Beyond the Mississippi; from the Great River to the Great Ocean

Albert D. Richardson's Beyond the Mississippi; from the Great River to the Great Ocean is a detailed and exciting account of life and travels in the West and Far West in the years before the transcontinental railroad was completed. From Native American life, to gold fields, to emigrant trains, Richardson's portrayals of the region are interesting and informative. In this section, he describes the building of the transcontinental railroad in Nebraska - "the Conquest of Nature moving toward the Pacific."


With the Government commissioners, who were present to accept a new twenty-miles of the line, I went out to the end of the Pacific railroad — then two hundred and forty miles west of Omaha. Making a short elbow to the south, at ten miles out the railway turns westward along the Platte valley. The embankments for the iron are seldom more than three or four feet high; and for a tangent of forty miles the road is as straight as the track of a rifle-ball. That is a good place for studying perspective. Eastern Nebraska is a capital farming country, though more sandy, and less rich than Kansas.

A hundred miles out, we passed Columbus, on the prairies. It promises to be a future railway focus. Mr, Train and his associates believe that it will be a great city, capital of Nebraska, and perhaps of the United States. Stranger things have happened. Two hundred miles out, at Kearney station, we spent the night in our passenger car, improvising beds, with boards, cushions and blankets, upon the backs of the seats. Having traveled to Fort Kearney seven times by wagon and coach, I found accomplishing it by rail in a few hours decidedly agreeable.

The next morning we started on. A few buffaloes had been killed here lately; and now we saw hundreds of antelopes from our train. Some came within two hundred yards, curious to scrutinize the iron monster screeching into their vast domain. While in motion we aimed hundreds of rifle-shots at them from the car windows. A single one, from General Merrill, took effect, and sent its beautiful victim limping into the sand-hills.

At the end of the track, on the smooth, well-built road, we found long sleeping and eating-cars for the workmen, who press forward so fast that only portable dwellings will serve them. All supplies come from the east. The sleepers are brought down the Missouri, from Iowa forests. About half are soft cottonwood; but Burnetiziug (infusing with zinc) is said to render them as durable as oak. Many of the timbers for bridges are of black walnut, often sixteen inches square. There are but two long bridges east of the Rocky Mountains — one of fifteen hundred feet across Loupe Fork; another of half-a-mile over the North Platte.

The charter permits only American iron. The rails are from Pennsylvania and New York. We found the workmen, with the regularity of machinery, dropping each rail in its place, spiking it down, and then seizing another. Behind them, the locomotive; before, the tie-layers; beyond these the graders; and still further, in mountain recesses, the engineers. It was Civilization pressing westward — the Conquest of Nature moving toward the Pacific.

Thomas C. Durant, vice-president and sole contractor of the road, has furnished the energy and most of the brains for carrying out this stupendous national enterprise. He has pushed the line westward with a rapidity never before equaled. It used to be thought a great feat to lay one mile of track per day; but here two miles and even two and-a-half have been laid daily for weeks. The head-quarters of the company are in New York. There Mr. Durant from his quiet office, directs by telegraph the labors of twelve thousand men — an army which it requires generalship to handle, particularly when its commander must be paymaster as well.

The Platte valley, from six to twenty miles wide, is incomparably the most favorable railway route in the world — almost a dead level from the Missouri up to the mountains. For five hundred miles the grade averages only seven feet to the mile.

When the range is reached, rolling mills will be erected for making rails, iron dug from the hills, and ties cut from the forests. Though the highest summit-crossing contemplated is more than eight thousand feet above sea-level, it is believed that no heavier grade than eighty feet to the mile will be required.

The company design building a branch to Denver. Their main line passes nearly one hundred miles north of that city. The chief Kansas fork, from Wyandotte up the Kaw and Smoky Hill, will join the main stem near Denver. It will probably make that connection about as soon as the California and Nebraska companies unite at Salt Lake. Of the two smaller Kansas forks the northern, from St. Joseph westward, will unite with the Platte valley line; and the southern, from Atchison, with the Smoky Hill. The Wyandotte and Atchison forks receive the same Congressional endowment as the Nebraska Union Pacific and the California Central Pacific — twelve hundred and eight acres of land and sixteen thousand dollars in Government bonds for each mile completed. Passing no hilly regions, they do not obtain the higher subsidies.

The uniform width established upon the trunk line and all its branches is four feet eight and-a-half inches. That corresponds with most eastern roads, and will give an unbroken gauge from San Francisco to New York, via Omaha and Chicago.

When the California builders have passed down the eastern side of the Sierras to find smooth sailing, the road from Omaha will strike the Rocky Mountains and hard work. But ample preparation is made for it. The summer of 1867 opens with twenty-five thousand men employed on the main stem of the Paeific Railway; and the California and Nebraska companies expect their locomotives to meet in the vicinity of Salt Lake early in 1870. Speed the day!

About this Document

  • Source: Beyond the Mississippi; from the Great River to the Great Ocean
  • Author: Albert Richardson
  • Publisher: American Publishing Company
  • Published: , Connecticut
  • Citation: Pages 566-569
  • Date: 1867