This is a story I wrote about a year ago about some experiences with my son on the Transcontinental Railroad. ... [searching for historic transcontinental telegraph insulators along the old grade of the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming ... ]
The Iron Horse and The Talking Wire
By Mike Green
He was impressed by the well thought out questions the tall gentleman asked. As he answered at length about his thoughts on the Pacific Railroad, Grenville Dodge could not help feeling that this inquisitive man would play an important role in that endeavor. Dodge, who was already an accomplished railroad engineer, discussed his belief that the road should follow the Platte River Valley. Dodge would later confess of that conversation, "He shelled my woods completely and got all the information Iíd collected." The year was 1859, and the lives of these two men were about to change forever. Grenville Dodge would soon become a General in the Union Army, and later the head engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad. The other man was about to be elected President of the United States and lead our nation through the Civil War. He would also become the biggest supporter of the Pacific Railroad, but an assassinís bullet denied Abraham Lincoln the chance to see it completed.
Original threadless telegraph insulator with pin found along the old grade.
We rose early, and as with the start of any new adventure we felt the tinge of excitement that goes along with it. I had asked a lot of questions but really knew very little about searching for insulators on the Transcontinental Railroad. My hunting partner would be my 10-year-old son Sean. He had started collecting insulators a couple of years earlier and was very excited about our trip. As we headed north we thought about insulators, listened to music, and talked about the great Pacific Railroad. Men like Lincoln and Dodge had dreamed of a railroad linking our nation together. They knew that the western frontier was key to the future prosperity of the United States. They also knew it was a long and difficult ordeal for those who made the journey. Whatever route those hearty pioneers chose, they faced months of hardship. Many also faced the threat of disease, storms, and hostile Indians. The men of vision knew that only one thing could truly tame the west, and that was the railroad.
Sean and Ross find a treasure.
About two hours out of Denver "eagle eye" Sean said, "I think thatís it." Sure enough, a long snake like mound ran off across the plains in both directions and we were sure it was the old grade. As I pulled the car over we couldnít wait to begin the hunt. We stuffed a water bottle, lunch, rain gear, and first aid kit into our daypack and headed off across the barren plain. It was still relatively cool as we got our first taste of walking on the high desert. The coolness soon gave way to heat and we quickly surmised that this might not be as easy as first thought. Walking in the barren sagebrush country of Wyoming is no picnic. One of the first things you learn is that the thick sagebrush is not very forgiving on the legs. A few hours later you figure out not to forget your sunscreen. There was going to be a learning curve here. With the van just a tiny dot on the horizon we decided to call it a day. After retracing our steps back we collapsed into the seats of the van. The first day had brought us sunburn, "sagebrush leg", sore feet, and one tiny aqua chip that could have been from anything. Back at the hotel we found it had brought us something else as well, ticks! The little buggers were crawling all over us. We changed clothes, checked all the hidden spots for creepy crawlies, and went to bed.
Threadless insulator untouched for 135 years.
The next day dawned crisp and clear as we headed for a new spot to continue our search. Long pants replaced shorts, more water was added to the pack, and the sunscreen felt just dandy going over the previous days burn. We headed out with high hopes of finding hidden treasure. As we walked along the grade I began to think about what a difficult task building this railroad had been. When construction began in1863 many believed it would never be built. Nothing of its size and scale had ever been attempted. After some heated battles the Union Pacific won the job in the east, starting in Omaha. The Central Pacific got the job out west and would start in Sacramento. Both entities would be heading into the great unknown looking for profit, and hopefully a place in history.
Sean unearths a rare threadless insulator from its resting spot.
