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Pacific Railroad Acts: Launching the Central Transcontinental railroad

As early as 1845, the notion of a transcontinental railroad had been put forward. In January of that year, Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, proposed that the United States grant him a corridor sixty miles wide extending from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean, in return for which he would construct a railroad. A committee of the Senate deemed the project worthy but the House rejected it. Later efforts to promote the railroad ran into sectional differences. Not until the Civil War gave the Republican Party unquestioned control did the project gain ultimate approval. Congress in 1862 passed the Pacific Railroads Act, which set the framework for the construction of a central transcontinental route. A companion piece of legislation was passed two years later, which created the following format:

  • The Union Pacific Railroad was to begin construction in Omaha and build westward
  • The Central Pacific Railroad was to commence operations in Sacramento and build eastward
  • A right of way 200 feet wide was granted to the builders by the government
  • The builders were to be rewarded with sections of land, distributed in a checkerboard fashion, along the right of way for each mile completed
  • The government provided low interest loans to assist with construction.
The large land grants extended to the railroads were intended to be sold to settlers, which provided a means to pay for construction and repay the loans. It was unusual, to say the least, to undertake a massive internal improvement project in the middle of a civil war. The fact that this was done indicated how strongly Lincoln and the Congress felt about linking the West Coast to the East.