Crossing the Grand Sierras

Henry Clay Work, 1870

What is this song about? What route is the train taking? What is the "land of Gold"? California.

How does the trip start? At what city does it arrive at the end? What happens in between?

What does the "last great chain, which has striven in vain" in the first verse mean? What was so special about the Grand Sierras in the story of the West? It was the most difficult leg of the transcontinental railroad. What was "the story no nation sang before" from the chorus?

What language does Henry Clay Work use to bring the locomotive to life? What are some of the other metaphors he uses? Breath, steed, continental chorus, lightning.

What feelings does this song express? What phrases show the pride people had in being able to cross the continent?

How does Work make you feel you are on a train? Rumble, rumble; present tense; fast tempo. What were some of the long-term and day-to-day changes brought about by the railroad? How did the transcontinental railroad change farms, businesses, manufacturers, and the people who worked for them?


"Crossing the Grand Sierras" performed by the New York Vocal Arts Ensemble and on Listen to the Mockingbird © 1986. Available on iTunes and YouTube.

Raymond Beegle founded the New York Vocal Arts Ensemble in 1971. For thirty-five years the Ensemble toured the world and recorded vocal chamber works by master composers of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

View the lyrics for "Crossing the Grant Sierras."

View the published score.

America's fascination with the railroad, and the achievement of finishing the transcontinental railroad, were reflected in a wide spectrum of musical styles. Popular song composer Henry Clay Work, who had already found both commercial and artistic success in his Civil War songs, produced a dramatic vocal quartet that spoke to American pride and sense of manifest destiny in both words and music. While the words lauded the story that "no nation sang before," the lower voices imitate the sound of a train. The overall musical style reflects steady conviction.

This song is a "glee," a type of choral music favored by amateur and college singing groups in the nineteenth century. Composers of glees typically divided the text into small parts, each with a different number of voices and musical style.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Research how long it took to cross the Grand Sierras before and after the railroad went through. How long did it take to make the transcontinental trip by train? By wagon? By plane? Estimate the miles-per-hour averaged by each form of transportation.

rill: Small stream.

main: Ocean.