The Pacific Railroad was one of the most significant and ambitious American technological feats of the 19th Century. There were other transcontinental railroads built in later years. However, the Central Pacific Route is regarded as the most important, and the enduring legacy of railroad engineer, Theodore Judah.
The first train rode through Illinoistown (as Colfax was once known) in September of 1865.
The railroad became a vital link for traders, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of the United States. The advancement of the railroad opened up expansion opportunities in the West, bringing more population in and further enraging the Native Americans. Rail service ended slow and often dangerous stagecoach rides. Today, Interstate 80 follows the train route through Placer County and across the Sierra Nevada.
With thousands of people engaged in the mining industry, the railroad experienced a severe labor shortage to hammer the nails and lay the track. The railroads recruited primarily Chinese immigrant laborers. After discovering the immigrants to be hard workers, the railroad searched throughout California for additional Chinese immigrants to work. For 10 to 12 working hours every day, the workers earned $1 to $3.
Governor Leland Stanford broke ground on January 8, 1863 in Sacramento. When the lines reached the Sierra, workers blasted through tunnels through the mountains. The Chinese built 15 tunnels. The blasts were often followed by deaths from snow slides and avalanches. Six years later, on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific met at Promontory Summit in Utah. The golden (last) spike was driven with great ceremony. The news was instantly telegraphed to newspapers across the country.
After the railroad was complete, many Chinese immigrants sent for their families still in China and relocated to San Francisco to settle into businesses as laundryman or restaurateurs. Others moved to the mines. Some had saved their earnings and left for home, returning to their life in China.
The railroad station is located at 99 Railroad Street at Church Street in Colfax.
To learn more about the development of the Central Pacific Railroad, visit the Newcastle Railroad Station. Read about the “Big 4” railroad barons in Auburn. Visit Dutch Flat to find out the early development of the Railroad and the contribution of Dutch Flat to Placer County history. To see historic train cars and guided tours, visit the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.
Placer is a Spanish word describing surface mining. Gold that had been “placed” in streams or on the ground through natural erosion was processed by planning, rocking, and similar techniques. Such mining efforts made Placer County residents some of the richest in California.