Why They Really Built The Railroad


The celebration marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, was about uniting a country torn by Civil War, but long before that event, French composer Hector Berlioz suggested, tongue in cheek, why Americans were really so eager to unite east and west by rail. In his 1852 bestseller Evenings with the Orchestra, a character assures a friend that it was all about music, and about one performer in particular.

We simple Europeans had thought it was to be built just to facilitate the travel of the explorers of the New El Dorado. We were wrong. Quite the contrary, the idea was more artistic than commercial or philanthropic. Those hundreds of miles of iron roads were voted by the States to enable the pioneers wandering among the Rocky Mountains and on the banks of the Sacramento to come and hear Jenny Lind without wasting too much of their time over the indispensable pilgrimage.

But because of some odious conspiracy, the work was far from finished, was hardly begun in fact, when she arrived. It’s hard to come up with the right word to describe such carelessness on the part of the American government, and one can only imagine that she, as humane and caring as she is, complained bitterly about it.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

And so these poor seekers after gold, of every age and gender, had to make the long and dangerous continental crossing while already exhausted from their arduous toil, on foot, by mule-back, and to go through unprecedented sufferings. Placer mines were abandoned, gaping excavations sat untouched, the buildings in San Francisco remained unfinished, and heaven only knows when work was resumed.

This may be the cause of very serious disruptions in the commercial relations of the entire world.

Berlioz notes that, in the meantime, Jenny Lind withdrew from her contract with promoter P. T. Barnum, married a pianist, and retired from the frenetic world of musical stardom.

Related Stories