The building of the Transcontinental Railroad, which eventually led to the Southern Pacific Railway (SP), forever changed California. Not only did it create a much quicker and simpler way for people to travel to the state from the East Coast and Midwest, it also helped develop trade and farming, while creating a monopoly over the economy and government by the Southern Pacific that eventually became known as the Octopus.
The idea of a transcontinental railroad originated with Theodore Judah, but his plans were held up by the dispute between the North and South in the pre-Civil War Congress. In 1854 Judah came to California where he built the state’s first railway. In 1857 he published a pamphlet calling for a railroad to connect the East Coast and West Coast. He got the backing of a group of Sacramento businessmen who would later become known as the Big Four: Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins. They would go on to build the western half of the Railroad and own what would become known as the Southern Pacific Railway. Their major problem was gaining backing from Congress who were needed to fund the plan. The dispute in the legislature was over which way the Railroad should take, a northern or southern route, highlighting the regional division of the Congress at the time. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 the southern opposition ended, and in 1862 Judah and Huntington got federal support for the building of the Railroad. Congress agreed to finance a loan that would pay $16,000 for every mile built on flat land and $48,000 per mile over the mountains. Each company would also get tracks of land on either side of the Railroad that they could later sell at their own discretion. Two companies were organized to complete the job, the Union Pacific that began in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific, which started in Sacramento, California owned by the Big Four. The Central Pacific began work in 1863, but Judah quickly had a falling out with the Big Four when they lied to the federal government about where the Sierra Nevada mountain range began so that they could get paid more money for their work. Judah would end up dying on a trip to the East Coast to get new backers for the Railroad.
The building of the western half of the Railroad was a long and arduous process that was eventually completed by thousands of Chinese immigrants. Two years after their start, the Central Pacific had only completed 36 miles, and only had 600 of the 5,000 workers they needed. Their laborers also continuously left to try gold prospecting in the California mountains. Charles Crocker, who had been appointed the construction boss, decided to try out a suggestion to use Chinese workers. He eventually sent agents directly to China to recruit them, and ended up employing 11,000 to build the Railroad. They made up 90% of his workforce and one quarter of the Chinese in the entire United States at the time. The Chinese were paid $30-$40 a month, most of which was sent back to their relatives back home. They had the hardest work, having to build through and over the Sierras during the wintertime when it was snowing. Around 1,200 ended up dying from the hefty and dangerous task. By 1868 they were over the Sierras, and the race was on to build as much track as possible across the flat desert of Nevada to earn the Central Pacific as much money as it could from the government before they met the Union Pacific. They eventually built across 372 miles after the mountains before joining with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869.
Andrew Joseph Russell (1830 – 1902)
One of a handful of landscape photographers who shaped our perception of the American West in the 19th century, A. J. Russell’s work stands alongside of Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and Timothy O’Sullivan in its aesthetic power and technical virtuosity. A large group of Russell’s original glass-plate negatives are preserved in the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California.
A painter as well as photographer, Russell worked for Matthew Brady before documenting the U.S. Military Railroad as a captain during the Civil War. After the war, he secured a position as official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad in its massive endeavor to construct a transcontinental railroad. His photographs, culminating in the iconic “Joining of the Rails” at Promontory, Utah, capture the majestic scale of western lands, the gritty enterprise of railroad building, frontier boom towns, and the effect of railroads on Native Americans.
Russell’s photographs brought the railroad, and the American West, to a mass audience. Disseminated internationally as stereo views and engravings in newspapers, and filtered through Hollywood films and even advertising, Russell’s visual style continues to influence our image of Western history and mythology.
The Andrew J. Russell Collection
In 1969 the Oakland Museum acquired nearly 650 collodion “wet plate” negatives in both stereo and “imperial” (10 X 13 inch) formats. The original glass camera negatives made in the field by Russell himself, the collection is unique among major 19th century landscape photographers. The Museum also holds one of the few surviving copies of The Great West Illustrated, an album of vintage albumen prints by Russell, as well as mounted stereo views and more than 100 glass lantern slides.
Russell’s photographs illuminate powerful themes in American history: westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, the displacement of native peoples, attitudes toward landscape and the natural environment, technological history (both engineering and photographic), and the important role of art and photography in shaping and expressing cultural concerns.
For the first time, high-resolution digital scans of the original glass-plate negatives are now available for online viewing. These scans are highly detailed and rich in searchable content.
- Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracking the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s.
- Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution.