Sarah Vowell: The Transcontinental Railroad, a Multitude of Stories

Sarah Vowell describes the multitude of histories in the story of the transcontinental railroads, including Chinese laborers, Westward expansion, and dispossession of Native land.


Sarah Vowell is the New York Times’ bestselling author of seven nonfiction books on American history and culture. By examining the connections between the American past and present, she offers personal, often humorous accounts of American history as well as current events and politics. Her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, explores both the ideas and the battles of the American Revolution, especially the patriot founders’ alliance with France as personified by the teenage volunteer in George Washington’s army, the Marquis de Lafayette.


mean, to me, one of the great or maybe great, isn’t the word big, um, one of the big stories of American history is the transcontinental railroad. And I went, um, I guess it was a couple of years ago now to the 150th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike and you talk and that story. So it just contains so many multitudes for me. I mean, for one thing as a westerner there’s there are just a few weeks in 1862. I think it is, uh, when Abraham Lincoln, within a few weeks, he signs the Pacific railway act. He creates the department of agriculture. He signs the land grant colleges that, um, the Morill Act, to establish the land grant colleges. And I went to one of those Montana state university right here. And, um, that’s the one I’m forgetting. I’ll remember it in a second, um, railroad. Oh, and the homestead act, which, you know, I’m sure there are, um, I’m sure there are American Indians watching this right now who love a lot of these topics. You know, the homestead, the railroad, these were not, um, These were not really good for, uh, our American Indian brothers and sisters. However, in terms of human achievement, the transcontinental railroad is, is a wonder. And when I was there specifically, uh, you know, this great moment in Chinese American history and when I was there at that ceremony, uh, you know, it was a big deal. 20,000 people were there, Mitt Romney was there. Um, and, uh, one of the speakers is a woman named Connie, you and her grandfather or great-grandfather and forgetting was one of the Chinese railroad road workers. You know, all the, the, most of the workers who built the tracks coming from Sacramento to Utah were Chinese. And her father had been to the. One of her parents. Might’ve been, her mother had went to the 100th anniversary celebration in 1969. And the, her mother, father, I think it was her mother was the only Chinese, uh, railroad descendant who was there, you know, at this thing a couple of years ago, there were just busloads of Chinese Americans who were there and like Baskin Chinese American glory. And, um, and the guy, American history, if you have a kind of ironic sense of humor, uh, it does feed that where, uh, the guy who was there with her parent was the, I think they had. The most major Chinese American organization in the United States of time. And he was supposed to speak in 1969 at the official ceremony, but he got bumped because John Wayne showed up. And so this woman, Connie, you, she stands up and she says, I’m an American here to talk about American history. And she talked about, there was one day where the Chinese, and then there were also some Irish workers on that line. They, they laid the most railroad track in the history of the world in one day. And she talks about this moment of cooperation and hard work and achievement. And you cannot help, but get caught up in that. You know, I, I talked to her later and I just feel. So fortunate that I was there to witness her telling her family story, but then obviously the transcontinental railroad, there were just tons of skirmishes with the tribes along the way. And, um, you know, and also in terms of like telling the ecological story, the story of the building, the transcontinental railroad is the story of deforestation. It just took so much, uh, timber to build the cars, to make the railroad ties, to use us fuel, to run the, the steam locomotives. And so it just, you know, ripped up the trees, um, no Western AF the United States to build this thing. So, but then the, you know, the basic story of the golden spike and the two coming together, the Eastern. The Eastern railroad connecting the east coast to the west coast four years after the civil war. Um, as the historian, Jon Meacham, who was there, he gave the keynote and he said, uh, something like America was unified. Uh, if not in spirit, in fact, and like, it’s this moment of, you know, the two, the two, the two coasts coming together of the country healing in a way, you know? And so in that sense, that site becomes a place where you contemplate the state of the country, like how, which is always about to fall apart. And the first time I had I’d been there once before, and it was right after the Oklahoma City bombing, which was a very discouraging time in terms of like, You know, the country falling apart and to be there at this place where it came together was, you know, quite meaningful. So there, there are just, uh, every story, there are so many stories in, there are so many points of you and, uh, I just don’t believe in one unified theory of history, it’s just all, you know, it is like being a sculptor and you just keep chiseling and you just keep chiseling away.

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