Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Message Transmitted: Transcontinental Railroad Completed [otd 05/10]

On Monday, May 10, 1869, telegraph operators clattered a message all around the United States, East and West: “D-O-N-E”. That signaled the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The story of the vast national changes the rail line caused has been told and retold, in grand scale.
Meeting of the railroads, 1869. National Park Service.
But perhaps no other region, not directly on the new tracks, felt that impact as much as Idaho, although western Idaho didn’t hear about the event until days later. (Over five years would pass before Boise City and Silver City were linked to the main telegraph system.) The first public news of the link-up appeared in the Owyhee Avalanche in Silver City, Idaho, on Saturday, May 15. Buried on page three was a brief item that began: “Promontory Summit, May 10th – The last rail is laid, the last spike driven.”

Still, even before the Golden Spike Ceremony, the station at Winnemucca, Nevada had become a preferred link from south-central Idaho to California. Its station handled stagecoach and freight traffic in the fall of 1868, and there is some evidence that stockmen were also shipping animals to San Francisco.

Traffic soon increased substantially: Records show that cattlemen shipped over ten thousand head from Winnemucca to San Francisco in 1870-1871.

Further east, Corrine, Utah – about 60 miles north of Salt Lake City – became the transfer point for stagecoach and freight wagon traffic headed north to Montana. The first substantial cattle herds reached the settlement at Taylor’s Bridge (today’s Idaho Falls) within a couple years.

The town of Kelton, Utah – a few miles north of the Great Salt Lake – grew directly from the presence of the railroad. There, stagecoach and wagon traffic to and from Boise City could connect with trains that linked all the way to the East Coast. Before, a trip East to visit family or business associates could easily take a month or two. Now the same might be accomplished in a couple weeks – to us, still a lot, but it vastly reduced the people’s feeling of isolation.

Pioneer Charles Walgamott came west in 1875. He got off the train at Kelton to catch a stagecoach into Idaho. He wrote that Kelton was “ a mere speck in the desert, consisting of some half a hundred houses built around the depot, and large commission warehouses for handling the freight for Idaho. … Large ox and mule teams moved here and there, loaded for the interior, or preparing to load.”
Freight Wagons. Reminiscences of Alexander Toponce (1971).
Charlie was just one of many. The numbers tell the story. When Idaho Territory assumed something near its present shape, in 1864, the legislative census tallied about 19 thousand people. Boise City counted 1,658. But over the next six years, many of the “easy” placer gold fields played out. The 1870 U.S. Census for the Territory enumerated 17,760, a relatively small drop. However, Boise City suffered greatly. It fell to 995 (roughly a 40 percent loss).

Those census takers made their rounds about a year after the rails linked up. Little change could be expected that soon. Ten years, however, made a dramatic difference. The 1880 Census counted over 32 thousand people, an increase of about 84 percent. Boise practically doubled in size. Three years after that, the Territory had its own east-west railroad, and it became a state in 1890.
                                                                                 
References: [Brit]
Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like It In the World, Simon & Shuster, New York (2001).
“Census of 1864,” Reference Series No. 130, Idaho State Historical Society.
Fred Lockley, Mike Helm (ed.), Conversations with Bullwhackers, Muleskinners, Pioneers … , Rainy Day Press, Eugene, Oregon (1981).
J. Orin Oliphant, On the Cattle Ranges of the Oregon Country, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1968).
Charles S. Walgamott, Six Decades Back, The Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho (1936).

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