FIRST & LAST: Pioneer S.P. Line and Its Only Surviving Builder, Celebrate Birthdays

May is an important anniversary month in the annals of Southern Pacific Company that the "last spike" was driven in the first transcontinental railroad, the line that is now the Overland Route between San Francisco and Chicago.

May is also the birthday month of Joseph M. Graham of Berkeley, California, who approaches his 95th birthday with the distinction of being the only survivor of the engineers who surveyed the route, plotted the townsites, constructed roadbeds, and otherwise had a part in directing the building from Sacramento to Promontory, Utah, during the '60's, of the first unit in Southern Pacific's system today.

Not only is Graham the recognized "dean" of the West's pioneer railroad builders, but his first employment as a "railroader" 90 years ago gives him claim to an honor he cherishes greatly-that of probably having launched his railroad career at a date earlier than any other person living in the country. When he was five years old in 1847 he worked regularly as a waterboy for one of the construction gangs building the first railroad out of Chicago

Schooling and then soldiering during the Civil War broke into the steadiness of youthful Graham's railroad work, but his mind was firmly set on what his life's vocation should be, and at every opportunity he was back with a railroad construction gang or an engineering party somewhere in Illinois.

Graham was born in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, near the town of Meadville, May 22, 1842. While still an infant, his parents emigrated to Chicago when the Illinois country was the frontier of the "Great West." His father, once a school teacher, had become a construction engineer. An older brother had acquired a practical education in engineering from books bought or borrowed and between them taught Joseph the fundamentals of engineering. The rest he learned through experience.

Civil War Veteran

When the Civil War began, young Graham was attending school at Fulton Seminary in Lewiston. He enlisted with the 17th Illinois Regiment and saw action at Iron Mountain and Shiloh, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.

Married in Peoria, Illinois, in 1867, he and his bride came to California by way of Panama. The Central Pacific Railroad (parent of S. P.) was then under construction in the Sierra and Sam S. Montague, whom Graham had known in Illinois, was the the chief engineer. Montague assigned the young engineer to a job on the line that was then moving eastward from Cisco and Graham remained at the railroad "front" until rails of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were joined at Promontory.

It was Graham's principal job on the old Central Pacific to supervise the grading and building of a roadbed in advance of the tracklayers. Both rival railroads were building toward each other as fast as human and animal strength permitted. Those were days of pick and shovel labor. Steam shovels and power tools had not come into being. It was hand labor, plus wheelbarrows, one horse dump carts and black powder; even dynamite was not then in use. Yet with these primative methods, the pioneer builders set records in tracklaying that have never been equaled. Ten miles of track was laid in one day-April 28, 1869.

Was "Daddy" of Reno

Leading the surveying and grading crews out in front of the tracklayers, Graham became the "daddy" opf several townsites created along the route of the Central Pacific across Nevada. Notable among these is Reno, where on April 1, 1868, Graham drove the first stake, plotting the streets and town lots around which the world's famous "biggest little city" has grown. He also set the stakes for the town of Wadsworth on July 1, 1868.

"There were no settlements of any consequence in Nevada along the line of the railroad," Graham states. "Winnemucca was a very small town. There was a wayside hotel at Humboldt and a little store at Mill City. Fairbanks Ranch was ten miles east of Winnemucca; then a little store and saloon at Golconda. We used to call this ranch the 'jumping off place,' for beyond it was barren country all the way to Corinne, Utah." Graham has long regretted not having been at the historic ceremony in the Promontory hills north of Great Salt Lake, when ex-Governor Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, drove the "last spike"in the railroad that linked the Pacific and Atlantic shores of the nation. Official business had called Graham back to Sacramento. There he joined townspeople in a day of celebrating, featured by a parade in which rode the eight burly railroaders who had laid all the rail that went into that climaxing master stroke when ten miles of track was completed in one day.

"Kept" 1,000 Miles of Track

After the Central Pacific was opened to overland travel, Graham returned to the Sierra and supervised reconstruction of some of the snowsheds and the building of several new sheds. Then in 1872 when the Track Department was organized, he became resident engineer with headquarters at Cisco and had supervision of maintenance over the line from Sacramento to Winnemucca. Later other divisions were added to his district, which by 1879 extended for nearly 1000 miles between Winnemucca, Redding and Benecia, together with several short branch lines.

Graham resigned from this position in 1881 to take an advancement with the Atlantic & Pacific (now Santa Fe) which company was then projecting its lines toward the Pacific Coast. He remained with that company but a short time before becoming assistant chief engineer of the Carson & Colorado Rd. (a narrow gauge line in Nevada now a part of the S.P.).

In later years Graham was connected with numerous important engineering projects in California and Oregon, and retired from active work in 1917.

Since that time he has made his home with his two daughters, Virginia and Louise, at 2510 College Avenue in Berkeley, where he has been active in Grand Army affairs and always welcomes the visitor who wants to chat about the old railroad days.



Courtesy of the Lynn D. Farrar Collection.

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum
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