Being out in the middle of nowhere can be a wonderful thing. It has a way of clearing your mind and bringing out the simple beauties of life. I marveled at the way Sean poked and prodded the ground searching for anything of interest. While I was transfixed on looking for glass he would find all sorts of things: fossils, arrowheads, spikes, horny toads, an eagle feather, neat stuff for sure. He didnít seem to mind the heat, the dust, the sore feet, or any of the other difficulties that might come up. He was exploring, dreaming, and just being a kid. We came across an old building along the grade and stopped for lunch. Shortly after that we found a damaged 131.4 LGT [& Co.], which gave us hope we were starting to look in the right place. We pressed on for a couple more hours until I noticed some large black thunderheads looming on the horizon. It was time to head back. Our pace picked up a notch as the ominous clouds began to encircle us. In the distance the rumble of thunder spurred us on toward the safety and comfort of the van. We arrived back at our lunch spot and debated waiting out the storm. The rickety old building provided little shelter so we decided to proceed. With a stout wind in our face we pushed onward as lightning began to crash down upon the hilltops nearby. I love a good storm but this was getting a little frightening. We were miles from anyone and in deep trouble if something were to happen. Large drops of rain began to fall as the van came into view in the distance. The lightning was now unnervingly close; one nearby strike left an amazing blue ball of flame. I was exhilarated by the powerful storm and scared to death at the same time. At last the van seemed close. We ran the last couple hundred yards in a downpour. Within seconds of reaching safety the rain changed to marble sized hail as the lightning continued to strike all around us. There are times when all the cares in life disappear for awhile. When the beauty of nature and the power of God overwhelm the senses and make one feel so alive. It had been that kind of day. As I laid my head upon the pillow that night I felt relieved and content. I looked over at my boy already asleep and felt fortunate to have such a wonderful son.
Sean holds a piece of history.
The storm of the previous day brought to mind the harsh conditions that were faced building the railroad. In the brutal heat of summer or the bitter cold of winter, it went on. Men spiked rails on the heels of the men who laid the rails, who were right on the heels of the men who laid the ties, mile after endless mile. In front of them the surveyors and the graders prepared the road. There were huge fills and deep cuts to be made. Giant trestles needed to be built and long tunnels had to be blasted out. All of this enormous work was done by hand. The only time construction ceased was when deep snow made it impossible. Work forces for both lines surpassed 10,000 men. These were tough, rugged men, men who knew how to get things done. Many of the men working for the UP were veterans of the war and knew how to take orders. The CP had much more difficulty keeping workers, who would earn just enough and then head for the goldfields. Finally they began to hire Chinese by the thousands, they were hard working and reliable. The CP had the enormous task of crossing the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains. The founder and driving force of the Central Pacific was Theodore Judah. He wrote up the articles of incorporation for the CP and found the financiers to bring it to life. It was Judah who lobbied congress for a Pacific Railroad Bill and then did the surveying to prove it could be done. He put his lifeís energy into the road and sadly was unable to see it completed. Heading for Washington D.C. in 1863, Ted Judah caught the yellow fever in Central America and died. Now the money men would take over, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. They did not have Judahís vision, but they would risk everything they had to see the road completed. By the end of 1866 the UP was almost across Nebraska while the CP was struggling with the steep slopes and long tunnels of the Sierra Nevada. The UP seemed to have the early edge, but that would change.
Sean proudly shows off his first threadless insulator.
Not too far into the final day of our trip something blue caught my eye. There, right next to a pole butt, was a perfect half of a 731 threadless. Apparently it had been split in two by frost. We searched and searched for the other half but to no avail. This was still a great find and really lifted our spirits. We searched for several more miles that day but only found a few chips. Little did we know it would be many days and many more miles before anything would top that half a threadless. We talked a lot about what we had learned on the long drive home and began to plan for the next adventure.
A Mama and baby horned lizard add some joy to the hunt.
Over the next year and a half there would be several more trips, each one bringing wonderful new stories to tell. It was about the third trip we finally figured out that there had been a telegraph line on both sides of the grade. The line on the north side was operated by the railroad and primarily used Mulford & Biddles. The line on the south side was operated privately and used mainly CD 731ís. Around the forth trip we had wind so strong that poor Sean was walking sideways! I think it was the sixth outing I just about stepped on a four-foot rattlesnake. Each adventure was special and added to our knowledge and appreciation of the Transcontinental Railroad. We were amazed at the impact the railroad had in the areas we traveled. Countless towns were created as a result of its construction. Itís incredible to imagine Grenville Dodge standing upon the open plain picking out the spots for towns like Cheyenne, Laramie, Rawlins, and others. Whichever town was at the end of the track became the latest "hell on wheels" filled with saloons, brothels, and recklessness. It must have been something to see.
