Celebrating the Civil Engineering Project That Transformed the Country

The Transcontinental Railroad, one of the great infrastructure triumphs in U.S. history, turns 150 years old May 10.

The ASCE History and Heritage Committee is celebrating with the Golden Spike 150th Anniversary history symposia, May 5-6, in Sacramento, CA.

Among the speakers is renowned civil engineering historian and ASCE Distinguished Member Raymond Paul Giroux, whose previous lectures highlighted such landmark projects as the Golden Gate Bridge, Panama Canal, Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and the Eads Bridge.

His talk, “The Bridges, Tunnels, and Track of the Transcontinental Railroad,” will outline why he thinks the railroad is even more remarkable, even more forward-thinking than most civil engineers already realize.

Giroux talked with ASCE News about the civil engineering project that united the country.

ASCE News: What’s something you’ve learned that maybe surprised you in doing research for your Transcontinental Railroad lecture?

Paul Giroux: When many people learn about the Transcontinental Railroad, there is usually some casual understanding of the complexity of effort required to plan the route. I do not feel that most published historical accounts of the route planning really do it justice.

The variables that dictated a good railroad track system and alignment were complex, with infinite possible options to evaluate. Indeed, civil engineers led the way, exploring and surveying the potential routes.

Yet, beyond the surveying process, original documentation indicates civil engineers took into consideration social and political factors as well as technical feasibility and financial viability of differing route options. Further, they made detailed analysis of the differing amount of construction effort and cost required for the bridges, tunnels, and tracks for the route options.

Remarkably, they did this all with manual surveying and analysis methods, all with great accuracy.

ASCE News: What in particular should civil engineers be most proud of when it comes to the history and innovation of the Transcontinental Railroad?

Giroux: In the mid-19th century, the civil engineering profession was in its infancy in the United States. In fact, the 1850 U.S. Census listed only 572 civil engineers in the entire country.

The body of knowledge for railroad design and construction was rapidly evolving at this time. We should all be proud of the courage, skill, resourcefulness, and fortitude of the civil engineers who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. Their efforts not only helped build the 1,800-mile Transcontinental Railroad, but also influenced the body of knowledge at a very transformative time in the profession.

ASCE News: What lessons do the Transcontinental Railroad teach us about how the civil engineering profession can evolve going forward?

Giroux: In an age of specialization in the civil engineering profession, the story of the Transcontinental Railroad reminds us of the importance of understanding the entire process to plan, design, and construct any project.

The civil engineers of the Transcontinental Railroad were resourceful, relying on all of their knowledge and skill to make sound judgments and solid structures. Further, they were ever mindful of the importance of improving cost and schedule through the use of extemporaneous temporary structures and work-around solutions to advance the railroad while permanent solutions could be developed off of the critical path. Great stuff!

Paul Giroux will be speaking around the country throughout the year, including at the Stanford Historical Society May 7 and delivering the annual David Hunter Lecture June 6 at the ASCE Structural Engineering Institute New Orleans Branch.

Learn more about ASCE’s Golden Spike 150th Anniversary history symposia.

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