The photograph “Last Rail – Transcontinental Railroad, 1869” taken by the American photographer, Andrew J. Russell presents officers laying the last rail during construction of the Union Pacific Railroad marking a significant year and change for 19th century America. The first Transcontinental Railroad later became known as the Overland Route and was produced using primarily Irish labor along with Civil War veterans.
This photo was taken to document and memorialize the building of such a monumental railway. This specific railroad is one of the largest railway companies in the world, and the second largest railroad in the United States. It’s a freight hauling railroad that operates over a route of 32,100 miles through 23 states, west of Chicago and New Orleans.
After the Civil War, the United States was in need of a way to connect the east to the west via transportation, not only for commerce but to shorten the time and money it took for one to get from the east to west or vice versa. The railroad allowed for faster travel, in the past travel would be long and dangerous, relying on horses to pull wagons to get from place to place, with the new railways a person would be able to travel across the United States in only 10 days. While there were still dangers during the use of the railroad from avalanches, explosions, and exhaustion, the Transcontinental Railroad helped expand the nation’s communication, businesses, travel, and the construction of new towns, a major factor in the industrialization of America. It also aided in the economic development of the West and increased the demand in iron, steel, locomotives, and similar products.
This railway was produced under the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, an act approved by Abraham Lincoln, as a war measure to ensure the preservation of the Union. It provided both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific with large loans for the construction of the railroad. For every mile, the railway was constructed on the United Sates government rewarded the company land and money. The Central Pacific Railroad Company began building in Sacramento and continued across the Sierra Nevada while the Union Pacific Railroad began building from Omaha, Nebraska westward for them to meet in the middle. It completed its construction in 1869 and connected both rail lines at Promontory Summit in Utah after being worked on for 6 years.
A major negative impact the construction of this railroad had on the nation was the mass genocide of Native Americans who were forced to abandon their land to make way for the construction of the railroad. Laborers who worked on the railroad began hunting buffalo into near extinction, which cause Natives to be left without their primary food supply, forcing them into starvation.
This photograph helps us understand this historical moment by showing us the type of fashion they wore at the time, the people involved, and the design of the railway and train. It exudes a patriotic attitude, really encompassing the spirit of the reconstruction era by the construction of a railway that ensures the safety of the Union. By preparing for the Union’s safety, this is showcasing America’s preparation to ensure the Union is a permanent aspect to the United States.