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Central Pacific Railroad
Locale Sacramento, CA-Ogden, Utah
Dates of operation 1863–April 1, 1885 but continued as an SP leased line
Track gauge 4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) (standard gauge)
Headquarters Sacramento, CA; San Francisco, CA
The Gov. Stanford locomotive
Trestle, Central Pacific Railroad, c.1869. Photo: Carleton Watkins
The Last Spike, by Thomas Hill, (1881)

The Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) is the former name of the railroad network built between California and Utah, USA that formed part of the first Transcontinental Railroad in North America. It is now part of the Union Pacific Railroad.

Many 19th century national proposals to build a transcontinental railroad failed because of the energy consumed by political disputes over slavery. With the secession of the South, the modernizers in the Republican Party controlled the US Congress. They passed legislation to authorize the railroad, and created financing in the form of government railroad bonds. These were all eventually repaid with interest.[1] The government and the railroads both shared in the increased value of the land grants, which the railroads developed.[2] Once the railroad was constructed, the government saved expenses for the transportation of the mails and the military.

Planned by Theodore Judah, the Central Pacific Railroad was authorized by Congress in 1862. It was financed and built through "The Big Four" (who called themselves "The Associates"): Sacramento, California businessmen Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. Crocker was in charge of construction. The western labor teams were primarily made up of Chinese emigrant workers with up to 12,000 such laborers employed by the Central Pacific Railroad representing 90 percent of the entire work force.[3] They laid the first rails in 1863. The "Golden spike", connecting the western railroad to the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah, was hammered on May 10, 1869. Coast-to-coast train travel in 8 days became possible, replacing months-long sea voyages and lengthy, hazardous travel by wagon trains.

In 1885 the Central Pacific Railroad was leased by the Southern Pacific Company. Technically the CPRR remained a corporate entity until 1959, when it was formally merged into Southern Pacific. (It was reorganized in 1899 as the Central Pacific "Railway".) The original right-of-way is now controlled by the Union Pacific, which purchased Southern Pacific in 1996.

The Union Pacific-Central Pacific (Southern Pacific) mainline followed the historic Overland Route from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco Bay.



CPRR logo on a gilded "Staff" uniform button (1867)

Construction of the road was financed primarily by 30-year, 6% U.S. Government Bonds authorized by Sec. 5 of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. They were issued at the rate of $16,000 per mile of tracked grade completed West of the designated base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. [1] Sec. 11 of the Act also provided that the issuance of bonds "shall be treble the number per mile" (to $48,000) for tracked grade completed over and within the two mountain ranges (but limited to a total of three hundred miles at this rate), and "doubled" (to $32,000) per mile of completed grade laid between the two mountain ranges. [2] The U.S. Government Bonds, which constituted a lien upon the railroads and all their fixtures, were repaid in full (and with interest) by the company as and when they became due.

Sec. 10 of the 1864 amending Pacific Railroad Act (13 Statutes at Large, 356) additionally authorized the company to issue its own "First Mortgage Bonds"[3] in total amounts up to (but not exceeding) that of the bonds issued by the United States. Such company-issued securities had priority over the original Government Bonds.[4] (Local and state governments also aided the financing, although the City and County of San Francisco did not do so willingly. This materially slowed early construction efforts.) Sec. 3 of the 1862 Act granted the railroads 10 square miles (26 km²) of public land for every mile laid, except where railroads ran through cities and crossed rivers. This grant was apportioned in 5 sections on alternating sides of the railroad, with each section measuring one-fifth of a mile in length by 10 miles in height. [5] These grants were later doubled to 20 square miles per mile of grade by the 1864 Act.

An 1865 San Francisco Pacific Railroad Bond approved in 1863 but delayed for two years by the opposition of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

Although the Pacific Railroad eventually benefited the Bay Area, the City and County of San Francisco obstructed financing it during the early years of 1863-1865. When Stanford was Governor of California, the Legislature passed on April 22, 1863, "An Act to Authorize the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco to take and subscribe One Million Dollars to the Capital Stock of the Western Pacific Rail Road Company and the Central Pacific Rail Road Company of California and to provide for the payment of the same and other matters relating thereto" (which was later amended by Section Five of the "Compromise Act" of April 4, 1864). On May 19, 1863, the electors of the City and County of San Francisco passed this bond by a vote of 6,329 to 3,116, in a highly controversial Special Election.

The City and County's financing of the investment through the issuance and delivery of Bonds was delayed for two years, when Mayor Henry P. Coon, and the County Clerk, Wilhelm Loewy, each refused to countersign the Bonds. It took legal actions to force them to do so: in 1864 the Supreme Court of the State of California ordered them under Writs of Mandamus (The People of the State of California ex rel the Central Pacific Railroad Company vs. Henry P. Coon, Mayor; Henry M. Hale, Auditor; and Joseph S. Paxson, Treasurer, of the City and County of San Francisco. 25 Cal. 635) and in 1865, a legal judgment against Loewy (The People ex rel The Central Pacific Railroad Company of California vs. The Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco, and Wilhelm Lowey, Clerk 27 Cal. 655) directing that the Bonds be countersigned and delivered. In 1863 the legislature's forcing of City and County action became known as the "Dutch Flat Swindle". Critics claimed the CPRR intended to build a railroad only as far as Dutch Flat, to connect to the Dutch Flat Wagon Road which they already controlled.

