By Charles Frederick Carter
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY
THE FIRST TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD
CPRR Locomotive Jupiter. Alfred A. Hart Stereoview #353, detail. May, 1869.
"Poetry and Prose. Scene at Monument Point, North end of Salt Lake."
VIEWED through the perspective of years, the building of the first transcontinental railroad seems less a commercial enterprise, stimulated by political considerations, than a great melodrama in which the stage was a continent and the audience a nation. Like many another prosperous production, the first act of this episode in real life was swamped with talk and skimped in action. But thereafter the thrills came thick and fast in an ascending scale of climaxes, culminating in a grand finale which earned a world's applause.
Taking all the circumstances into consideration, no railroad project so daring has ever been proposed. Bearing in mind the small population and the poverty of the Nation, the half-developed state of the practice of railroad building and operation, and of the myriad other sciences upon which it depends, the immensity of the wilderness to be crossed, the distance from the base of supplies, the crudeness of transportation facilities, the number and implacable ferocity of the savage foes to be encountered, it must be conceded that the building of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific must forever remain unparalleled in the annals of the railroad.
Until the rails met on that fateful day at Promontory the Union was incomplete. It was but a geographical dogma, a mere political theory, which an attempt to materialize the proposed Pacific Empire, or other contingency, might readily have changed. The driving of that last spike riveted the bonds that made the East and the West one grand whole as surely as it held the rail in place. All the magnificent achievements of after years have been possible to the great Nation then made a virile fact: whether they would have been possible otherwise may well be doubted.
Less than six months after the De Witt Clinton, the third locomotive built on American soil, had made its initial trip from Albany to Schenectady, when there were less than a hundred miles of railroad in the country, Judge S. W. Dexter, of Ann Arbor, Mich., proposed, in an editorial in his paper, the Weekly Emigrant, of February 6[sic], 1832, that a railroad should be built from the Great Lakes, across more than two thousand miles of unbroken, almost unexplored, wilderness, to the Pacific Ocean.
In the winter of 1836-7 John Plumbe, a Welsh civil engineer who had worked under Moncure Robinson in surveying a route over the Alleghenies for the State of Pennsylvania in 1831-2, and who had afterward acted as superintendent of the railroad between Richmond and Petersburg, Va., asked a few friends and acquaintances to meet him at his home in Dubuque, Ia., to discuss privately the building of a railroad to the Pacific coast. Plumbe, who acted as correspondent for papers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, had long been advocating the building of a transcontinental railroad. Pursuant to a call issued by him, the first public convention ever held to discuss the Pacific railroad project, met in Dubuque March 31, 1838. Resolutions asking Congress to appropriate funds for a survey were adopted and in due time were laid before Congress by Territorial Delegate George W. Jones. In response Congress set aside funds with which a survey for a railroad was made from Milwaukee to Dubuque. In the winter of 1839-40 Plumbe induced the legislature of Wisconsin to address a memorial to Congress asking that the survey be continued west of the Mississippi. He took the memorial to Washington himself and devoted a good deal of time to advocating his project, but he was too far ahead of time, and nothing came of his efforts.
Then came Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, who, while on a business trip to China, became filled with the idea of a railroad across the continent as the means of securing for America the rich trade of the Orient. Returning to New York in 1840, he gave up business, and with the fanaticism of a Mad Mullah preaching a holy war devoted ten years of his life and all of his fortune to advocating the immediate building of a transcontinental railroad.
In 1845 he submitted to Congress a proposal to undertake the building of the road in consideration of a grant of land sixty miles wide for the length of the route. For the next five years he bombarded the national legislature with memorials and addresses, carrying on, at the same time, a vigorous publicity campaign.
Whitney's plan was coldly received in the East. Six months' hard work was required to get enough signatures of well-known citizens of Philadelphia to justify a call for a meeting, which was finally held in that city December 23, 1846. Whitney's eloquence made few converts. Going to New York City, he fared even worse. Although Mayor John Swift was induced to preside at a meeting January 4, 1847, a mob broke up the meeting, and Mayor Swift, the vice- presidents, and Whitney were glad to escape by the back door. Whitney's bill was killed in Congress in July, 1848, chiefly through the efforts of Thomas Benton. The project was revived in another bill, only to be summarily slaughtered in January, 1849, through the efforts of Benton. Then Whitney made a canvass of the State legislatures, and in 1850 was back in Congress again with a new bill for his project, backed by memorials from the legislatures of fourteen States and from public meetings in eight cities.
