Just about every California school kid knows the story of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which connected the Eastern Seaboard with the Pacific Coast and was completed 150 years ago this week.

Leaders of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines meet and shake hands in this iconic photograph taken by Andrew J. Russell on May 10, 1869. (Image credit: Stanford University Archives)

The story goes that on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad’s tracks from the west were connected to the Union Pacific Railroad’s tracks from the east in Promontory Summit, Utah. University founder Leland Stanford completed the First Transcontinental Railroad with a last tap of a mallet on a ceremonial gold spike.

In the words of Hilton Obenzinger, associate director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford, the railroad completion was the first mass media event in the United States. After the connection was made, telegraph messages celebrating the accomplishment went out, launching festivities nationwide.

That’s because the railroad was not simply a new mode of transportation, according to James Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History. The railroad was also a way of transforming space and time – a transformation that necessitated, for instance, the creation of standardized time zones. It was the quintessential 19th‑century innovation, reflecting power and promise and replacing the brute strength of human labor with ingenuity.

“The Transcontinental Railroad has a place in the U.S. imagination not because of what it actually did, but because of what Americans imagined it to be: a symbol of national progress, of American imagination and intrepidity,” Campbell told a recent symposium assessing the railroad’s impacts and sponsored by the Stanford Historical Society and Stanford Continuing Studies.

Good and bad

As time passed, romantic visions of the First Transcontinental Railroad have given way as hindsight revealed both its good and bad elements. The railroad is credited, for instance, with helping to open the West to migration and with expanding the American economy. It is blamed for the near eradication of the Native Americans of the Great Plains, the decimation of the buffalo and the exploitation of Chinese railroad workers.

Either way, Stanford is forever linked to the First Transcontinental Railroad through its founders, who built the university memorializing their son using the fortune they had earned from the Central Pacific Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

“There is no question that this is truly a transformative event, not only for Stanford University, but also for the nation,” said Laura Jones, director of heritage services, university archaeologist and president of the Stanford Historical Society, which has spearheaded events marking the anniversary.

“This story has Leland Stanford right in the middle of it,” she said.

In addition to the Stanford Historical Society, departments across campus have sponsored lectures, book celebrations, exhibitions and performances noting the anniversary to shed light on the railroad’s legacy and show how institutions can reconcile problems of the past with the values of today.