A tale of two railroads

A few weeks ago, I gave my thoughts on the first Republican primary debate. This past week, it was the Democrats’ turn to take the podium. While we all waited with bated breath for Joe Biden to enter the auditorium on a motorcycle, or parachute in from the air, Bernie Sanders was trying to make socialism acceptable and Hillary Clinton was proving she is made of Teflon (which might explain her synthetic personality).

That might make for a great column, but honestly, I’d rather talk about something a little more exciting: railroads. Specifically, the Transcontinental Railroad.

Visionaries and dreamers had been spreading ideas about the possibilities and ramifications of a railroad that would connect east to west and serve to drive economic growth in the American west since the early 1800s. These plans faced numerous figurative and literal roadblocks, in the form of mountains, high plains, and hostile natives. With the development of shorter railroads east of the Missouri River and the spread of fortune seekers west in 1849, eventually the promise won over lawmakers and in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Enabling Act into law.

So it was set: the railroad would be built by two companies, one starting in Sacramento, Calif., the other beginning near Omaha, Neb./Council Bluff, Iowa, and they would meet at a site to be determined later. A central route through the United States had been selected as the best choice, given that weather would be a greater factor in the north, and the Civil War was raging on in the south.

The Central Pacific Railroad, beginning in California, was headed by a quartet of businessmen and entrepreneurs, popularly known as “The Big Four”: Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford. Huntington had listened to a presentation by Theodore Judah, a man who surveyed much of the western portion of the railroad and planned to seize control, died as he was securing the financial backing to stage his coup.

With the Union Pacific, as the builder of the eastern portion was called, Dr. Thomas Durant made sure that there was no diversified ownership group, claiming half of the company for himself. Though bylaws stated that no one could hold more than a 10 percent stake in Union Pacific, Durant convinced people to put their names on stock that he purchased. He then took the stock. His majority ownership gave him total control over the railroad’s operations, and a majority of the profits.

Durant was a dirty businessman, as a PBS American Experience documentary explains. He manipulated prices of railroad stocks he owned by spreading rumors about railroads connecting to the Union Pacific. He would find a depressed property, create market interest with lies, and then dump it. It is estimated that he made $5 million for his efforts.

He later set up a company called Credit Mobilier in 1872, which left several politicians of the day with tainted reputations. The company was made up of Union Pacific shareholders who granted contracts for construction related to the railroad. President James Garfield, then a congressman from Ohio, and the standing Vice President Schuyler Colfax were implicated.

Durant also had his ties to President Lincoln, having hired him as an attorney in 1857 to work on a case regarding a bridge over the Mississippi River in the same area that the eastern terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad was established. Durant had been buying property in the area for years, betting that the area would be selected for the project. Lincoln, after signing the law, was responsible for choosing the site.

The railroads were paid by the mile, ranging from $16,000-48,000, the amount paid being dependent upon the topography with which the crews dealt. Mountains brought the highest figure, and construction at grade level was worth the minimum.

Government oversight was understandably minimal at the beginning of the project, what with the Civil War threatening to tear the country apart.

After the war ended and Durant’s chief engineer, Grenville Dodge, returned to his post after his battlefield heroics, the Union Pacific began proceeding at a faster pace. Through the first two and a half years of construction, they had only moved 40 miles from their starting point. Fears of more intense federal monitoring also pushed the project at a faster pace.

The Central Pacific was faring almost as poorly, as they struggled through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California and battled labor shortages. One can imagine how arduous blasting through mountains with pick axes and black powder would be. Not to mention the danger.

Danger was also found in the natives encountered, primarily by the Union Pacific in the Plains. Tribes of the Sioux nation shed blood on both sides in their fight against the advancement of the “Iron Horse.” They quickly recognized the threat of this new development to their home and way of life.

Life on the trail soon became a microcosm of life anywhere else, except it was always on the move. Known as “Hell on Wheels,” there were entrepreneurs looking to get rich and some simply looking to make a living. There were preachers looking to save souls and doctors offering medical care. And human vices–greed, lust, violence, and racism–were prevalent.

Charles Crocker, of the Central Pacific, began hiring Chinese workers in response to the difficulty of finding reliable help. He needed 4000 workers, but could only keep around 800 at a time. He was able to overcome the concerns of his foreman, James Stonebridge. Resenting the competition, the Irish workers harassed their new co-workers. Through all of this, Chinese found favor with their bosses for their work ethic and attitude. They were also healthier and therefore more reliable. They ate fresh fruits and vegetables. They drank hot tea instead of regular water, which helped prevent dysentery that so often affected their Irish counterparts. And despite all of this, they were paid about 25 percent less than the white workers and had to cover their own food and boarding to boot.

But Crocker brought the group together enough to set a record on April 28, 1868—10miles of track laid. The group’s commander praised the effort, saying “Mr. Crocker, I never saw such organization as that; it was like an army marching over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.”

Seven years after beginning, on May 10, 1869, the two railroads met in Promontory Summit, Utah, where the ceremonious golden spike was hammered by Central Pacific’s Leland Stanford, to the joy of the hundreds gathered.

Over seven years and through blistering heat and bone-chilling cold and dangers of all kind, the two railroads had encountered obstacles that often serve to drive us apart—greed, fear, violence, and racism—and found a way to connect us.


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