The Internet and Moon Landing Combined 150 Years Ago in Utah
Without going into a detailed history of the Transcontinental Railroad; from President Lincoln's ordering it into existence to the direct and continuing effect it has had on the development of pretty much everything else in existence, we will note that today 10 May is the 150th anniversary of the driving of The Golden Spike.
All News Traveled Slow
Imagine a visit to Beaumont from Lake Charles being a two to three day trip in 1859. With the river and swamp crossings, seasonal storms and resting the horses you'd be lucky to make it in three days. Better plan on a full week of swatting mosquitoes and treading carefully near snakes.
In 1860 traveling from San Francisco to New York took approximately 90 days. That's crossing the country by wagon or horse, or sailing around the Cape Horn. Cape Horn recall is where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet and a calm day the waves can still sink 500 foot ships. Also, in those days mail traveled at about the same general speed as people or animals could go. A letter took three months to cross the country, even slower service to rural areas anywhere. Keep that in mind next time your Prime order arrives in two days.
The completion of the cross country railroad cut the travel time down to about six days. Now one could get almost anywhere in around a weeks time. Steam locomotives and their trains were the fastest moving machines on earth.
Today I priced a flight from SF to NY and found an Alaska Airlines round trip passage for $450. This would put me six miles up in the air, far over the grueling freezing mountain passages and baked-dry desert trails, at 500 miles per hour for approximately two and a half hours each-way depending on how the wind was blowing at 32,000 feet. I'd likely nap the whole time.
Technology Took Leaps and Bounds
Even faster than the miraculous time-cutting iron machine that runs on boiled water over steel tracks, was the the simultaneously developed telegraph network that could be easily maintained coast to coast as well. A message could now be flashed electrically from California to Washington D.C. in only a few hours at a modern day cost of about $3 per letter.
The telegraph was a binary analog communication system that developed electric impulses with a simple switch on-off impression. Messages were keyed into an input/output device by human hands one at a time in such a manner as to form a decipherable code. An operation virtually still in use today, only each modern dot or dash of code gets entered in billionths of seconds electronically.
A skilled 19th century telegraph operator that could send or receive 25 words per minute could name his own price as far as employment went. Some of the very best operators could work two keys simultaneously; that is listen to one writing down the message, while tapping out another message with their other hand and, mistake free incoming and outgoing.
Much of the telegraph system was owned by the American Telegraph Company in a sweet deal they cut with the railroads for some room along the right-of-ways for their posts. Later, as telephones developed they went into that business too and added Telephone to their name. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company, they're still around too and you might even be an AT&T user.
There's little doubt those alive in the period must've seen the ability to cross the country and move information so quickly with the same incredulity and awe the world watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon just fifty years ago. The Transcontinental Railroad connected the country and permitted fast economic expansion and growth just as surely as the internet has for us to witness first-hand the past two decades.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World
Overcoming natural obstacles in the landscape, just as with the moon landing, took the development of new materials and even new and daring engineering concepts had to be developed. Many times on the spot in the field, now and then with disastrous results. That's called research and development.
The railroad was the first national project to spotlight and highlight the ingenuity and can-do effort of the American people to overcome any and every obstacle and keep moving forward.
The construction wasn't without setbacks, bad turns and even some scandals such as Credit Mobilier et.al., as rail growth continued. But scandals have always been lurking in the shadows of any large semi-government enterprise, it was still fifty years before Teapot Dome. But I digress and those are stories for another day, the railroad was finished. Suffice it to say then as now, men will take amazing risks and rationalize almost any expense in the name of progress with other peoples money.
We celebrate the marvel of civil engineering that spanned mountain gorges with intricate wooden trestles hundreds of feet above the valley floor; the brave souls that trembled with unstable nitro glycerin in sweaty palms to blast tunnels through the solid granite of the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. We toast the sheer engineering and construction brain power, hundreds of re-drawings by hand by draftsmen, to the raw sweat and effort to dig out the cuts and pound in the spikes.
Today we celebrate the Ceremonies to Commemorate the Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the joining of the Union Pacific to the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah. One hundred fifty years ago today May 10, 1869.
The Big Boy
Nearly 10,000 spectators and rail fans of all ages are expected in attendance this past week and through the weekend at that national historic spot in Utah. Two fully restored Union Pacific steam locomotives will re-enact the head-to-head engine meeting a century and a half ago. The Union Pacific 4014 'Big Boy' the most recently restored also owns the distinction of being the largest steam locomotive ever built, and the only one still operable. A similar locomotive the 4019 is seen in the photo.
A train is a place going somewhere.