Early in the nineteenth century America was beginning to rapidly expand to the west, and the railroads were to play a major role. Seeking labor for the construction the Irish were viewed by the Americans as a valuable kind of emigrant to the United States; cheap labor and a way to increase the population in the west.
An article in Niles’ Weekly Register dated July 22, 1822 titled ‘Irish Immigrants Wanted’ portrayed the attitude of the Americans towards the Irish. The Americans felt that they were saving the Irish from the horrible living conditions in Ireland at the time. By immigrating to the United States the Irish would be able to obtain permanent relief, by their labor in the prairies and the west, constructing the expanding railroads. Although unspecified it is thought that around 6,000 emigrants would be required each year.
With the end of the Civil War in 1865, the plans for an intercontinental railroad were put in motion. The labor required was extensive. Besides the main laborers who laid the track an entire network of support, including cooks, medical staff, and supply managers were needed. Irish immigrants were the primary early builders of the Central Pacific Railroad, which ran west to east from Sacramento, California. Irish workers were paid $35 a month, and a living space (tent). They also received company-provided boiled beef and potatoes and drink of both water and alcohol. Dysentery was a major concern and the threat of avalanches in the mountains would kill workers living in tents instantly. Many workers found this unsuitable and simply walked off the job. This resulted in the Central Pacific hiring Chinese workers to replace them.
In the east the Union Pacific Railroad began construction in Omaha, Nebraska and headed west. By 1866 the Union Pacific had managed to import Irishmen from among the thousands of demobilized soldiers living in the teeming cities on the east coast, and eager for work. The men were paid according to responsibility. Teamsters and graders were paid the least and ironworkers the most. Like their counterparts on the Central Pacific they received a staple diet of beef, bread, and coffee.
Personal hygiene was all but unheard of and waterborne illness such as dysentery was often a serious concern. Conditions were squalid. One member of the crews remembered, “To tell the truth, we all had the cooties”. Another major concern were raids by Native Americans who were not pleased with the railroads construction, and would often attack and scalp the workers.
In the early days there was little to keep the men entertained but liquor. As the railroad progressed westward the phenomenon called ‘Hell on wheels’ followed. Small towns rose up along the line where purveyors of vice found a captive audience.
Despite all the problems the two railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869 and drove the Golden Spike. Later that year the final leg to the west coast, with tracks leading from Sacramento to Oakland was completed. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad many of the Irish workers settled in the west thereby increasing the population of cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle.