra Nevada mountains, the crews steadily advanced across the desert toward Utah. The meeting point has been set, only twenty miles away in Promontory, Utah. As those back east in the cities push for the reconstruction of the economy, we push for more construction to be done, another grueling mile of track, just another spike, another tie, another day.
With fewer than twenty miles to go, we press west at a slow and steady speed. Less raids have meant more work and less fighting. Those who stay in the towns are subjected to almost pure lawlessness. The term wild-west was applied to these ramshackle towns that have followed the railroad west. I have to make the conscious choice to stay out of these places in order to keep both my life and my job. Oftentimes, there are three or four men killed or wounded in a single night. That can be anyone who steps foot in town, the ‘fun’ isn’t worth the risks.
I can sense that our time on the line is shrinking. We have seen the days unfold before our eyes, each with its own set of challenges and hardships. For some men the only thing that has kept the at work is the whiskey and beer. For a few of us the only way that we get our strength is from God. We are often shunned by the drunkards and the slackers on the line for our belief, but we are far more effective at what we do.
As we round out one of the final bends in the track, we can see the plume of another iron horse. We can see the end, we press on like a determined runner, giving it his all as he barrels down the home stretch. With what seems like mere yards to the finish, we are still laying track.
On May 10, 1869, “after several delays, a crowd of workers and dignitaries watched as the final spike was driven linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific. Telegraph cables immediately went out to President Grant and around the country with the news that the transcontinental railroad had been completed”(History.com).
The travel time was sliced into mere fractions of the original time. The west was tamed, but the people were wild, violence knocked on every door, Indians continued to wreak havoc on citizens. The wild-west presented its own opportunities. For many people, it offered new land, more money, and a new way of life.

Works cited

Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing like It in the World: the Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869. Simon & Schuster, 2005.

History.com Staff. “Transcontinental Railroad.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/inventions/transcontinental-railroad. Web. 12 February 2018.


“Completing the Transcontinental Railroad, 1869 .” Completing the Transcontinental Railroad, 1869, 2004, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/goldenspike.htm. Web. 12 February 2018.

Network, The Learning. “May 10, 1869 | First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 May 2012, learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/may-10-1869-first-transcontinental-railroad-completed/. Web. 12 February 2018.

Digital History, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3147.