Pacific Railway Act (1862)
The question of "internal improvements" was constantly before Congress
in the 19th century: Should Congress assist in improving the country’s transportation
system? One such improvement was the dream of constructing a railroad that would
cross the entire country. In the 1850s Congress commissioned several topographical
surveys across the West to determine the best route for a railroad, but private
corporations were reluctant to undertake the task without Federal assistance.
In 1862 Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act, which designated the 32nd parallel
as the initial transcontinental route and gave huge grants of lands for rights-of-way.
The act was an effort to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line
from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and to secure the use of that line
to the government.
The legislation authorized two railroad companies, the Union Pacific and the
Central Pacific, to construct the lines. Beginning in 1863, the Union Pacific,
employing more than 8,000 Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, built west
from Omaha, NE; the Central Pacific, whose workforce included over 10,000 Chinese
laborers, built eastward from Sacramento, CA. Each company faced unprecedented
construction problems—mountains, severe weather, and the hostility of
Native Americans. On May 10, 1869, in a ceremony at Promontory, UT, the last
rails were laid and the last spike driven. Congress eventually authorized four
transcontinental railroads and granted 174 million acres of public lands for
For more information, visit The National Archives’ Treasures of Congress Online Exhibit.