Railroad with Irish Roots Turns 150

The A.J. Russell Image of the celebration following the driving of the last spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869: the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). Because of temperance promotion at the time, the liquor bottles held in the center of the picture were removed from some later prints.

By Mary Gallagher, Assistant Editor
May / June 2019

The 150th anniversary of connecting the First Transcontinental Railroad was commemorated in a two-day celebration in a remote spot in the Utah desert called Promontory Point, where the final spikes connecting the track’s east and west branches were hammered into place on May 10, 1869. The railroad was six years in the making, with the physical labor conducted largely by Irish and Chinese immigrants.

Irish Ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall was a special guest at the commemoration, which honored specifically the manual workers that constructed the railway, with the Irish contribution numbering approximately 10,000 men.

Ambassador Dan Mulhall toasting the Irish laborers who helped build the railroad.

“Theirs was a magnificent contribution to the making of modern America,” said Ambassador Mulhall, speaking at a dinner that the Hibernian Society of Utah hosted to mark the occasion. “Those railroad workers were drawn from the six million Irish immigrants who crossed the Atlantic between 1840 and 1900, escaping from famine and seeking better lives for themselves and their families. They and their descendants became part of the fabric of modern America,” he said.

The ambassador toasted all the laborers whose efforts were a significant step in making a fiercely intimidating and dangerous land mass traversable, which brought the country closer together in both travel and communication.

The Last Spike, painting by Thomas Hill (1881).

The iconic railway was constructed by two separate companies: the Union Pacific company moving inland from the east, and Central Pacific from the west. The arduous labor earned an average monthly wage for the Irish of about $45, while the monthly wage for a Chinese worker averaged about $30, an unfathomably low rate by today’s standards, especially considering the tremendous effort that led to productivity as high as laying 10 miles of track in a single day.  ♦

Return to Labor Day 2020 to read more.

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