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The Union Pacific Railroad is the largest network of railroads in the United States with over 32,000 miles of rails spreading over 23 states. The company originated as a charter by President Abraham Lincoln with the goal of building a transcontinental railroad. The company continues to thrive, having celebrated its 150 anniversary in 2012.


  • Current Map of Union Pacific railroads
  • Map of the Southern Pacific railroads before merging with Union Pacific
  • Union Pacific heritage unit based on the design of a well-known Southern Pacific passenger carriage.
  • One of the Union Pacific train carriages.

            President Abraham Lincoln chartered the Union Pacific Railroad company in 1862. The company was entrusted with 6,400 acres of land and $48,000 in bonds for each mile of the railroad, starting from the Missouri River and traveling west.[1]  The Central Pacific Railroad Company was chartered to build the railroad extending from California’s coast eastward.[2] On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad met the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, celebrating the completion of the transcontinental railroad.[3] 

            The Union Pacific Railroad Company continued to construct railroads across the country, but over the next several decades, the company faced several devastating scandals, eventually falling into bankruptcy in 1893.[4] It was due to the efforts of E.H. Harriman, the president of the Union Pacific, that the company returned to business by 1898.[5] Harriman invested wisely in improving the safety and the quality of the railroad.[6] Harriman was rumored to have inspected “every mile, every station, every flatcar and engine” to check for problems, and all were fixed.[7] Because of his business decisions and dedication to the railroad, the company returned to the railroad industry as one of the top companies.[8]

            In 1901, the Union Pacific expanded its rails once more, with the purchase of 38% of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company shares, allowing it to control the company.[9] The Southern Pacific Railroad was founded in 1865 and completed the second transcontinental railroad along the United States’ southern border.[10] The Southern Pacific’s rails extended from Portland, Oregon to New Orleans, Louisiana.[11] The Southern Pacific rails also extended to northern Louisiana, with the northernmost track ending in Alexandria.[12]

            The Union Pacific continued to operate thousands of miles of railroads with little opposition until 1912, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Union Pacific was in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and forced the company to sell the Southern Pacific shares.[13] This ruling meant the Southern Pacific was separated once more from the Union Pacific and resumed separate control of the railroads.[14]

            The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 allowed the railroads to merge with other national railroads without government interference, one of the many acts passed to attempt to deregulate the railroad industry.[15] By 1990, only nine Class I railroads (annual operating revenues: < $450,000,000) were in operation, a classification both the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads fell under, though a few decades earlier two dozen Class I railroads existed.[16] Throughout the 1990s, several of these Class I railroads took advantage of the more economical practice of merging, and several companies merged to form new companies.[17] The Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads were able to merge in 1996 under the Staggers Rail Act.[18]  The resulting company is the largest United States Railroad, with over 32,000 miles of rails extending across 23 states.[19] In 2012, the Union Pacific celebrated 150 years of existence since Lincoln’s charter.[20]

[1] "Timeline” Union Pacific, last modified 2012, accessed February 14, 2019. https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm/. 

[2] https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm.

[3] https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm.

[4] https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm.

[5] https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm.

[6] https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm.

[7] “Edward H. Harriman,” PBS, last modified 2001, accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/harriman/1899/1899_part/participantharriman.html.

[8] https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm.

[9] https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm.

[10] "Southern Pacific Railroad" United States History, last modified 2018, accessed February 14, 2019. https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1817.html.

[11] https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1817.html.

[12] https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1817.html.

[13] https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1817.html.

[14]https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1817.html.

[15] Dr. Brian Slack, “Rail Deregulation in the United States,” The Geography of Transport Systems, last modified 2017, accessed March 19, 2019. https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=9468.

[16] https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=9468

[17] https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=9468

[18] https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=9468

[19] "Company Overview” Union Pacific, last modified 2019, accessed February 14, 2019. https://www.up.com/aboutup/corporate_info/uprrover/index.htm.

[20] https://www.up.com/timeline/index.cfm.