Three magnificent horses come to visit Sean.
Not too far from one of those "hell on wheels" towns we started a new search. After six or seven trips and 50 plus miles of walking we were feeling like our time might be near. It also seemed like a pretty good sign when Sean found an arrowhead 30 feet from where we parked. We started to search an area where a fire had left the ground exposed. Back and forth we went scanning the ground until the whole area had been covered. With nothing to show we decided to leave the burned area and head into the thick sagebrush. Onward we plowed hoping to find a hidden gem below the twisted branches. After a couple of miles we decided to cross over to the other side and start working our way back. It didnít look too good, not a single chip all day. It was about the time of day when you start to get tired of staring at the ground. Then, all of a sudden, a small glint of glass caught my eye. Leaning over for a closer look I could tell it was a small piece of an insulator showing through. I called Sean over to show him the new discovery. We had seen this many times before, a small piece of buried glass that turned out to be just another chip. I grabbed a nearby stick and began scraping along the edges of the glass. "Hey Sean" I said with excitement building in my voice, "it looks good so far." To my utter amazement I now had half the insulator exposed along with the pin still in place! "Come on, come on, be there" a little more scraping, "YES, Sean can you believe it!" As I pulled a mint 731 threadless from the ground I was filled with joy. It was like finding a long lost treasure, a piece of history buried for 140 years. Best of all it was Sean and I together. I gave him a big hug and just could not believe our good fortune. That spot had proven lucky for me once before. On a previous trip I had found a magnificent arrowhead very nearby. It really made me stop and think about the struggle that had taken place out there. As it pushed west the railroad brought great change for the Native Americans. The Indians knew that the railroad meant that many more Whites would come. Advance surveyors for the railroad had to be ever watchful for roving bands of Sioux, and Cheyenne warriors. Several railroad men were scalped and killed by Native Americans who felt an ever-increasing pressure from the whites. In addition, the railroad affected the migratory habits of the Buffalo who refused to cross the tracks. It was a difficult time, a clashing of two radically different cultures. It was easy to feel sorrow for the Native Americans and the way of life that was lost. It was also easy to admire the brave pioneers and be thankful for the part they played in building our great nation. The men and women who settled the west were not evil or wrong. They simply had greater numbers and superior knowledge. Technology may have actually been the Indians greatest enemy. Native Americans could not hold out for long against a people with such amazing inventions as the "Iron Horse" and the "Talking Wire." In a way the threadless insulator I held in my hand was the perfect symbol of the struggle between the two cultures and the technological superiority that would end a way of life forever.
The barren Wyoming plain.
The drive home didnít seem quite as long that day. Sitting in the cup holder was the best insulator find of my life. A telegraph crew working beside construction foreman Jack Casement and his men had placed it there. It was reported that many of Casementís men bled from the mouth and nose constantly from exposure to the dry air and alkali dust. Despite the harsh conditions they could not afford to slow down. The Central Pacific was over the Sierra Nevada and the Union Pacific realized the early edge was lost. Now it was going to be an all out battle to the finish and Utah was the target. Salt Lake City had always been a focal point for the Pacific Railroad. It was the only major settlement on the route and whoever got to the valley first would benefit greatly. In an effort to strengthen their position the UP contacted Mormon leader Brigham Young and asked if he could supply workers. Young was more than happy to oblige and soon thousands of Mormons were grading for the UP in Utah. In 1868 the pace of construction was staggering. The crews for both railroads were laying two, three, and four miles a day. It became a contest to see who could lay the most track in a single day. The UP thought it was in the bag when they put down an astonishing eight miles in a single day. The CP was not to be outdone and came up with a brilliant plan. Construction foreman Charlie Crocker convinced his partners he could beat the UP but that they should wait until the very end when the UP did not have enough room left to beat them. The construction proceeded into Utah and after a big controversy Promontory Summit was chosen as the meeting point. With the two armies only 23 miles apart the CP announced it would attempt to break the record. The big day came on April 28th 1869, with newspaper correspondents and UP officials on hand. A force of over 10,000 men stood ready. All the material needed was at the end of the track and ready to go. When the whistle blew every man in the CP knew what had to be done. Charlie Crocker had spent weeks devising the perfect plan for his "army" of workers. Every man was part of a team that had a specific duty to be carried out all day long. By the time the sun had set an astounding 10 miles of track had been laid and the record still stands. After that amazing day only a small gap remained and the UP could only watch in stunned disbelief.