At the first session of the Thirty-first Congress committees of both Houses made exhaustive reports favoring Whitney's transcontinental railroad project; but sectional feeling killed the bill a third time, and that was the end of Whitney's efforts. Worn out with his exertions, and his money all gone, he had no choice but to give up the struggle. His remaining years were eked out on the proceeds of a small dairy in Washington.
An interesting estimate of Whitney's character, which may explain why Congress looked with so little favor upon his scheme, may be found in the following extract from an editorial in the American Railroad Journal of April 5, 1851:
"We freely admit that Mr. Whitney possesses some qualities which eminently fit him to head a great enterprise. He is enthusiastic and possessed to a remarkable degree with the capacity for inspiring others with his own views. He is deterred by no obstacle and discouraged by no defeats. But here his qualifications for conducting to a successful issue a work of such immense magnitude as that of a railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific end. He is self-confident without experience or training, arrogant in his opinions, and overbearing toward all who differ from him. He has a hearty contempt for the whole engineering profession and loses his temper the moment that one of that class talks about tunneling, bridging, excavation, etc., which are certainly great annoyances in railroad construction and which have made others, besides Mr. Whitney, lose their temper. He can never tolerate the introduction of such disagreeable topics as these, but is never tired of poring over maps and enlarging upon the grandeur of his scheme. So long as his mission was confined to the matter of arousing the attention of our people to the importance of the proposed work, his success was remarkable. The moment he came to the question of construction his plans failed to receive respectful attention. Congress, in fact, refused the courtesy of printing extra copies of his bill for circulation and turned the cold shoulder upon the whole scheme. As far as the railroad to the Pacific is concerned the public voice is unanimous in its favor; but in reference to the plan of construction, that of Whitney has hardly a defender. We are sorry for his disappointments and heartily wish he would adapt his scheme to the practical ideas of the present day, of which he appears to have not the least appreciation."
When Whitney made his final exit, Josiah Perham, of Boston, took up the rôle of prophet to carry on the crusade for a transcontinental railroad. To Perham his efforts were literally in the nature of a crusade, for be believed he had a divine mission to bring about the building of the road.
Perham was a Maine woolen manufacturer, who lost all his property by unwise plunging in land speculation. Going to Boston in 1842, he started a wool commission business, in which he prospered for a time, but was again a bankrupt seven years later. He was about to start for California during the great excitement of 1849 over the discovery of gold, when he chanced to make the acquaintance of an artist who had just completed a panorama of Niagara Falls, the St. Lawrence, and the Saguenay. He saw a chance to make some money out of this, so he abandoned his contemplated trip to California.
Perham's plan was to go to nearby towns and organize cheap excursions to Boston to see the "Seven Mile Mirror," as the panorama was called. This gave country people a chance to spend a day in the city at small cost, which they were quick to accept, making Perham's scheme a great success for him and for the railroads.
At first the railroad managers were astonished at the way Perham's plan caught the popular fancy; but they soon recovered and did everything they could to help it along. It was in this way that the cheap excursion business originated.
Perham quickly extended his field of operations to include all New England and Canada. In 1850 he brought more than two hundred thousand excursionists to Boston. Then he began sending parties to New York, Niagara, Quebec, and other points of interest. In twelve years he had made another fortune, and had become one of the most widely known men in the country.
While busy with his popular excursions, Perham found time to become an enthusiast on the subject of the Pacific Railroad, to evolve a scheme for building it that certainly had the merit of originality, and to convince himself that be bad been inspired to execute it. Perham's plan, perfected in 1853, was to apply the popular idea to the financing of the Pacific Railroad. He thought he could collect a million subscriptions of a hundred dollars each from the general public, which, he imagined, was eager to make such an investment from patriotic motives. The People's Pacific Railroad was incorporated in Maine, March 20, 1860.
