The Transcontinental Railroad

American Experience
from PBS Home Video
120 minutes
ISBN 0-7936-9121-4

Our reviews department decided to branch out this month with a video review instead of our monthly book reviews.  This video came to our attention because Phil Sexton, who works at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento recommended it for the re-enactments of hard rock drilling.  Faithful readers will remember we were looking for information about how the drilling for the Summit tunnels was done and with what.  That’s another story though.

This video gives a good overview of both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads as they built the transcontinental.  They do not go into the detail that the various books on the subject do but it gives a different perspective just because it’s a video and so it’s visual.  It’s also faster than reading a book.

Through interviews with railroad historians, the use of 19th century photographs, beautifule contemporary photographs, quotations and re-enactments the viewer learns about the building of the railroad, the technical manifestation of Manifest Destiny.

The video covers the background or gold, the Civil War, military needs, and Congresss’ desires.  It goes into the personalities like Theodore Judah the salesman, visionary, surveyor, entrepreneur, and chief  engineer who actually started the ball rolling. 

Familiar stories are covered: The Big 4, Indians, criminals, graft and corruption, and the meeting point in Promontory Point Utah six years after the start in Saramento in August of 1863.

Finally the video covers the effects of the railroad to the Indians, the nation, trade, game, the environment, towns and development of the west, communication, and unification of the country.

It is a good introduction to the subject as it switches from Union Pacific to Central Pacific as it follows the history of the building.  The visuals and re-enactments should sit in your “mind’s eye” if you decide to delve further into the subject by reading any of the many book about the railroad.  You will find reviews of some of those on our website.

Maybe of most interest for us is the story of the crossing of the Sierra Summit.  The viewer learns about the Chinese, danger and living conditions; Tunnel 6; nitroglycerine; how much more difficult the Sierra challenge was compared to the UPRR’s work; how tunnel 6 was built; and the bypassing of the Summit so construction could continue in the Truckee canyon while Tunnel 6 was still being built.  There are a number of good scenes re-enacting hard rock drilling with tools like those used by the Chinese in 1866 and 67 when the Summit tunnels were being constructed.

All in all, the video is easily worth the $20.00.