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The Origin of Time is of the Essence

Construction Science“Time is of the essence.” We see that phrase so often in construction contracts that we hardly give it a second thought. The origin of this phrase, however, is quite interesting. Indeed, it was the greatest construction project ever achieved in the United States: the transcontinental railroad. The project was deemed “impossible” at the time yet several larger-than-life individuals bet their personal fortunes that it could be done.

Perhaps even more audacious was to start such a monumental project while the Civil War was also underway. But you could argue that the Civil War made the transcontinental railroad possible. Southern States wanted a route along the thirty-second parallel line – i.e. within their territories. The North, not surprisingly, favored a more northerly route along the forty-second parallel. When the Southern States declared their independence, the North was free to pursue the route they favored.

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 provided a funding mechanism for the transcontinental railroad. It also created two of the largest companies in the United States that until then did not even exist: the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. Neither company was paid directly to build the railroad; instead land grants and Government bonds were earned for each 20-mile segment of track laid. The railroad companies would then sell the bonds and land to raise capital.

The Union Pacific started west from Omaha (the western terminus of existing railroads at the time) while the Central Pacific started east from Sacramento, CA. Even so, the Government would not say where the tracks should meet and avoided making this decision for several more years. As a result, the transcontinental railroad became a race, as the company that built the most track would reap the most rewards.

My wife and I live in the Sacramento area, but we also own property in Truckee, which sits 6,000 feet higher in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Riding the train today we are following for the most part the original route. Right before Truckee we pass near the original Summit Tunnel, more than 1,600 feet long and carved out of solid granite by the Central Pacific using nothing more than hand tools, black power and (occasionally) nitroglycerin.

Historian Stephen Ambrose described it this way in his book, Nothing Like it in the World:

“There was only room for gangs of three men. One would hold the rock drill against the granite, while the other two would swing eighteen-pound sledgehammers to hit the back end of the drill. Of all the backbreaking labor that went into the building of the CP and the UP, of all the dangers inherent in the work, this was the worst.

The drills lost their edge to the granite and had to be replaced frequently. The CP soon learned to order its drills in hundred-ton lots. The man holding the drill had to be steady or he would get hit by the sledgehammer. The man swinging the sledgehammer had to have muscles like steel. When the hole was at last big enough for the black powder, the crew would fill it, set a fuse, yell as loud as they could while running out of the range of the blast, and hope. Sometimes the fuse worked, sometimes it didn’t.”


The amount of black powder being used – up to 300 kegs per day – was not economical, “for the simple reason that the workers were told that time, not money, was of the essence.”


Even so, progress was often limited to six to twelve inches per day. To speed up construction, the Central Pacific began worked from four directions. They worked from the east side of the mountain as well as the west, and dug a shaft at the top of the mountain to start working east and west from inside the mountain.

Elsewhere, track was laid on frozen ground if necessary. The Union Pacific used wet cottonwood ties in many locations because it was the only wood available. Trestle bridges replaced more time-consuming embankments. It was understood that much of the track would have to be rebuilt within a few years. Given the choice of building it well or building it fast, Stephen Ambrose estimates that 90% of Americans would have voted to build it fast.

Towards the very end both railroads a competition developed over which railroad could lay the most track in one day. The Central Pacific won, laying 10 miles of track in one day – a feat that has not been equaled since. Mind you this was all done with horses, wagons and manpower. It was estimated that each of the eight track layers lifted 125 tons of steel that day. They laid 240 feet of track every 75 seconds.

The transcontinental railroad even changed our perception of time. Prior to its construction, local communities set their own time. But the railroad companies needed a “standard time” in order to publish schedules. Thus, the United States was split into four time zones. And for the first time in thousands of years, man could travel at a pace faster than a horse. The technology of the locomotive, combined with manpower, conquered space and time.