On May 10, 1869, the golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, by Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific. The spike was the symbol uniting the country under the first transcontinental rail line by joining the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads.
Building of the transcontinental railroad began in 1862, with passage of legislation by Congress and the granting of charters by President Lincoln to the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. Congress authorized loans to both on favorable terms, as well as awarding large swaths of public land. Construction was slowed by the Civil War, but got underway in earnest in 1866. The Union Pacific laid track west from Omaha, Nebraska, relying on Irish immigrants to lay track across the Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. The Central Pacific laid track east from Sacramento, employing Chinese immigrants to lay track over the Sierra Nevada mountains into the Rockies. The transcontinental railroad reduced travel across country from months to less than a week.
In 1875, Congress passed the General Right of Way Act, codified at 43 U.S.C. §934 (2008). For more information on railroad rights of way, use ProQuest Congressional to read a copy of Pamela Baldwin, Cong. Research Serv., RL32140, Federal Railroad Rights of Way (2006).