Museums and archives

CPRR Original Chief Assistant Engineer L.M. Clement (l) & Chief Engineer T.D. Judah (r)

A replica of the Sacramento, California Central Pacific Railroad passenger station is part of the California State Railroad Museum, located in the Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Two of the company's first locomotives, the Gov. Stanford (No. 1), and C. P. Huntington (No. 3), are held at the museum.

Nearly all the company's early correspondence is preserved at Syracuse University, as part of the Collis Huntington Papers collection. It has been released on microfilm (133 reels). The following libraries have the microfilm: University of Arizona at Tucson; and Virginia Commonwealth University at Richmond. Additional collections of manuscript letters are held at Stanford University and the Mariner's Museum at Newport News, Virginia. Alfred A. Hart was the official photographer of the CPRR construction.


  • June 21, 1861: "Central Pacific Rail Road of California" incorporated; name changed to "Central Pacific Railroad of California" on October 8, 1864, after the Pacific Railway Act amendment passes that summer.
  • July 1, 1862: President Lincoln signs the Pacific Railway Act, which authorized the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific to build a railroad to the Pacific Ocean.
  • January 8, 1863: Ground-breaking ceremonies take place at Sacramento, California, at the foot of "K" Street at the waterfront of the Sacramento River.[4]
  • October 26, 1863: First rail laid at Sacramento.
  • April 26, 1864: Central Pacific opened to Roseville, 18 miles (29 km), where it makes a junction with the California Central Rail Road, operating from Folsom north to Lincoln.
  • June 3, 1864: The first revenue train on the Central Pacific operates between Sacramento and Newcastle, California
  • October 8, 1864: Following passage of the amendment to the Pacific Railroad Act, the company's name is changed to "Central Pacific Railroad of California," a new corporation.
  • May 13, 1865: Central Pacific opened 36 miles (58 km) to Auburn, California.
  • September 1, 1865: Central Pacific opened 54 miles (87 km) to Colfax, California (formerly known as "Illinoistown.")
  • December 3, 1866: Central Pacific opened 92 miles (148 km) to Cisco, California.
  • December 1, 1868: Central Pacific opened to Summit of the Sierra Nevada, 105 miles (169 km).
  • April 28, 1869: Track crews on the Central Pacific lay 10 miles (16 km) of track in one day. This is the longest stretch of track that has been built in one day to date.
  • May 10, 1869: The Central Pacific and Union Pacific tracks meet in Promontory, Utah.
  • May 15, 1869: The first transcontinental trains are run over the new line to Sacramento.
  • November 8, 1869: Central Pacific subsidiaries Western Pacific Railroad (1862-1870) and San Francisco Bay Railroad complete the final leg of the route, connecting Sacramento to Oakland.
  • June 23, 1870: Central Pacific is consolidated with the Western Pacific Railroad (1862-1870) and San Francisco Bay Railroad Co. to form the "Central Pacific Railroad Co." (of June, 1870).
  • August 22, 1870: Central Pacific Railroad Co. is consolidated with the California & Oregon; San Francisco, Oakland & Alameda; and San Joaquin Valley Railroad; to form the "Central Pacific Railroad Co.", a new corporation.
  • April 30, 1876: Operates the California Pacific Railroad between South Vallejo and Sacramento, Calistoga and Marysville until April 1, 1885 (see below).
  • July 16, 1877: Start of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 when railroad workers on strike in Martinsburg, West Virginia, derail and loot a train; United States President Rutherford B. Hayes calls in Federal troops to break the strike.
  • November 18, 1883: A system of one-hour standard time zones for American railroads was first implemented. The zones were named Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. Within one year, 85% of all cities having populations over 10,000, about 200 cities, were using standard time.
  • April 1, 1885: Central Pacific is leased to Southern Pacific.
  • June 30, 1888: Listed by ICC as a "non-operating" subsidiary of Southern Pacific.
  • July 29, 1899: Central Pacific is reorganized as the "Central Pacific Railway".
  • June 30, 1959: Central Pacific is formally merged into the Southern Pacific.