In Congress Perham received scant encouragement, even though he was able to secure the support of the omnipotent Thad Stevens. Finally a bill was drafted which met the views of Congress, but not until after the Union Pacific and Central Pacific had been launched. The measure was signed by President Lincoln July 2, 1864.
The People's Pacific Railroad became the forerunner of the Northern Pacific; but Perham did not live to see the work under way. His last fortune was frittered away on this Pacific Railroad propaganda, and, like Whitney, he died a poor man.
The first soil actually moved in the attempt to build a transcontinental railroad was turned July 4, 1851, on the south bank of Choteau pond, on the outskirts of St. Louis, by Mayor Luther M. Kennett, who then expressed the eloquent hope that the spade with which he did it "would not rust until it was finally burnished by the golden sands of the Pacific." St. Louis, then a city of 90,000 inhabitants, with a commerce of fifty million dollars a year, had had the railroad fever ever since the first railroad convention was held April 20, 1836. Yet nothing was accomplished until the Pacific Railroad Company, of which Thomas Allen was president, was incorporated January 31, 1850. The track of the company, which ultimately became the Missouri Pacific, did not reach Kansas City until October, 1865. The spades of its builders have not yet been "burnished by the golden sands of the Pacific."
Meanwhile, in the decade from 1850 to 1860, Congress devoted a large and steadily increasing proportion of its time to discussion of the Pacific railroad project. As the idea grew, no Congressional orator considered an address on any topic complete without a fulsome peroration devoted to the Pacific railroad. Senator Butler, of South Carolina, declared:
"The Pacific railroad project comes nearer being a subject of deification than anything I ever heard in the Senate."
The net result of all this talk was an appropriation of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in 1853 to defray the expenses of six surveys to ascertain the most practicable route for the proposed road. An additional appropriation, later on, paid for four more surveys. There was scarcely a town or a hamlet from Canada to the Gulf and the Atlantic that was not only willing to be benefited to the exclusion of other towns by being made the terminus of a railroad built at government expense, but was also determined to see that the road was not built on any other terms. Charleston, S. C.; Memphis, New Orleans, Corpus Christi, Tex.; Fulton, Ark., and Independence, Mo., were among the insistent candidates for the terminus, backed by the Southern statesmen, who were resolved that the road should not benefit the North, whatever happened.
The war with Mexico had added California to the Union. A year later the discovery of gold, followed by the rapid development of agricultural and other resources, capped, finally, by the finding of the great Comstock lode, built up sources of traffic which demanded better facilities than were afforded by a sea voyage of nineteen thousand miles. Lastly, there appeared at the proper time, as he always does, the Man.
To Theodore D. Judah belongs the credit of making the actual beginning of the first transcontinental railroad. Judah was educated at the Troy Engineering School. He was resident engineer of the Connecticut River Railroad, surveyed and built the railroad from Niagara Falls to Lewiston, and served as engineer on the Erie Canal, and on the Rochester and Niagara Falls Railroad.
He gave up a lucrative position in 1854 to go to California to build the Sacramento Valley Railroad, the first on the Pacific coast. Twenty-two miles of that road were completed in 1856.
Judah was not only almost as much of a fanatic on the subject of a Pacific railroad as Asa Whitney, but he combined with the enthusiasm of the promoter the practical knowledge of the engineer and the executive capacity which gets things done. In the fall of 1956 he went East to raise funds for extending the Sacramento Valley Railroad from Marysville to San Francisco.
The winter of 1856-1857 he spent in Washington trying to secure a land grant for the railroad scheme. Returning to California, he took a prominent part in the railroad convention held in San Francisco September 19, 1859. He was sent as the accredited agent of this convention to Washington to lobby for the transcontinental road.
His room became the headquarters for advocates of the Pacific railroad, and he himself was the recognized authority on everything relating to the subject. He was made secretary of the Pacific Railroad Committee of the House, and was accorded the privileges of the floor of both Houses.
