Skip to main content

California Gold Rush, Pony Express, & Transcontinental Railroad Lesson

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.

Building the Transcontinental Railroad Activity

Building the Transcontinental Railroad Activity

This is part 3 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Westward Expansion and Pioneers. Pan for "gold," bake Gold Rush Sourdough Biscuits, race to deliver mail on the Pony Express, build the Transcontinental Railroad out of craft sticks, and more! My lessons are geared toward 3rd-4th grade level children and their siblings. These are lessons I created to do with a weekly homeschool co-op. We meet each week for 2 1/2 hours and have 27 children between the ages of 1-13. Use these fun lessons with your class, family, after school program, camp, or homeschool co-op group!

How does God want us to work at any job we are told to do?

How does God want us to work at any job we are told to do?

Devotional: Working Hard

1. Stretch, pray, & read Colossians 3:23-24. Say something such as: What is your mom’s or dad’s job? What are some of the jobs that you have? What are some jobs that you have that you really, really, really do not want to do? When your mom tells you to do those things, do you sometimes whine or complain or just not do it at all? In the 2 verses that we just read, how does God want us to work at any job we are told to do? (with all your heart). When any of us are doing our jobs, whether it’s mom cooking dinner, dad working at the hospital, or you cleaning your room, for whom are you really working? (the Lord) The Bible says, “It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” When you work with all your heart at whatever you do, and you do it for the glory of Christ, you will receive and inheritance from the Lord as a reward. God might bless you here on earth, or He might bless you in heaven. He will reward you, though. We have learned about the attentive frontiersmen and explorers and the resourceful pioneers. They all had to work very hard, didn’t they? Today we’re going to talk about some other people who had to work very hard. Who has seen railroad tracks? Railroads were built all across the United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Do you know how they got there? Men had to lay down the heavy rails and nail them in place. One of the reasons pioneers wanted the railroad tracks to go all the way to the Pacific Ocean was because in 1848 gold was found in California. Thousands of people wanted to try to strike it rich by finding gold. Do you think they worked at finding gold with all their hearts? Many of them did. Do you think God blessed some of them by allowing them to find gold? Yes, He did. We might not be doing hard work like panning for gold, but we should still work hard at whatever job we have. Everything, even the most mundane task, can be used to bring glory to God and therefore holds specific importance.

Sourdough ready to be divided and kneaded

Sourdough ready to be divided and kneaded

California Gold Rush Sourdough Biscuits

2. Begin making California Gold Rush Sourdough Biscuits. Divide children into groups OF 4-5 and have each group make a batch of the below recipe. Allow the children to do all the dumping, mixing, etc. (*If you don't know of anyone who already has sourdough starter, you can either make your own sourdough starter or just have the children make buttermilk biscuits. I made my own starter, which I began a week ahead of time. You can also "cheat" by mixing together some yeast, flour, water, and sugar the night before if needed.*)

-As children are kneading their dough, tell them that in 1848 gold was found in California and then in 1896 gold was discovered in Alaska. It was usually men who headed out West to search for gold. They wanted something quick, easy, and filling to make and eat so that they could spend most of their time looking for gold. Many of them enjoyed sourdough biscuits. They couldn’t go out and buy yeast, baking powder, or baking soda in the store like we can today. They had to keep a sourdough starter, which was used as leavening for biscuits, bread, and pancakes. Sourdough starter is made of a mixture of sugar, flour, water, and usually a few boiled potatoes. A little sourdough starter was added to each batch of dough to make it light and fluffy. Remember that yeast is alive, so they had to feed their starter occasionally with flour to keep it alive so that they would always have some to make their breads, biscuits, and pancakes. The gold miners wouldn’t have used the baking powder and baking soda that we will be using, but we are going to use them to help the biscuits rise faster so that we will be able to eat them before class ends.

Each group will make this recipe:
1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/3 cup butter, cold

1 cup sourdough starter

Sift together flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Cut in the butter. Mix in sourdough starter. Give each child a square of wax paper. Sprinkle flour on it and on their hands. Give each child a portion of the dough and let them knead it for 1-2 minutes. Have them divide shape their dough into 2 rounded biscuits. Place them on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Cover them with a towel and let them rise for 30 minutes. Bake at 425°F for 12-15 minutes, until slightly brown.

