In September 1868 both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific had departed the high mountains and were building across relatively level but difficult terrain. In Wyoming, the UP worked to cross the Red Desert between the two continental divides—one west of Rawlins and the other east of Rock Springs. Water in this Great Basin flows neither to the Atlantic nor the Pacific—it simply sinks into the earth. By the end of the month the UP’s tracks would be approaching Green River, beyond Rock Springs, over 700 miles from Omaha. In Nevada the CP picked up its pace as it headed into the northern desolation of that state. The Truckee River flowed north at the new railroad town of Wadsworth, and no surface water existed until the tracks were well past the Humboldt Sink. By the end of September, the CP’s tracks extended over 300 miles from Sacramento.
Both railroads were large consumers of water. Locomotive tenders had to be replenished every ten to twelve miles to produce the steam that drove the engines. The railroads erected water tanks at refueling stops spaced along the tracks at that necessary interval. Several of these locations expanded into the towns and cities of today. Not only did the locomotives require water, but the thousands of workers and the hundreds of animals needed the life sustaining liquid. Horses and mules pulled the supply and maintenance wagons that accompanied the graders and the tracklayers. The UP trailed a large cattle herd alongside the construction train to feed the Irish workers. Because the Chinese workers were not large beef consumers, the CP did not have this requirement.
In the Red Desert of Wyoming there was no surface water and drilling wells was problematic for the UP. In Nevada, what little water flowed in the streams was so alkaline that it was not usable. Animals refused to drink it, while humans did so only for survival. Boiler tubes corroded rapidly, diminishing or halting the performance of the locomotives. Both the UP and the CP resorted to hauling water long distances in tankers. Unlike modern tank cars, in the 1860s a flat car (called a platform car at that time) was altered to carry three large wooden tub-like water tanks.
Bear Claws, the second book in The Iron Horse Chronicles trilogy, follows Will Braddock as he works to help build the first transcontinental railroad across Wyoming.