America’s 1,912 mile transcontinental railroad, completed 150 years ago when Leland Stanford, Central Pacific Railroad president, drove the final anchoring spike into the tracks at Promontory Summit Utah, fundamentally changed America forever in the same way as the internet did.
Americans in small towns and big cities were joined with faster communications and reduced travel times. East-West and West-East overland journeys, which had consumed hazardous weeks, took a few days. Constructed by three private companies between 1863 and 1869, the project joined existing eastern United States tracks at Omaha, Nebraska, with the Pacific coast tracks in San Francisco.
Anniversary celebrations this year across America include events and a new exhibit through spring 2020, at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington. Special recognition features an exhibit honoring Chinese immigrants who worked successfully on the most difficult, mountainous sections, sometimes hanging in straw work baskets over precipices and roaring rivers, to create track beds. They used hand tools to tunnel through a thousand feet of solid granite. Immigrant groups including Irish, as well as freed African-American former slaves, and Civil War veterans, worked alongside each other to complete the daunting construction tasks. Controversies arose when Native people were displaced from portions of their ancestral lands where tracks were laid.
For online audiences, NMAH includes a Transcontinental Railroad digital book and more than 100 digitized objects. The in-house exhibit features a large floor map tracing the transcontinental route and the various communities and terrain passed through. The Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center contributed to commemorative programming through 2020, which includes family oriented cooking demonstrations, poetry readings and theater. At a recent opening ceremony, descendants of the Chinese workers, including several U.S. Congress members, spoke of their pride in the part their ancestors played in building America’s infrastructure.
As one speaker expressed his joy and appreciation at the public recognition via the NMAH exhibit: “So that their (Chinese workers) role in America’s development is not forgotten.”