May 01, 2001

Siberia's Iron Road

The Trans-Siberian, Then and Now

One hundred and ten years ago this month, Romanov heir-apparent Nikolai Alexandrovich stuck a spade in the ground at Vladivostok and emptied its contents into a waiting wheelbarrow. This formal act marked the start of the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century—the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, stretching across 7500 km and seven time zones, from Chelyabinsk in the Urals to Vladivostok on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

An iron road across Siberia had been under discussion in Russia for decades, but had been put off repeatedly due to the immensity of the task, huge state debts and contentious debate about the merits and effects of the endeavor. Finally, in February 1891, the promise of Far East colonies, Siberian riches, international prestige and commercial opportunities galvanized support in the government for the railway. The planning commission divided the railway into six separate lines, so that construction could proceed simultaneously on several fronts. Tsarevich Nicholas turned the soil and laid the cornerstone for the easternmost Ussuri line (running from Vladivostok north to Khabarovsk) on May 31, 1891. Within months, work had begun on the western sections of the railway.

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