Today, an engineer warns us there will be no more West. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
May 10, 1869: the place,
northern Utah, the same place my great-grandpa came
out of the Wasatch mountains less than 23 years
earlier. He was walking to California, with his
supplies on an ox cart. Officials are driving a
golden spike to join rail lines from Omaha and San
Francisco. All four of my grandparents were alive
the day that spike was driven. It was that recent.
Now passengers could buy a ticket all the way from
Omaha to Sacramento for $111. A trip that took
great-grandpa all summer, and put him deeply in
debt, could suddenly be made in 4½ days.
Congress had authorized the new transcontinental
railway during the Civil War. Historian Maury Klein
tells about an engineer surveying the route in
1868. He wrote in his diary,
The time is coming, and fast, too, when in the
sense it is now understood, THERE WILL BE NO
When railway crews followed, they pushed through
the forbidding dry highlands west of Laramie as
fast as they could. One crew boss wrote, "This is
an awfull place, alkalai dust knee deep and
certainly the meanest place I have ever been in."
Great-grandpa almost died of thirst when he crossed
that stretch. He desperately needed to go for
water, but he had to protect a pile of freshly
killed buffalo meat from a lurking wolf. And that
was just a few days after he'd passed the ill-fated
Donner party along the Platte River. They would
soon be snowed in, and starving to death, in the
That was 1846. Now, in 1869, track was being laid
and George Pullman was selling hotel trains to the
railway companies -- trains with sleepers, diners,
and drawing rooms. Now railways wouldn't have to
stop to feed their passengers. You could get all
the way from New York to San Francisco in only
The engineers did a fine job plotting a course
through that wilderness. The route had no grades
over 90 feet per mile. In a major overhaul 30 years
later, the Union Pacific hardly changed the
original roadbed. Good thing they didn't! The
railways had planted towns along the tracks to pick
up farm produce. They named them after baseball
players and European cities.
So the buffalo and prairie wolves disappeared. And
great-grandpa? Well, he didn't wait for the trains
to come. His adventure was over long before that.
He looked around in 1850 and felt the West was
already gone. He went back to Switzerland.
It was that quick. And I have to remind myself, in
the classroom, that I'm talking to students who've
never seen a steam locomotive -- nor, for that
matter, harnessed an ox or eaten meat they've
hunted. I have to remind myself that there really
is no more West.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
American Heritage of Invention &
Technology, Vol. 10, No. 3, Winter 1995. See
especially: Klein, M., The Coming of the Railroad and
the End of the Great West, pp. 8-17; and Razilowski,
J., Same Town, Different Name, pp. 20-21.
Lienhard, H., From St. Louis to Sutter's
Fort, 1846 (tr. and ed. by E.G. and E.K.
Gudde). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press,
From the 1881 Harper's
Image of the overland crossing before rail
on the thumbnail for a full size
From How we Built the Union
Pacific Railway, 1910
Driving the Golden Spike
Click on the thumbnail for a
full size image.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
An 1868 brochure on the yet-to-be-completed
Episode | Search
Episodes | Index |