July 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of a critical piece of legislation
that literally established the foundational transportation system of
the United States. The first Pacific Railway Act was signed into law by
President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862 and established the Union
Pacific Railroad Company
to build the first transcontinental railroad, west from the Missouri
River. The Central Pacific Railroad was also authorized to lay railroad
track from the Pacific Ocean and moving east.
The question of “internal improvements” to the country’s transportation
system was constantly before Congress in the 19th century. In the 1850s
Congress commissioned several topographical surveys 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 first Pacific Railway Act, which designated the 32nd parallel as the
initial transcontinental route and awarded alternating 10 mile sections
of land to both railroads along their lines. The sale of which was
supposed to offset construction costs.
Union Pacific broke ground at 7th Street and Capitol Avenue in Omaha in
1863 and, at the height of construction, employed 10,000 Irish, German,
and Italian immigrants, as well as thousands of Civil War veterans.
Central Pacific employed over 10,000 Chinese workers and began laying
track from Sacramento, California. On May 10, 1869, in a ceremony at
Promontory Summit, Utah, the last rails were laid and the last spike
driven connecting the eastern and western coasts of the United States.
In a special exhibition from July 1-31, 2012, The Durham Museum will
display three pages of the 1862 Pacific Railway Act on loan from the
National Archives, alongside several other railroad artifacts from
Omaha’s own Byron Reed Collection. “The National Archives and Records
Administration regards the Act as one of 100 “milestone documents” in
our nation’s history, and it has obviously had a momentous impact in the
history and growth of our city,” said Christi Janssen, The Durham
Museum’s executive director. “To have the Pacific Railway Act here on
July 1, exactly 150 years after it was signed into law and created Union
Pacific, is truly extraordinary.”
The Byron Reed artifacts have never before been exhibited. Highlights
will include Reed’s license to be a commercial broker in Omaha, signed
1862; a letter from former Omaha mayor George Armstrong to Byron Reed
during the former’s service in the Civil War inquiring about Union
Pacific’s progress in laying railroad track and the growth of Omaha;
and, an 1862 letter to U.S. Navy flag officer A.W. Foote from James
Buchanan Eads, who oversaw design and construction of the Union’s iron
clad naval vessels during the Civil War, and who later in life
constructed the first road and rail bridge across the Mississippi River.
This historic display is made possible thanks to the generosity of the Union Pacific Corporation.
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