Most of us work in pretty safe environments, or take reasonable safety precautions to remain in one piece as we do our jobs. You probably don’t think much about how the things you buy are made, either, or how things came to be. Railroads are no exception. If you take a train, you probably don’t think about how the track was laid, or what the land shooting past your window looked like before the tracks were put down.
Nowadays, most of the work is safely done using machines designed for the tasks at hand: better and safer equipment to drill through difficult terrain that would be hard to avoid, track-laying machines, tamping machines, and many others. It is a much less labor-intensive and much more cost-efficient process than it used to be. But how did it used to be?
Railroads were so necessary back in the Industrial Revolution that huge populations of immigrants came to the United States to help lay the tracks alongside Civil War veterans. They worked in some pretty terrible conditions as they struggled to lay the tracks much of the United States relied upon for years (think about it: if you had lots of goods you wanted to send from the east coast to the west coast of the US, you either had to put it on stagecoaches and hope it got there eventually, or you had to put it on a ship and send it all the way around South America.)
And why where these conditions so tough? Aside from there being no safety regulations in place or rules for hours and pay, in cases like the Transcontinental Railroad, it was a race. The Union Pacific company started in the east and worked their way west, while Central Pacific started in California and worked its way toward them from the other direction. When you’re getting paid by how much track you lay and you know there’s somebody on the other side doing “your” work, you are going to work people pretty hard to get the job done.
These men were hand-drilling holes (sometimes even lowered into holes to expand them with a rope and bucket) in the through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and then blowing them up with black powder. It took forever, was exhausting, and very very dangerous. When the workers tried to revolt to get at least some more money for the job, their food supplies were taken away. It took the men about 6 years to lay the 1,900 miles worth of track, and with it came new cities, new time zones, and a new way to travel. Estimates vary widely about how many died, with numbers as high as 1,200 on each side. Some deaths were due to accidents or other job-related hazards, but other deaths were due to things like the terrible weather or smallpox outbreaks. Since these numbers were not recorded, anything you read is conjecture.
Every time I see tracks on the ground or ride through a tunnel, I think of these brave people who changed the face of this country. Their efforts are nothing short of amazing.