So effectively did Judah labor that he returned to California in the summer of 1860, confident of success when the new administration came in, to solve a problem which was the bugbear of timid Congressmen. This was to find a pass through the Sierras.
Judah had no money to pay for surveys, and the business men of San Francisco bad borne his expenses to Washington that he might induce other people to foot such bills, not to earn the privilege of doing it themselves. So the engineer went to his friends in the mountains.
They hadn't much to spare, but what they did have they gave freely. Dutch Flat, Illinoistown, Grass Valley, and Nevada City, among them, raised the money to buy the outfit for Judah's trip into the Sierras and the men to help him.
Mrs. Judah accompanied the party. While her husband was out with the men she caught trout for their meals. When the larder was supplied she laid aside her rod and sketched the magnificent mountain scenery. Two of her sketches were used on the stock certificates of the Central Pacific Railroad; others went to enlighten outsiders regarding California.
Judah was as successful with his transit as his wife was with rod and pencil. He found a pass by which the Sierra Nevadas could be surmounted 128 miles east of Sacramento on a maximum grade of 105 feet to the mile at a maximum cost of $150,000 a mile, a saving of 184 miles in distance and $13,500,000 in money over the route proposed by the government engineers.
Returning to Dutch Flat, he made the first profile of the new pass on the counter of his friend D. W. Strong's drug-store. Armed with this, he proceeded to Sacramento. He had been in the habit of dropping in at the hardware store of Huntington & Hopkins, No. 52 K Street, where he was always sure of finding sympathetic spirits with whom he could discuss his hobby.
Calling together C. P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, the proprietors of the store; the Crocker brothers, dry goods merchants down the street, and Leland Stanford, wholesale grocer, Judah told of the practicable pass he had found. They were quick to realize what it meant, and warmly urged him to go to San Francisco and raise the capital; then they would help him to form a company and take care of the profits. The uniform willingness to let some one else foot the bill for the Pacific railroad was as spontaneous and as cordial west of the Sierras as east.
Judah went to San Francisco with the profile of his practicable pass and figures showing that two hundred eight-mule teams passed over the Placerville road to Virginia City daily, and half as many over the Henness road, which traffic alone would make a very respectable local income for a railroad. But the San Francisco capitalists laughed at him.
Once more Judah traveled the dusty road to the hardware store in Sacramento. What he said when he arrived there no outsider will ever know, but it must have been very much to the point, for in June, 1861, the Central Pacific Railroad Company, with a capital of one hundred and twenty- five thousand dollars, was organized.
Leland Stanford, who had just been elected Governor, was president of the company; C. P. Huntington, vice-president; Mark Hopkins, the other member of the hardware firm, treasurer; James Bailey, secretary, and Judah, chief engineer. The Sacramento merchants didn't object to putting their names down for fifteen thousand dollars each, or even to contributing enough actual cash to send Judah East again after the necessary capital.
In October, 1861, Judah set out for Washington once more, as agent of the Central Pacific Railroad, to secure government aid in bonds and land to build the road. He drew up a bill embodying substantially the plan upon which the road was finally built, and intrusted it to A. A. Sargent, newly elected Representative from California.
The House passed the bill May 6, 1862, the Senate June 20, and President Lincoln affixed his signature July 1. Judah was able to start back to Sacramento ten months after he left there with his object accomplished.
Even with government aid assured, the San Francisco bankers still refused to put up the ready money needed to make a beginning. Orders had been given for plans for an office building. Just as a final and more than usually emphatic negative had been received to the last appeal for funds, the architect walked into the hardware store and with pardonable pride exhibited his designs.
Huntington, senior partner in the hardware firm and the actual executive of the railroad company, glowered at the plans in silence. At last he blurted out:
"How much is that thing going to cost?"
"Only twelve thousand dollars."
"Twelve thousand dollars! Why, man, do you know we'll have to pay the bill ourselves? Here, I can beat that to a frazzle."
Taking up a piece of chalk, Huntington rapidly drew on a door the plans for the first general offices of the Central Pacific Railroad. The building was completed that same afternoon, at a cost of one hundred and fifty dollars. Finding that they really would have to make a beginning with their own scanty means, the Central Pacific directors decided that they would only undertake what they could pay for.
