No end point had been set for the two rail lines when President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, but a decision had to be made soon. By early 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were closing in on each other across northern Utah, aided by a Mormon workforce under contract to both companies. But neither side was interested in halting construction, as each company wanted to claim the $32,000 per mile subsidy from the government. Indeed, at one point the graders from both companies, working ahead of track layers, actually passed one another as they were unwilling to concede territory to their competitors.
At the eastern end of the project, and his assistant, , surveyed the potential route the Union Pacific would follow. They recommended a line that would follow Platt River, along the North Fork, that would cross the Continental Divide at South Pass in Wyoming and continue along to Green River. President Lincoln favored this route and made the decision that the eastern terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad would be Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska.
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While the Central Pacific fought punishing conditions moving eastward through mountains, across ravines, and through blizzards, the Union Pacific faced resistance from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes who were seeing their homelands invaded and irrevocably changed. The railroad workers were armed and oftentimes protected by U.S. Calvary and friendly Pawnee Indians, but the workforce routinely faced Native American raiding parties that attacked surveyors and workers, stole livestock and equipment, and pulled up track and derailed locomotives.
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Huntington and his partners paid Judah to survey the route. Judah used maps from his survey to bolster his presentation to Congress in October 1861. Many Congressmen were leery of beginning such an expensive venture, especially with the Civil War underway, but , who was a long time supporter of railroads, agreed with Judah. On July 1, 1862, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, authorizing land grants and government bonds, which amounted to $32,000 per mile of track laid, to two companies, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.
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The Central Pacific's Big Four formed their corporation with a similar arrangement, awarding the construction and supplies contract to one of their own, Charles Crocker, who, for the sake of appearances, resigned from the railroad's board. However, the Big Four owned an interest in Crocker's company and each of them profited from the contract.
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In 1859, Judah received a letter from Daniel Strong, a storekeeper in Dutch Flat, California, offering to show Judah the best route along the old emigrant road through the mountains near Donner Pass. The route had a gradual rise and required the line to cross the summit of only one mountain rather than two. Judah agreed and he and Strong drew up letters of incorporation for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. They began seeking investors and Judah was able to convince Sacramento businessmen that a railroad would bring much needed trade to the area. Several men decided to back him, including hardware wholesaler and his partner, ; dry goods merchant, ; and wholesale grocer, soon to be governor, . These backers would later come to be known as the "Big Four."
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The race between the two companies commenced when the Union Pacific finally began to lay tracks at Omaha, Nebraska, in July 1865. (A bridge over the Missouri River would be built later to join Omaha to Council Bluffs, the official eastern terminus.) Durant hired Grenville Dodge as chief engineer and as construction boss. With tens of thousands of Civil War veterans out of work, hiring for the Union Pacific was easy. The men, mostly Irishmen, worked hard and well, despite going on strike occasionally when Durant withheld their pay over petty labor disputes.