Sean finds a threadless insulator chip along the grade, an original rock cut can be seen in the distance.
Two weeks later on May 10th, 1869 the final rails would meet. Officials from throughout the region came to witness the historic event. Thomas Durant, the head of the UP arrived at Promontory Summit in his private luxury car. In a bittersweet irony it was once the funeral car that carried Abraham Lincoln back to Illinois. Dodge and Stanford gave brief speeches while the country waited. It was the most anticipated moment of the century and the first time that news would travel from coast to coast in a near instant. A magnificent Laurel wood tie was set in place for the joining of the final rails. A telegraph wire was attached to the golden spike and another to the sledgehammer. As Leland Stanford drove in the golden spike the blows were transmitted all over the continent. The telegrapher then tapped the word "Done!" and celebrations began across the country. Bells rang throughout the land, even the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Thousands of cannons were fired, 220 in San Francisco alone. Chicago had the largest parade of the century, over seven miles long. As the celebrations continued the UPís engine No. 119 and the CPís Jupiter inched closer together until their pilots touched creating the backdrop for one of he most famous scenes in American history. It had been done in less time than anyone had thought possible. It had been done with determination, with will power, and with sheer brute force. It was the greatest human accomplishment of the 19th century.
Half a Mulford & Biddle threadless is found.
We continued our hunts along the great road in hope of finding another threadless for Seanís collection. On one of our outings we had the good fortune of having Ross Baird join us. Ross is a terrific person and loves to search for glass. We took him to several promising spots but had very little luck at first. We were getting a little frustrated and decided to try a new section that was right next to I-80. It seemed too accessible to find anything but we said "what the heck." We packed the usual essentials and headed out. We werenít five minutes into the hunt when in total disbelief I spotted a half exposed 731 with the pin! "Hey Sean, found a little something for you". His face lit up as he leapt over the sagebrush to see the new find. After a couple of pictures he carefully began to exhume the threadless from its resting place. He beamed with pride as it came out in near perfect condition. I was so happy for him. He would also get one more surprise before our search was over. Later that day while searching in a different section Ross found a nice CD 127 Brookfield, only he didnít pick it up. Out of pure kindness he pointed Sean in the right direction and let him have it! Ross is just that kind of guy. The next day we hit one final section before heading home. Ross had the find of the day when he came up with a skirt chip from a cobalt Mulford & Biddle. As you can imagine we searched that spot thoroughly. We also found a nice fat horny toad that really made Rossís day. They are all but gone in Texas and he had not seen one in years. The final highlight of the day came when three magnificent horses came galloping across the hilltops toward us. They stopped and watched us for a while and than slowly approached Sean who was behind me. I kept my distance realizing they were curious about Sean. I was amazed as the stallion, mare, and colt came cautiously up to Sean. He reached out and the stallion inched forward until his nose touched Seanís hand. It was a beautiful sight.
The reward of another fine hunt.
Last fall we returned for another journey back in time. It was great to be back out along the historic grade with Sean. What a wonderful year we had out here together. After a couple of miles I sat down for a rest and thought about how the Pacific Railroad had changed the west. When it was completed it turned a six-month journey into six days. The wagon trains and the Pony Express were suddenly gone forever. The Iron Horse and the Talking Wire dramatically changed how people lived. In the years since then it has been almost impossible to keep up with the dizzying pace of technology. In fact, it was only 100 years from the pounding of the golden spike to man walking on the moon! So much change in so little time. I thought about the wonderful simplicity out here. Not much has changed in remote sections like this one. I looked down the grade and imagined it was 140 years ago. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun upon my face. A cool breeze began to blow and the smell of sage filled the air. It was easy to imagine the sound of a train whistle in the distance. I opened my eyes and thought I could see a puff of smoke rise on the horizon. Then, out of the corner of my eye I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Cheyenne warrior riding along the hilltop, but as quickly as I could turn for a better look, he was gone.
Courtesy Mike Green, October 8, 2004.