Grading was begun January 1, 1863, when Governor Leland Stanford shoveled some sand from a cart into a mudhole at the foot of K Street, Sacramento, in the presence of the members of the legislature, the State and city officers, and a mixed crowd which was highly amused by the idea of a bunch of local storekeepers trying to build a railroad across the continent. But once the work was begun it never stopped until it was completed.
The first shipment of rails arrived in Sacramento in October, 1863. By June 1, 1864, the track had been laid to Newcastle, thirty-one miles from Sacramento, and nine hundred and thirty feet above the sea.
Although the legislature authorized San Francisco, Sacramento, and Placer counties to issue bonds to a total amount of one million one hundred and fifteen thousand dollars in aid of the road, this action had no effect whatever upon the adamantine hearts of the coast capitalists. In desperation the hardware store crowd scraped the till and managed to get together enough money to send Judah East once more this time to try to sell their franchise.
But he caught the fever in crossing the Isthmus of Panama, and died in November, 1863. He was only thirty-seven years old, but he had laid the cornerstone of a mighty monument to himself.
Fortunately for the hardware store crowd, the Eastern capitalists preferred government bonds to railroad securities. The only way to get back the small amount they had invested was to put in more and keep putting in more. Accepting the inevitable at last, they went at the task in dead earnest, and by a succession of miracles raised money enough to meet the pay-rolls and other bills while they worked with desperate energy to finance the enterprise. Also, they took care to retain control of the situation.
Not until September, 1866, three years and eight months from the date of beginning, did the rails reach Alta, seventy miles east of Sacramento, at an elevation of 5,625 feet. Two months later the line had been extended. twenty-three miles farther to Cisco, overcoming an elevation of 2,286 feet in that distance. The road was now in the very heart of the Sierras, only thirteen miles from the summit.
By this time the Union Pacific Railroad, which had been organized to build the eastern end of the line, stimulated by the example of the Central Pacific, was under way. Although the former did nothing for eighteen months after the latter began operations, by the time the Central Pacific was ninety-three miles into the mountains, where the maximum government subsidy was only half the cost of construction, the Union Pacific had extended its rails two hundred and forty-seven miles out on the plains, on an average grade of thirteen and a half feet to the mile, where the minimum subsidy more than paid for the road.
The Union Pacific Company had seen quite as much of trouble as the hardware store crowd. Under the act of 1862, the Union Pacific was duly organized, with General John A. Dix as president, and T. C. Durant as vice-president. By heroic exertions the company contrived to raise money enough to pay the expenses of celebrating the breaking of ground at Omaha, December 2, 1863, eleven months after ground was broken on the Central Pacific.
That was all that was done for many a day. Nobody wanted Union Pacific Railroad securities or land. The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad, which later became the Rock Island, had sent General G. M. Dodge out across the plains on a survey ten years before, but the company didn't think it worth while to push on beyond the Missouri River.
Neither could the Northwestern, then building across Iowa, see any money in a railroad across the lonely plains. No one would have anything to do with the Union Pacific on any terms whatsoever. The company got into such desperate straits that it was obliged to sell part of its material and cars.
No one coming to the rescue of the Pacific railroad project, Congress, in 1864, had doubled the subsidy, making the amount $16,000, $32,000, and $48,000 a mile in bonds, according to the nature of the country, and twenty sections of land per mile instead of ten. Altogether, the government aid offered lacked but $4,000,000 of the estimated cost of the road.
In spite of everything that could be done the Union Pacific remained a financial outcast until the fall of 1867. Capitalists knew the road could never be completed, and that it could not possibly earn expenses if it was built. When it seemed as if the whole affair was doomed to become a humiliating fiasco, Congressman Oakes Ames, of Massachusetts, a wealthy manufacturer whose shovels had become favorably known wherever such implements were used, was asked by the administration to undertake the building of the Union Pacific. By the influence
of his great wealth and business connections, aided by the attraction of the increased subsidy, he was finally able to finance the enterprise through the medium of a construction company, the notorious Credit Mobilier, the cause of the greatest legislative scandal in American history.
