The High Cost and Remarkable
Challenge of Building the CPRR Across the Sierras, and the Deserts of Nevada
Lewis M. Clement’s 1887 Statement to the U.S. Pacific Railway Commission
Included in the Commission’s massive nine volume report issued later
that year is the following statement by Lewis M. Clement submitted by CPRR
President Leland Stanford as an exhibit to his testimony. (It should also
be noted that Stanford was now also a U.S. Senator having been elected
to the Senate from California in 1885.) In a little over 2,000 words L.M.
Clement gave a remarkable and insightful account of the high costs and
logistical challenges that the CPRR faced in building across the Sierras
and the deserts of Nevada and Utah during and in the wake of the Civil
War — and still finishing this greatest of all Nineteenth Century American
building projects a full seven years ahead to the 1876 deadline
set by Congress in the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862! —BCC
EXHIBIT NO. 8.—Statement of L. M. Clement, civil engineer, relative to cost of construction.
SAN FRANCISCO, JULY 21, 1887.
HON. LELAND STANFORD,
President Central Pacific Railroad Company:
DEAR SIR: At the beginning of the construction, the company, knowing the political and commercial necessities demanding the rapid completion of the railroad, determined that nothing which was in their power to prevent should for a single day arrest its progress.
With this determination in view all energies were bent, fully realizing the physical obstacles and financial difficulties to be overcome.
The financial difficulties were not lessened by the opinions circulated to the effect that the obstacles were insurmountable; that the railroads then constructed in Europe were as bagatelles compared with the difficulties to be met in constructing the Central Pacific Railroad, and failure was clearly written on the rocky sides of the cañons and the bold granite walls of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Not only was it impossible to construct a railroad across the Sierras via Donner Pass, but owing to the great depth of snow, some years reaching an aggregate fall of nearly 50 feet, would be impracticable to operate, and if built must he closed to traffic in the winter months, which would have been the case had not the road been protected at great cost by snow sheds.
Against these utterances from men of railroad experience the company had to battle in financial circles, forcing them to show that they were not attempting an impossibility, though always realizing the great difficulties.
As soon as the company went into the American market for rail, for they were shut out from the other markets of the world by their charter, the prices raised 80 per cent., from $41.75 to $76.87 per ton, nearly three (3) times the price of steel rails two years ago.
It must not be forgotten in discussing these questions that the Central Pacific Railroad was begun a quarter of a century ago and has been completed over eighteen (18) years. We should consider the state of affairs, circumstances, and conditions then existing. The average price of American iron rail during the building of the road (no steel rail was then made and think none till the last year of its construction) was $91.70 per ton at the rolling mills.
This rail had to be transported to San Francisco via Cape Horn or the Isthmus of Panama, and lightered for transportation to Sacramento, Cal., the initial point of the Central Pacific Railroad.
Shipments via the Isthmus, as late as the year 1868, cost for transportation alone on rail, $51.97 per ton, the rail costing, delivered at Sacramento, $143.67, not including charges for transfer from ships at San Francisco to the lighter, nor for transportation up the Sacramento River. Delays and losses of ships and their cargo of railroad material via Cape Horn and unforeseen emergencies made it necessary to frequently use the Isthmus route, that there should he no detention in the progress of the railroad eastward.
During construction, by reason of high war risks, transportation rates advanced 275 per cent. per ton.
Via the Isthmus, for freight alone, there was paid as high as $8,100 for one locomotive.
On a shipment by the latter route of eighteen locomotives the transportation charges were $84,466.80, or $4,692.50 each.
For two engines, twenty-two years ago, there was paid $70,752 in the currency of the United States. This was an extreme case, but the power was absolutely necessary to supply materials needed for construction; without these engines there would lie delay.
The first ten engines purchased by the Central Pacific Railroad Company cost upwards of $191,000; the second ten upwards of $215,000.
The demand for power after the first 25 miles of road were constructed was great, as then were met the high mountain gradients.
The freight via Cape Horn to San Francisco only, on the first locomotive purchased by the company, was $2,282.25.