YOU WILL NEED 1 SET FOR EACH GROUP OF 4-5 CHILDREN: flour (at least 3 cups), salt, baking soda, baking powder, 1/3 cup butter, mixing bowl, mixing spoon, measuring spoons and cups, wax paper, non-stick cooking spray, large baking sheet, kitchen towel, and sourdough starter

California Gold Rush Introduction

3. Use pictures from “When Gold Fever!: Tales from the California Gold Rush” by Rosalyn Schanzer to talk about the California gold rush.

YOU WILL NEED: book: “When Gold Fever!: Tales from the California Gold Rush” by Rosalyn Schanzer


Levi Strauss

4. Have all the children line up in a straight line facing the person in front of them. Tell them to raise their hand if the person in front of them is wearing jeans. Then tell them to keep their hand raised if the person in front of them in wearing Levi jeans. Briefly mention how jeans were created by Levi Strauss when he realized that gold miners were in need of durable pants as they searched for gold. His business is still in existence today.

Scroll to Continue
Panning for gold activity

Panning for gold activity

Pan for Gold

5. (Prep: Fill the storage bin with about 1 foot of water. Dump in your “gold nuggets” and rice/sand.) Divide the children into groups of 4. Allow them to pan for “gold.” Each child needs a metal pie plate or bowl and a plastic sandwich bag. Instruct the children to scoop up the “rocks” using the pie plate, swirl around the water, pick out “gold,” place them in the sandwich bag “pouch” so that other miners don’t steal it, dump the rest back in the water, and collect another scoop. Allow children to dry off afterward.

YOU WILL NEED 1 SET PER GROUP OF 4 CHILDREN: large plastic storage bin (such as a 28 or 58 qt storage bin), a large box of uncooked rice or white playground sand (to act as the silt of a river), a few large handfuls of “gold nuggets” (such as yellow glass beads, pebbles spray-painted gold, yellow craft beads, frozen corn kernels, etc. -- preferably something the children can keep), 6 plastic sandwich baggies, at least 1 towel & item brought by families: pie plates or plastic bowls

Another Favorite Book on the California Gold Rush

Pony Express Introduction

6. The men who headed out to California to find gold wanted to stay in contact with their families, many of whom were living thousands of miles away. They did not have telephones or e-mail back them. How do you think they communicated with each other? [Let some children guess.] They had to write letters. Someone had to deliver those letters. For a few years those letters were delivered by the Pony Express. Read "Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express" by Eleanor Coerr.

YOU WILL NEED: book "Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express" by Eleanor Coerr

Passing along the mochila while reenacting the Pony Express

Passing along the mochila while reenacting the Pony Express

Pony Express Reenactment

7. Act out the Pony Express. Have each child wear their pioneer hat and toy gun (optional). They should have their riding toy (bike, stick horse, skateboard, etc.) that they will pretend is a horse. They might need their gun if they are attacked by raiding Indians, buffalo stampedes, thieves, or wild coyotes while on the route. (If desired, parents or teachers can pretend to be raiding Indians and can chase some of the children.)

-Space out the children so that they stretch from the road in the front of the school, down the breezeway, to the road behind the school. These spots will be the changeover stations where a fresh “rider” will be to receive the mailbag and take it on the next leg of the journey.

-(If you have a large group of children and not much space, you can divide the children into 2 teams that are fairly equal in age and have them race.)

-Give the first person the mochila (a purse) and have them ride it the next person, who will continue on with the mochila to the next person, and so on. After each person has delivered the mochila, they should wait at their "station" to rest because they will eventually be delivering the mail coming from California.

YOU WILL NEED: 2 purses (preferably brown leather but any will do) with a few envelopes inside and items brought by families: bike/ riding toy/stick horse, pioneer hats (optional), & toy guns (optional)

***Put the biscuits in the oven if you haven’t done so already.***

More Great Pony Express Books

Even though the Pony Express only lasted about 18 months, it is an exciting part of American history. There are so many wonderful books written about the Pony Express! We also enjoyed, "The Sweetwater Run: The Story of Buffalo Bill Cody and the Pony Express" by Andrew Glass, which is a 48 page picture book that tells the story of the young Buffalo Bill racing across the country to spread the news of Abraham Lincoln's election as President.

