All Aboard: Making Connections with the Transcontinental Railroad



Students will

  • Read and understand primary source writings from two key documents that encouraged settlers to go west and that established congressional support of what would eventually become the transcontinental railroad.
  • Use a graphic organizer to guide them as they read and analyze the legislative acts.


Historical Background

Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862 to encourage settlers to “go west,” claim land, and create a homestead. The same year, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act to authorize government bonds and land grants to corporations (rather than states) that would develop and build railroads across western lands. With the establishment of a greater population and improved transportation, many changes swept across the country.


  1. Distribute copies of the excerpts from the Homestead Act of 1862.
  2. “Share read” the text with the students by having the students follow along silently while you read aloud, modeling prosody, inflection, and punctuation. Ask the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while you continue to read aloud. This technique will support struggling readers and English language learners (ELL).
  3. Distribute copies of the Graphic Organizer for the Homestead Act. A key excerpt from this document is selected for the students to use to identify key words and conditions of the act. Model expectations by completing this first graphic organizer with the class. Lead the students in a discussion of the key words that define the act. Then, guide them through an analysis of the impact of the words and complete the “deeper meaning” section of the organizer.
  4. Students continue the same work on the Pacific Railway Act of 1862.



Students will analyze and interpret photographs and other images as primary sources using the same strategies employed in Lesson 1.


  • Image Packet of photographs and other illustrations
    • Joining of the Rails, Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869, by Andrew J. Russell, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC04481.01
    • Union Pacific Railroad officers at Promontory Point, Utah, May 10, 1869, photograph by Andrew J. Russell, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC04481.05
    • “East End of Tunnel, Weber Valley,” Plate 39, The Great West Illustrated, by Andrew J. Russell, 1869, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC04348
    • “Work on the Last Mile of the Pacific Railroad—Mingling of European with Asiatic laborers,” sketched by Alfred R. Waud, Harper’s Weekly, May 29, 1869, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC01733.11
    • New Map of the Union Pacific Railway, Rand McNally and Company, Chicago, 1883, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, DC, G3701.P3 1883 .R36 RR 595
    • Covers, Union and Central Pacific Railroad Line. The Great American Over-land Route, Rand, McNally & Co., Chicago, 1879, Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Map Collection, under Creative Commons 3.0
    • “Indian viewing railroad from top of Palisades. 435 miles from Sacramento,” by Alfred Hart, ca. 1865–1869, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-50744
    • “Dutch Flat, Placer County. 67 miles from Sacramento,” photograph by Alfred Hart, ca. 1865–1869, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-56969
    • “American Progress: Westward the Course of Destiny,” by George A. Crofutt after a painting by John Gast, 1873, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC2-1332
  • Image Analysis Worksheet

Historical Background

Photographs are a key primary source, and images of the ceremony at Promontory Summit and of railroad workers help people gain insight into the gravity and significance of the people involved in this event and the impact it had on America.

This iconic photograph records the celebration marking the completion of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, when Leland Stanford, a cofounder of the Central Pacific Railroad, connected the eastern and western sections of the road with a golden spike. This “joining of the rails” was the culmination of work begun when the Central Pacific began laying track eastward from Sacramento, California, in 1863, and the Union Pacific started laying track westward from Omaha, Nebraska, in 1865. To meet its manpower needs, the Central Pacific hired 15,000 laborers, of whom more than 13,000 were Chinese immigrants. These immigrants were paid less than white workers and, unlike their white counterparts, had to provide their own lodging. The crew had the formidable task of laying the track across California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, blasting fifteen tunnels to cover 1,776 miles with 4,814 feet of new track. A close study of the photograph reveals that the Chinese workers were excluded from the photograph. This absence encourages students to consider how photographs reflect choices made by the artist—and to question accepting photographs as complete or comprehensive records of historical events.


  1. Lead a class discussion on the first two photographs of the Golden Spike Ceremony and model analysis of photographs.
  2. Distribute copies of the photographs or post in the room and allow the students to walk around and study the pictures. Some of the images can be enlarged and seen in greater detail online; link are provided in the Materials list above.
  3. After reflection, students will select two other images to analyze, and they will complete the graphic organizer on each of the two photographs.
  4. Lead a class discussion focusing on the details of the transcontinental railroad and the significance of the railroad as revealed in these images. Analyze the intent and message of each photograph or illustration and discuss how these primary sources impact the students’ understanding of the transcontinental railroad and the challenges and changes it brought to America.
  5. At the conclusion of the discussion, students will write a paragraph (or more if appropriate) that addresses the following question: Explain the changes America faced because of the development of the transcontinental railroad. How could those changes be seen as both positive and negative?