Not only was all the material for railroad construction commanding high prices, labor also shared in the advance in prices. California's laborers were mainly miners, accustomed to work in placer mines or not, as it suited them. Mining was more to their liking than the discipline of railroad work. They were indifferent, independent, and their labor high-priced, and to these difficulties the excitement of the great Comstock lode was upon us, where any able-bodied man commanded $4 or more per diem.
Labor sufficient for the rapid construction of the Central Pacific Railroad was not then on the coast, and the labor as it existed could not be depended upon — the first mining excitement meant a complete stampede of every man, and a consequent abandonment of all work. This labor question as well as others were serious ones. Each day brought up propositions which must be solved without delay; the construction must advance.
As the snow line was broached the snow increased in depth toward the summit, from a few inches to over 15 feet on a level, from actual measurements. The ground was kept bare for the graders by shoveling, upwards of one-half of the labor, and after storms, the entire grading force being expended in removing snow. Not only was it necessary to remove the snow to permit excavation, but the space to be occupied by the embankments was cleared and kept clear of snow otherwise the melting of the snow under the broad bases of the high embankments would have caused serious settlements, which, on ascending gradients already of 105 or 106 feet per mile, would in cases increase the gradient beyond the tractive power of the engine. There was a limit to this snow shoveling as the altitude increased, and this limit was reached when it required an army of men to clear away and keep clear after each storm, for a small gang of laborers. As we neared the summit of the Sierras winter was again upon us, granite tunnels to bore, deep rock cuttings to make, and retaining walls to construct.
Rock cutting could not he carried on under snow drifts varying in depth from 20 to 100 feet. It was decided, no matter what the cost, that the remaining tunnels should be bored during the winter. To reach the faces of the tunnels the snow drifts were tunneled and through these snow tunnels all rock was removed. Retaining walls in the cañons were built in domes excavated in the snow — the wall stones raised or lowered to their places into the dome through a shaft in the snow.
All the force, numbering thousands, could not be worked in the tunnels and on the retaining walls. The surplus men with their tools, luggage, &c., were hauled beyond the summit, skipping the line now covered with deep snow, and active work begun in the cañons of the Truckee River.
That no delay, even here, should result from the unfinished gap, 90 miles of rails with their fastenings, a locomotive, and cars sufficient for working, were, by oxen and horses, hauled over the summit and down into the cañons the Truckee River.
It was deemed important to reduce some of the work in the lower mountains crossed by the railroad in Utah, so that when the track reached those points there should be no delay. About one car-load of tools and material was wagoned from Wadsworth to the Promontory mountains, at a cost of $5,400. Everything was expensive; barley and oats ranged from, $200 to $280 per ton; hay $120. All other supplies in Utah in the same ratio. Along the Humboldt River much of the line was constructed during the winter. Earthy material that could ordinarily be excavated by the pick and shovel was frozen to such a depth as to require blasting. This frozen material made expensive embankments, requiring constant attention when the frost was leaving it, to maintain the roadway in a constant for the transportation of material to the front. As early as it was possible, in the beginning of the following year, to again attack the work in the heavy snow-belt region, the forces were returned to the granite cliffs and cañons. This army of men shoveled off the snow to gain time; miles of the line were thus made ready for the drill and powder—$67,500 worth of powder in a single month being used, a sum sufficient to construct and equip 3 miles of ordinary railroad at the present day.
During the winter months there was constant danger from avalanches, and many laborers lost their lives. Where it was possible to reach the threatening combs of great masses of compact snow leaning over the granite bluffs they were removed by powder. To reach the overhanging snow required courage and determination, and the call for volunteers for this daring undertaking, was always answered. When the forces were concentrated the progress in the solid granite ledges was slow but certain. The track was kept close up to the grading forces and never lagged when it was possible to provide track material, powder, or rolling stock, either by steamships or sailing vessels.
