The History of the Union Pacific Railroad (Part One)


One of the most recognized railroads in the world, the Union Pacific maintains 32,000 miles of track in 23 states, and owns a roster of roughly 8300 locomotives, making it one of the largest class one operators in the United States. It is also the oldest operating railroad to still use it’s original name. 

We’re going to look at the history of the mighty Union Pacific across a two-part mini-series, starting with why it was built, and who built it.

How Did the Union Pacific Railroad Come into Existence?

The Union Pacific came into existence on July 1st 1862. The company was founded and funded as a result of the Pacific Railroad Act, signed on this date by then President Abraham Lincoln. The Act was later amended in various forms between 1863 – 1866.

Why Was the Union Pacific Railroad Built?

While many believe the primary inspiration for the Union Pacific Railroad was the American Civil War, which took place from 1861 – 1865, the planning behind the railroad began a decade earlier, headed up by the US War Department in an effort to unite the developing nation and preserve the union. The US Government was keen for there to be closer ties between the Pacific states and the rest of US, and for transportation of goods to be easier and quicker than the existing 6-month timeframe. 

Based in Omaha, Nebraska, the Union Pacific was tasked with working west. At the same time, the Central Pacific railroad, also chartered in 1862, would begin construction heading east from Sacramento. 

While the Union Pacific Railroad broke ground in December 1863, the first rails were not laid until after the end of the Civil War. Due to a lack of money at the time, the mood was sombre, as many workmen had lost their jobs. Subsequently, it took weeks for the workmen to lay even the first mile of track, although throughout the remainder of 1865 and into 1866 a total of over 300 miles were laid.

Although difficulty in construction increased once the tracks reached the Rocky Mountains, the increased skill of the laborers meant that a further 240 miles of track were laid in 1867, with a further 555 laid over the next two years.

The Union Pacific Railroad would join with the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10th 1869, creating the United States’ first transcontinental railway and allowing travel from Omaha to the San Francisco Bay area in a matter of days. 

2019 saw the 150th anniversary of this historic meeting, and of course, we couldn’t pass up being there. Check out our Youtube video of the full reenactment here! 

Who Built the Union Pacific Railroad?

Most of the work to construct the Union Pacific was carried out by immigrant Irish labor. The work was largely done manually with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. While the speed of construction points to quite a slow and laborious process, competition between the workers of the two railroads spurred progress, with the Central Pacific breaking the Union Pacific’s record of six miles laid in one day, by constructing 10 miles in a 24 hour period, just days before the famous meet in Promontory.

Initially, Omaha was used as the logistics base for the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, however as work progressed, every few miles supplies would be moved to a “forward point”, with horse and mule drawn carriages then transporting the materials needed to the specific work point.

Was Building the Union Pacific a Smooth Project?

Join us here at the ModelTrainStuff Blog next week as we explore the obstacles faced in building the Union Pacific, the impact it has had on the American economy, how it has evolved into the 21st Century, and how it came to operate some of the world’s most legendary locomotives!