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Building the Transcontinental Railroad: General Grenville Mellen Dodge

General Grenville Mellen Dodge
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Transcontinental Railroad

May 10, 1869 signaled an historic milestone: As the ceremonial golden spike was driven into the barren ground of the Utah desert, the blows could be heard in New York and San Francisco – in real time. Telegraph wires wrapped around spike and sledgehammer had been connected to cannons facing outward across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, which fired at the exact moment the spike’s signal came through the wires.

From then on, the United States would never be the same. For on that fateful, sunny day, the transcontinental railroad had been completed, linking the East and West coasts for the first time. The nation’s role as a world power was now firmly cemented. Yet without the significant contributions of a young civil engineer named Grenville Mellen Dodge, this monumental feat may have been postponed by decades.

Dodge was born in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1831, and graduated from Norwich University in 1850 with a degree in civil engineering. In 1851, at the age of 20, he was hired as a surveyor by the Illinois Central Railroad, which came to be known as the Rock Island. Relocating to Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the early 1850s, he supervised railroad construction throughout the state until the start of the Civil War.

When war broke out, Dodge joined the Union Army where he rose to the rank of general. General Dodge used his engineering skills to rebuild the bridges and railroads destroyed by Confederate forces. His leadership was critical in helping to move Northern troops more rapidly to the front lines.

After the war, General Dodge became a pivotal force in building a transcontinental railway system that would transport products, goods and passengers from one coast to the other. He eventually became chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad, where he was responsible for planning the route and building the railway line across the West beginning at Council Bluffs. The Union Pacific line would eventually connect with the Central Pacific line – which had started eastward from Sacramento, California – at Promontory Summit, in Utah. Once these two great railways met, travel times shrank overnight allowing settlement and land exploration to grow exponentially.

Within ten years of this historic moment, the railroad was shipping more than $50 million worth of freight coast-to-coast annually. It brought badly needed products from the East to the burgeoning population west of the Mississippi. And it ensured a production boom, as industry mined the vast and uncharted resources of the middle and western continent for use in production. In short, the railroad was our nation’s first technology corridor.

Grenville Mellen Dodge Image courtesy of Iowa Department of Transportation
A photographic portrait of Dodge Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Dodge, at right center, shakes hands with Samuel S. Montague Photograph by Andrew J. Russell, courtesy of the Library of Congress
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