For many days, owing to the hardness of the rock in the vicinity of Cisco, it seemed impossible to drill into to drill into it a sufficient depth for purposes; shot after shot fired as if from a cannon. Perseverance alone conquered. That was before the powerful explosive were invented and many other improvements made for railroad construction purposes in the last twenty years. The company at the summit of the Sierras, Donner Pass, manufactured nitro-glycerine, but it was too dangerous for general use. Transportation of material, tools, &c., was then an important factor in construction; there were then no such powerful engines as of the present day that could haul two of the then most powerful ones and their loads; no cars to carry 50,000 pounds of load.
All material for construction excepting timber, the greater portion of which came from the Sierra Nevadas and some from the coast counties of California and from Oregon, must come from the Atlantic States, via the Isthmus or Cape Horn to San Francisco, there lightered for ascending the Sacramento River to Sacramento, and thence hauled over the Central Pacific as far as completed, and when needed wagoned beyond the end of the track. The trains returned empty — no return loads; there was not one inhabitant to 10 miles between the last crossing of the Truckee River and Bear River in Utah.
With the exception of a few cords of stunted pine and juniper trees, all the fuel was hauled from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not a coal bed on the line of the Central was then known, and the only one yet discovered is a poor quality of brown lignite.
Water was scarce after leaving the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers, and during the entire construction was hauled for steam and general use of the grading forces.
Thousands of dollars without result were expended in well boring; tunnels were bored into the mountains east of Wadsworth to develop small springs, and when water was found it was carefully protected and conveyed in some cases over 8 miles in pipes to the line of the road.
There was not a tree that would make a board on over 500 miles of the route, no satisfactory quality of building stone. The county afforded nothing entering into the construction of the superstructure of a railroad which could be made available. The maximum haul for ties was 600 miles, and of rails and other materials and supplies, the entire length of the Central Pacific Railroad, or 740 miles.
Cars were transported on ship, in pieces, to San Francisco, and lightered for Sacramento, and there put together.
California had no means for manufacturing for railroads. Only fourteen years prior to the beginning, of the construction of this railroad was any considerable emigration directed to this coast, either by wagon, requiring as many months as now days from the Missouri River, by sailing vessels via Cape Horn, a long and tedious voyage of months, or by steamship. Twenty-two days was a quick trip. It was a country new, and only known as a mining region. A quarter of a century has made great changes. Once the possibility of constructing a railroad across the mountain ranges and deserts was proven and emigration started west, capital was less timid of the probable future of railroad enterprises, and means were furnished for constructing other transcontinental roads. By the aid of machinery, powerful explosives and experience railroads can now be constructed at comparatively light cost.
It is probable that had the railroad been constructed during the five years preceding it would not have cost more than 66 per cent. of what it actually did cost.
The principal elements — material, transportation and labor — were very much cheaper. Rails averaged 51 per cent. less; transportation 63 per cent. less. Every element excepting labor, was a large percentage less.
If constructed five years subsequent, it would have cost about 75 per cent. of the actual cost. Had the whole time allowed for construction of the Central Pacific Railroad been used, it is not an easy problem to determine for how much less the road could have been built.
Advantage of the markets could then have been taken; contractors would have been willing to undertake the work if a reasonable time for completion were allowed, so that they would not be required to perform any of the work during the winter months where mercury freezes and in deep snows; in fact, all the advantages of seven additional years.
City and County of San Francisco, 88:
L.M. Clement, being first duly sworn, saith: That he has read the foregoing statement, consisting of the pages preceding, marked "Exhibit No. 8," and knows the contents thereof; that the facts therein stated are true, except as to those matters stated on his information or belief, and as to those he believes it to be true.
Notary of Public in and for the City and County
of San Francisco, State of California.
Courtesy Bruce C. Cooper Collection.
Transcription courtesy Bruce C. Cooper and Mara Levy.
Map accompanying the U.S. Pacific Railway Commission Report
[Click to see this map flat, the entire map highly enlarged, or an extreme enlargement of just the CPRR/UPRR portion of this 1887 map.]
Images of the U.S. Pacific Railway Commission Volumes and Map Courtesy of an Anonymous Donor.