The Transcontinental Railroad in Images and Poetry

by Sandra Trenholm

Unit Objectives

Students will

  • analyze a variety of primary sources related to the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
  • investigate celebratory images and a poem to discover some of the key outcomes that arose from the ability to move easily and quickly from coast to coast.

Lesson 1


Students will

  • analyze engravings about the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
  • discover some of the key outcomes that arose from the ability to move easily and quickly from coast to coast.


  • Image Analysis Worksheet
  • Engravings Packet
    • “A Good Square American Smile,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 5, 1869. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-124424
    • “Does Not Such a Meeting Make Amends?” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 29, 1869. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC2-747
    • “Completion of the Pacific Railroad, May 10, 1869,” Harper’s Weekly, May 29, 1869. Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC01733.11.
  • Venn Diagram
  • Transcontinental Railroad Fact Sheet
  • Overhead projector or similar display device

Historical Background

Congress authorized the building of the transcontinental railroad with the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and gave away large land grants to two railroad companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to help fund the project and to settle the West. In 1863 the Central Pacific began laying track eastward from Sacramento, California, and in 1865, the Union Pacific started laying track westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The connection of the railroad lines at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, marked an important moment in the history of the United States. It provided a critical link between the East and West Coasts that reduced the cost and time of travel across the continent for both people and merchandise.


  1. Explain to students that they will be thinking like historians and analyzing engravings from two 1869 newspapers. The engravings show ways in which the transcontinental railroad impacted society when it was completed on May 10, 1869.
  2. Distribute engravings and image analysis sheet to the students. There are three engravings included in the packet.
  3. Divide the class into pairs or small groups. Have the students look at the first engraving in the packet and work together to fill out the image analysis sheet.
  4. After students complete their analysis, display the first image for the class using an overhead projector or other device.
  5. Ask students to share their findings with the class. Record their findings on an image analysis sheet.
  6. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the second image.
  7. Next look at the “Challenge Image” and image analysis worksheet and have students look at the image for a minute. Working as a class, analyze the image. Guide students to discover the role of the people surrounding the center image.
    • The image at the center top is “Columbia.”
    • The groups of people traveling up the side of the image represent countries in Asia (on the left-hand side) and Europe and Africa (on the right-hand side).
  8. Instruct students to compare and contrast the three images using the image analysis sheet as a guide. What elements are similar? What is different or unique? As a class, fill out the Venn Diagram to illustrate their findings. Tell students to put words describing the images in the circles:
    • Words associated with only one image should be put in the outer section of the circles.
    • Words associated with two images should be placed where two circles cross or intersect.
    • Words associated with all three images should be placed in the center where all three circles intersect.
  9. Have students determine four significant impacts of the transcontinental railroad and explain how that impact is shown in the images. Possible impacts could include:
    • Uniting the nation
    • Commerce
    • American Indians
    • Global impact
  10. Distribute the Transcontinental Railroad Fact Sheet.
  11. Harper’s Weekly frequently had short articles accompanying their engravings. Instruct students to write a one-paragraph news summary to accompany one of the engravings. You can also ask them to write a longer article that makes use of more than one of the engravings. They may use the fact sheet to enhance their articles.
  12. Additional assignment: The students can create a poster that commemorates the opening of the transcontinental railroad focusing on one of the significant impacts they identified in step 9.

Lesson 2


Students will

  • analyze a poem about the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
  • explore the language and imagery in the poem.



  1. Distribute the poem and the Transcontinental Railroad fact sheet. Instruct students to read the poem silently.
  2. “Share read” the poem by having the students follow along silently while you read aloud, modeling prosody, inflection, and punctuation. Have the students join in with the reading after a few lines.
  3. Instruct students to draw a vertical line in the text each time a speaker changes and to identify the speaker in the left-hand column.
  4. Working in small groups, the students will underline the words or phrases that they think are the main idea of each stanza.
  5. As a class, have the groups share their work and explain why they made their choices.
  6. Assign one of the first six stanzas to each group. (The last stanza is excluded here, because it repeats lines from the first stanza.) Each group will find key words that create imagery and record it in the right-hand column.
  7. Have each group share their key words with the class.
  8. As a class, discuss how the words and phrases tell the story of the building of the railroad.
  9. Distribute the “Joining of the Rails” photograph.
  10. Explain to students that this photograph was taken on May 10, 1869, at the official joining of the rails ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah. What elements in the photograph are also in the poem?
  11. Using the key words and phrases from the poem as a base, have students create a poster to celebrate the opening of the railroad.

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