Transcontinental Railroad Introduction

8. Eventually the Pony Express was no longer needed when tracks were laid across the United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This was called the Transcontinental Railroad. Read the main parts of “You wouldn't want to work on the railroad! : a track you'd rather not go down” by Ian Graham.

YOU WILL NEED: book: “You wouldn't want to work on the railroad! : a track you'd rather not go down” by Ian Graham

Building the Transcontinental Railroad Activity

Building the Transcontinental Railroad Activity

Building the Transcontinental Railroad Activity

Building the Transcontinental Railroad Activity

Building the Transcontinental Railroad

9. Build a model of the Transcontinental Railroad. (These directions are from "Going West!" by Carol A. Johmann)

-Lay a line of cardboard down the middle of the room on the floor. Tell the children that the cardboard represents American land from Missouri to California.
- Have the girls stand on one short side of the cardboard. The girls will represent the Central Pacific. They will begin in Sacramento, California and will build eastward.

-Have the boys stand at the other short side of the cardboard. The boys will represent the Union Pacific. They will begin next to the Missouri River near Omaha, Nebraska and will build westward.

-Space out all the children so that they will each have a section of cardboard on which they will work. Make sure to keep the girls on one side and the boys on the other side. Have the oldest children work in the middle and the youngest child work closest to the beginning of each side.

-Give each child handful (about 25) craft/popsicle sticks.
-Explain that railroad workers used a T-shaped gauge to position the rails on the ties to make sure they were straight and properly placed.

-Have each child break off a short piece off one popsicle stick and glue the longer piece to another stick to make a T.
-Explain that after a bed of stones and sand was prepared, heavy wooden ties were dropped on it. Surveyors then leveled each tie.

- Have the children pour a couple lines of glue along the cardboard and then glue the popsicle sticks along the cardboard about 1 finger (2 inches) apart. The distance doesn’t have to be exact.

-Tell the children that a cart pulled by a horse supplied the rails. It took 5 men on each side to lift a single iron rail and drop it onto the ties. They used the T-gauge to make sure the rails were spaced the correct distance apart. Then they hammered spikes through the rails into the ties.

-Give each child about 10 pipe cleaners or straws. These will represent the rails. Have them lay the pipe cleaners/straws (the “rails”) along their popsicle stick “ties.” They can use their T-gauges to position them.

-The staples will represent the spikes. With the stapler opened, have them staple the pipe cleaners/straws through the ties into the cardboard.
-The Central Pacific group’s tracks should eventually lead up to the Union Pacific group, and each group’s tracks should form a continuous track.

-Explain that when the two companies finally met up at Promontory Summit, Utah , they had a huge ceremony to hammer in the last spike that would connect the two rails together.

-Pick one volunteer from each side (a girl and a boy) to finish the connecting track. Give them each a yellow thumbtack as the “golden spike” to connect the two rails together.

-Mention that they actually used 2 gold spikes. As soon as the ceremony was over, they replaced the gold spikes with regular ones so that the gold wouldn’t be stolen.

YOU WILL NEED: a big box craft/popsicle sticks (at least 840), 280 pipe cleaners or straws, 2 yellow/gold thumb tacks or brads, large piece of cardboard & items brought by families: glue and staplers



California Gold Rush Sourdough Biscuits and Review

10. Sanitize children’s hands. Serve biscuits with jam and tea “from an empty powder keg.” Tell the children that the workers on the Transcontinental Railroad would of course get very thirsty. Some workers would walk up and down the line with a powder keg, which was a barrel that had been used to hold gunpowder. After all powder was used up, they cleaned the barrel and filled it with tea. They served the tea to the workers as they built the railroad.
YOU WILL NEED: jam, sweat tea, hand sanitizer, cups, napkins, & plastic knives

11. 5 Minute review of what we’ve learned: What is something the gold miners ate? (Sourdough biscuits) Tell me something you learned about the California Gold Rush. [Allow at least 5 children to answer.] What was delivered on the Pony Express? (mail) What was a danger a rider would face while on the route? (Native Americans, buffalo, thieves, coyotes, etc.) Tell me something you learned about the Pony Express. [Allow at least 5 children to answer.] Name one of the companies that helped build the Transcontinental Railroad. (Central Pacific & Union Pacific) Tell me something you learned about the Transcontinental Railroad. [Allow at least 5 children to answer.] What was your favorite activity from today? [Allow all children to answer.]