As the government assumed all risks under this plan, and the profits promised to be enormous, capital at last took up the project, though timidly. So grudgingly was money advanced that the work would have come to a stop even then, and the completion of the enterprise would have been delayed for years, if Oakes Ames had not sacrificed his personal fortune, saying:
"We must save the credit of the road. I will fail."
But as soon as it became a certainty that the Union Pacific would be completed, and that the builders would make immense profits from its construction and operation, blackmailers, stockjobbers, and plunderers of every degree pounced upon it like a pack of famished wolves. Cornelius Wendell, a government Commissioner whose duty it was to examine a completed section, refused to approve it until he was paid twenty-five thousand dollars. As delivery of the government subsidy was dependent upon his approval, he got the money.
James Fisk managed to gain control, and then held up the company in the most approved style, threatening to ruin it unless paid his price. When more legislation was needed influential Congressmen required to be "seen," and Oakes Ames made the crowning mistake of his career by taking three hundred and seventy-five shares of Credit Mobilier stock to Washington, where, in his own phrase, which has become a classic, he "put it where it would do the most good."
Those who could find no leverage by which to extort money busied themselves with criticizing financial and engineering methods and everything else connected with the project. It seemed as if there were 'its many foe's in the rear as at the front.
Besides all this the physical obstacles to be overcome were immense. Omaha for all practical purposes was almost as inaccessible as San Francisco. The nearest railroad was the Northwestern, one hundred and fifty miles to the east, and in no hurry to reach Omaha. Every pound of supplies had to be brought overland by wagon or up the Missouri River in steamboats.
As a sample of the expense of railroad building under these circumstances it may be mentioned that ties cost two dollars and fifty cents each when they were finally in place. The workmen had so little confidence in the solvency of the concern that they demanded and received their day's pay before beginning work.
"TROUBLE WITH THE INDIANS. As the Union Pacific Railroad builders pushed westward across the great plains in the middle and late 1860's, the Sioux, Cheyennes and other warlike tribes united to block the iron horse. The Indians made a desperate, futile effort to stop the white men's wholesale slaughter of buffalo herds which supplied their food, clothing and shelter. The Federal Government had solemnly pledged that so long as the Indians were peaceful, buffalo hunting would not be permitted south of the Arkansas River. But white men broke that treaty, railroad builders formed an alliance with the friendly Pawnees, and war was on. As shown in this painting, rails were torn up, ties destroyed, trains wrecked, plundered and burned; and hundreds of men on both sides were killed. Blood sprinkled the route from Omaha, Nebraska, to Promontory, Utah, where U. P. rails finally joined those of the eastward-advancing Central (now Southern) Pacific on May 10, 1869. Kansas State Historical Society." From an anonymous postcard, Courtesy CPRR.org Collection.
While the white men, who had been so ready to applaud the abstract idea of a transcontinental railroad, and so reluctant to facilitate its realization, were giving the Union Pacific so much trouble, the Indians rendered the company an invaluable service. This they achieved through an earnest effort to lift the scalps of General G. M. Dodge and his escort.
In the winter of 1864-1865 the Indians had declared war by way of varying the steady round of unofficial outrages, which had begun to pall upon them. General Dodge, who had made the survey for the Rock Island in 1853, was sent out to conduct the campaign against them.
Repeated efforts had failed to reveal a pass by which the road could be taken over the mountain range in southern Wyoming. General Dodge, being keenly interested in the Union Pacific survey, took advantage of every opportunity to pick up topographical points.
One day the general took an escort of six cavalry men, and, arranging to meet the main body of troops at a certain point, set out to have a look at the country. About noon he discovered a large body of Indians trying to corral him and his escort. Being a good Indian fighter, he rode hard for the nearest ridge, where there was no cover to enable the scalphunters to stalk him, and started along its crest toward his command, stopping occasionally to beat off the Indians whenever they became too eager.
After a long ride the little party reached the main body of the troops. The ridge upon which the Indians had herded them all afternoon had led them down a gentle slope without a break to the plain. The pass through the mountains had been found.
