The 10 Greatest Plans The World Has Ever Seen – Number 9

The idea behind this series of articles is to review some of the greatest human achievements and how they were made real by people who, at the outset, had a simple plan, who took project planning really seriously and had a true “getting things done” attitude. The rankings are the results of a small survey and of course I would love to hear your views and suggestions for candidates and plans that I have missed or discounted. So let’s continue with Number 9…

The number 9 slot is occupied by the First Transcontinental Railroad across the USA

The development of a complete trans-American railroad was the result of a long-term movement that started in 1832 when Dr. Hartwell Carver, an American doctor and businessman, published an article in the New York Courier & Enquirer advocating the “Building of a transcontinental railroad from Lake Michigan to Oregon”. In 1847 he went to the US Congress to ask for a charter to build it and although initially rejected, in 1856 the Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph of the US House of Representatives recommended its adoption primarily in order to maintain control over its position in the Pacific and to avoid the need to use seaborne routes through waters controlled by other nations.

The ultimate goal of the project was to complete a 1,907 mile (3,069 km) contiguous railway that connected the Pacific coast at San Francisco Bay with the then-existing Eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa on the Missouri River. The line was opened on May 10, 1869, with the driving in of what was called the “Last Spike” with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit in Box Elder County, Utah which itself was at an elevation of 4,902 feet (1,494 m) above sea level. The route ultimately revolutionised the settlement and economy of Western parts of the US by drawing these areas more firmly into the “Union” and making the transportation of goods much faster, flexible and more cost effective than before.

To seed a collaborative solution, two companies, the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad, were chosen with Central Pacific starting in Sacramento and building east across the Sierra Nevada, and Union Pacific building westward from the Missouri River. There was a simple business plan. The project was funded by the issuance of 30-year U.S. government bonds to private investors. The bonds were planned to be paid back (and were in full) by the sale of government granted land and future passenger and freight income. The bonds had different values per mile dependent on the terrain being covered to ensure that the challenges of the land were overcome. They were set at $16,000/mile for level track, $32,000/mile for track laid in foothills and $48,000/mile for track laid in mountains. Getting materials to the Pacific end of the railway proved tricky. All supplies had to be effectively exported 18,000 miles from the East coast to Sacramento either via ship round Cape Horn (100-200 days) or across the nascent parts of the Panama Canal (40 days). The material then had to travel 130 miles (210 km) up the Sacramento River to the terminus.

Provisions in the Acts of Congress drawn up to deliver the project were made for telegraph companies to enable them to combine their existing lines with the Railroad’s telegraph lines as they were built. These lines provided rapid communication for ordering more supplies or particular types of men with specific skills and all for scheduling the trains which had to go both ways on a single track. Of course a railway needed other infrastructure and so a 400 feet (120 m) right-of-way grant on either side of the track was granted to build stations, sidings, yards, maintenance buildings and while some of this land had the potential for mineral mining or was farm or forest land the majority of it was valueless desert.

Key to Success
Apart from the immense government funding needed to convert such a project the main key to success seemed to have been the people. Such a project needed lots of engineers and surveyors and these were on hand mainly as Union and Confederate Army veterans who had built, protected and maintained the rail network in the East during the Civil War and as result already knew most of what had to be done and how to direct workers to get it done. Indeed most of the semi-skilled workers on the Union Pacific railway were recruited from the ranks of ex-soldiers on both sides of the war alongside emigrant Irish workers who were escaping poverty and famine in Ireland. The Central Pacific employed many emigrant Chinese manual labourers for construction who were themselves escaping the poverty and terrors of the Taiping Revolution in the Kwangtung province in China.

Travel on the new railroad which cost $50m began five days after its completion. Before it was built it cost nearly $1,000 dollars to travel across the country but after the railroad was completed the price dropped to $150 dollars. And despite the toil and effort put in by all the workers there were two separate fares, one for ‘immigrants’ and one for first class.

Top 10 List
Number 10 – The Channel Tunnel
Number 9 – The First Transcontinental Railroad

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