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Riding the Rails at Jamestown Library

Every time I take a trip on an airplane, I notice how little leg room I have. The airlines cram three seats on a side where there had been only two. If one has to go to the bathroom, one better not be very wide because the aisles are narrow. When I had to spend the night in Philly’s airport, boy did I suffer! At least I thought I was suffering. Then I read about the folks who worked and traveled on the First Transcontinental Railroad.

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, at Promontory, Utah. The presidents of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific met to drive in the ceremonial last stake. The Union Pacific had started in Omaha and worked west, using mostly Irish immigrants. The Central Pacific began in Sacramento and worked east, using mostly Chinese immigrants. It took almost six years to complete by hand. Or thirty years according to Bain’s Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad.

The first passengers had a rough time of it. They traveled thousands of miles in their seats. Only the wealthy had beds at night. It was hot and smoky. The food was often wild game, so “chicken” may really have been prairie dog meat. To get the real feel and sounds of the trip, read Brian Floca’s Locomotive which won the Caldecott gold medal and the Robert F Sibert silver medal.

Stephen Ambrose wrote Nothing Like It in the World: the Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. In it he profiles the men who had the dreams, the investors who risked their businesses to fund it, the politicians who understood its importance, the Irish and Chinese immigrants who worked on it, and the other laborers who did the dangerous work of laying the track.

Blumberg’s Full Steam Ahead is an illustrated history of the railroad, beginning in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act into law, until 1869 when the last spike was driven, uniting the two ends.

America: the Story of Us is a DVD which has a nice documentary of the railroad’s construction and use.

Several novels were written with this railroad as its setting. In Coolies by Yin, a young boy learns the story of his great-great-great grandfather who came from China to build the tracks. The Journal of Sean Sullivan tells the story of a fifteen year-old boy, as he experiences the hardships and rewards as he works with his Irish father. Dragon’s Gate by Laurence Yep is the story of a teen who accidentally kills a Manchu and is sent to America to build a tunnel for the railroad.

The next time I take a trip, I might be more grateful for the luxury. At least there will be air conditioning and no Indian attacks or prairie dogs for dinner. Join us at JPL for summer reading or traveling back in history.

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