See also


  • Ambrose, Stephen E. (2000). Nothing Like It In The World; The men who built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-84609-8. 
  • David Haward Bain, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (2000)
  • Cooper, Bruce C., "Riding the Transcontinental Rails: Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad 1865-1881" (2005), Polyglot Press, Philadelphia ISBN 1-4115-9993-4
  • Cerinda W. Evans; Collis Potter Huntington Vol. 1 Mariners Museum, 1954
  • Fleisig, Heywood. "The Central Pacific Railroad and the Railroad Land Grant Controversy" Journal of Economic History 1975 35(3): 552-566. ISSN 0022-0507 Fulltext in JSTOR. Questions whether promoters of the Central Pacific Railroad were oversubsidized. Confirms the traditional view that subsidies were not an economic necessity because they "influenced neither the decision to invest in the railroad nor the speed of its construction." Notes that estimates of rate of return for the railroad developers using government funds range from 71% to 200%, while estimates of private rates of return range from 15% to 25%.
  • John Debo Galloway; The First Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific, Union Pacific (1950)
  • Kraus, George. "Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific." Utah Historical Quarterly 1969 37(1): 41-57. ISSN 0042-143X. Shows how Chinese railroad workers lived and worked, and how they managed the finances associated with their employment. Concludes that CPRR officials who employed the Chinese, even those at first opposed to the policy, came to appreciate the reliability of this group of laborers. There are many quotations from accounts by contemporary observers.
  • Lake, Holly. "Construction of the CPRR: Chinese Immigrant Contribution" Northeastern Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 1994 94(4): 188-199. ISSN 0160-9602
  • Mercer, Lloyd J. "Rates of Return for Land-grant Railroads: the Central Pacific System", Journal of Economic History 1970 30(3): 602-626. ISSN 0022-0507 Fulltext in JSTOR. Analyzes the impact of land grants, during 1864-90, on rates of return from investment in the Central Pacific Railroad. Results suggest that even without land grants, rates of return were high enough to induce investment. Also, land grants did not pay for the construction of the railroad. Land grants, however, did produce large social returns in western states by accelerating construction of the system.
  • Mercer, Lloyd J. "Land Grants to American Railroads: Social Cost or Social Benefit?", Business History Review 1969 43(2): 134-151. ISSN 0007-6805 Fulltext in Jstor. Uses econometrics to determine the values of railroad land grants of the 19th century to the railroads and to society as a whole. The author summarizes and criticizes previous treatments of this subject, and discusses his own findings. Using the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific systems as the basis for his investigation, the author concludes that the railroad owners received unaided rates of return which substantially exceeded the private rate of return on the average alternative project in the economy during the same period. Thus the projects turned out to be profitable, although contemporary observers expected that the roads would be privately unprofitable without the land grant aid. The land grants did not have a major effect, increasing the private rate of return only slightly. Nevertheless, he says the policy of subsidizing those railroad systems was beneficial for society since the social rate of return from the project was substantial and exceeded the private rate by a significant margin.
  • Ong, Paul M. "The Central Pacific Railroad and Exploitation of Chinese Labor", Journal of Ethnic Studies 1985 13(2): 119-124. ISSN 0091-3219. Ong tries to resolve the apparent inconsistency in the literature on Asians in early California, with contradictory studies showing evidence both for and against the exploitation of Chinese labor by the CPRR, using monopsony theory as developed by Joan Robinson. Because CPRR set different wages for whites and Chinese (each group had different elasticities of supply) and used the two classes in different types of positions, the two groups were complementary rather than interchangeable. Calculations thus prove higher levels of exploitation of the Chinese than do previous studies.
  • Saxton, Alexander. "The Army of Canton in the High Sierra", Pacific Historical Review, 1966 35(2): 141-151. ISSN 0030-8684 on Chinese workers.
  • Tutorow, Norman E. "Stanford's Responses to Competition: Rhetoric Versus Reality", Southern California Quarterly 1970 52(3): 231-247. ISSN 0038-3929 Leland Stanford and the men who ran the CPRR paid lip-service to the idea of free competition, but in practice sought to dominate competing railroad and shipping lines. Analyzing the period of 1869-1893, the author shows how Stanford and the CPRR associates repeatedly entered into pooling arrangements to prevent competition, bought out competitors, or forced rivals to agree not to compete. He concludes that Stanford and his partners viewed laissez-faire as applicable only to government controls, and not to businessmen's destruction of competition within the system.
  • White, Richard, "Information, Markets, and Corruption: Transcontinental Railroads in the Gilded Age", The Journal of American History 90.1 (2003)
  • Williams, John Hoyt. A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad (1988)
  • Goodwin, Neil, prod. The Iron Road. Video. Color. 58min. (The American Experience series.) Publication: Peace River Films, 1990. Distrib. by PBS Video
  1. ^ Stuart (1908). "Railroad Reorganization: Union Pacific," Harvard Economic Studies, p. 256.
  2. ^ LEO SHEEP CO. V. UNITED STATES, 440 U.S. 668 (1979)
  3. ^ George Kraus. Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific. Utah Historical Quarterly, Winter 1969, Volume 37, Number 1, pages 41-57
  4. ^ Ambrose, Stephen E. (2000) (paperback). Nothing Like It in the World. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. pp. 106. ISBN 0-7432-0317-8. 

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