Railroads & Locomotives History Transcontinental Railroad: Building track

Transcontinental Railroad: Building track

By Trains Staff | July 12, 2023

| Last updated on July 17, 2023

When track laying was done as a hand operation

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Transcontinental Railroad

Workers who built the first Transcontinental Railroad, by hand, in the late 1860s labored through grueling heat, biting winter cold, snow, attacks from Native American tribes, and long, long work days. Learn how they did it with this excerpt from one of Trains’ DVD’s, Journey To Promontory, available from the Kalmbach Hobby Store.

Wendell Huffman, Nevada State Railroad Museum curator: The Transcontinental Railroad was built by hand. For the most part all they had were hand tools. There were very few power equipment. The Union Pacific had some steam shovels, but the actual rail, the track laying was done as a hand operation and what you see as a crew when they started building the railroad, they started with a small crew, maybe just a dozen men laying the track. They would take a cart like this out to the end of track. It would be loaded with a row of rails.

On top of that would be ties. They would take it out to the end of track pulled by a horse or a mule. The crew would unload the ties one at a time with two men per tie there to lay those ties down as far as they went and then they would start to take the rails off the car. The one thing that Jack Casement figured out and he applied this first at the Union Pacific, was how to involve more people. In some cases on the Union Pacific, they were laying ties 40 miles ahead of the railroad because in the Union Pacific, the ties were actually to the west of them, so they were bringing them back to the railroad.

Patricia LaBounty, Union Pacific Museum curator: So Jack Casement came up with a really innovative idea called the city on wheels and basically what this was was a construction train about 40 cars long and it had onboard everything that they needed to construct one mile of track. Everything from the tools, the spikes, the fishplates, the rails, and the ties, to do one mile of track. Now, the rail and the spikes were sided at the front of this train on flatcars. Each car had enough rail to lay one section of track and after that was lifted off and put into place, that car was tipped off the rails and the next car behind it was drawn forward by a horse.

Wendell Huffman: On the Central Pacific it worked the other way. They were taking the ties out to the end of track, but they would then use wagons to take them on ahead and lay them on the roadbed. The ties would be laid out on the Central Pacific. They laid them out on four foot setters. Then the track laying crew would just bring rail on the cart. They would bring 16 rails. There would be a crew of four men in the front, two men would grab the end of each rail. They would roll those off as the rail came to the roller at the end of the car, two other guys would grab that, they would set them down onto the ties. They would adjust them so they were at gauge and then they would roll the cart with the rails that were still on it to the end of that rail. They would do the whole thing over again. When it was empty they would push it back, tip it up on its side so they could bring in the next loaded cart forward.

On behind that was a team of guys that were doing nothing but bolting the rails together. Behind that there were guys that were spiking and they had that worked out to a system where one guy would start one spike. He’d just get it started, then he’d walk ahead to the next rail, do the same spike, do the same procedure. Someone behind him would hit that spike a second time.

So there’s a whole army. There may have been three or 400 guys behind doing the spiking.

Want to learn more about the Chinese laborers laying track?

Watch additional video exclusively on Trains.com:
Chinese workers and the Transcontinental Railroad

One thought on “Transcontinental Railroad: Building track

  1. cool to see, my great-grandpa came from Ireland and was a “gandy dancer” building Frisco across MO, his 5 sons became conductors, Mom worked at General Office, met Dad at company picnic and the rest is my personal RR history. Had to be hard and back breaking work, he was in MO in 1860’s but not on as big a project as UP/CP.

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