One year later General Dodge returned to the spot where the ridge blended into the plains and laid out the city of Cheyenne, Wyo. While he was at work the Indians raided a party of Mormon emigrants on the trail over which the general had just passed and killed a couple of men, thus enabling the cemetery of the new town to be started without delay.
By the beginning of 1867 the Union Pacific was in operation to a point three hundred and five miles west of Omaha. The completion of the Northwestern to Omaha, in December, 1866, opened up a line of communication which very greatly reduced the cost of supplies.
The Union Pacific being now extended to a point most convenient for the Indians, all the tribes of the plains united their forces for the avowed purpose of exterminating the whites. Fifteen thousand warriors took the field, devoting especial attention to the railroad.
Everything had to be done under armed guard. The engineers laid out the line within musket- range of a strong military escort, dividing their attention between their instruments and their rifles. Even then numbers of them were killed and their stock run off by thousands.
One party of ten men was "jumped" by Indians in Wyoming. Not being skilled in Indian fighting, they did the worst thing they possibly could have done—they undertook to conceal themselves in a clump of sage-brush, some five hundred feet in diameter, which was commanded by a little bluff at a distance of two hundred yards.
The sage-brush afforded no protection, and simply provided a cover under which the Indians could creep up on them without risk of being seen. Whenever a white man moved or made a sound a volley of bullets would come in his direction. When darkness came three white men, the only ones left alive, crept from that sage-brush and contrived to reach safety.
Not satisfied with murder and robbery, the Indians pulled up the surveyors' stakes and destroyed them, so that much of the work had to be done over.
At first the Indians had not known what to make of the locomotive; but soon they gathered courage to try to stop a train by stretching a lariat across the track held by thirty braves on each side. After it was all over the red man had a new grievance against his pale-faced oppressor, which he sought to redress in the usual way. A station near the scene of the disastrous hold-up was raided next evening.
One man was caught before be could reach the shelter of the building. Him the Indians took to a little depression, where they would be out of range of the guns of the few men in the station, staked him out on the ground, built a small fire on his breast, and then gathered about it to warm themselves and enjoy the agonies of the victim. His cries could be heard by the men in the station for several hours, but they dared not venture out in the darkness to attempt a rescue.
The Indians soon learned how to wreck trains. One night in the summer of 1867 they placed an obstruction on the track near Plum Creek, Neb., and ditched a freight train. The engineer, fireman, head brakeman, and conductor were killed. The hind man, named Johnson, was shot in the back.
The bullet knocked him down, but did not render him unconscious. He had presence of mind enough not to utter a sound or move a muscle, even when an Indian seated himself astride his body and with an extremely dull knife proceeded, with great deliberation, to scalp him. This operation completed to the Indian's entire satisfaction, be stripped Johnson of everything but shirt and shoes and left him.
Next morning another train was flagged about a mile from the scene of the wreck by a hideous object, which, upon examination, proved to be Johnson, covered from crown to sole with blood and dirt. His scalp was found where it had been dropped by the Indian in the excitement of plundering the train, but it wouldn't grow on again, although an obliging surgeon gave it every encouragement.
On another occasion the Indians made the unfortunate mistake of sacking a train when General Dodge was close at hand. The General was on his way back from the front one day, when he was notified at Plum Creek, two hundred miles west of Omaha, that the Indians had captured a freight train a few miles east of the station. Dodge's private car was merely an arsenal on wheels, with enough space left for a berth and a table, which served alternately as a dining table and a desk. On the train were some twenty men, who had had enough of railroad construction on a war footing, and were bound for civilization.
On hearing of the capture of the train, General Dodge immediately called for volunteers to help punish the Indians. Every man on the train immediately fell into ranks like veterans, as, indeed, they were. The engine was coupled on to the private car, the volunteers hastily climbed aboard, and as the engineer coaxed the utmost possible speed out of his machine, they were given arms and instructions. So quickly was the scene of the wreck reached that the Indians were still busy with the plunder without a thought of danger.
In perfect order the volunteers sprang to the ground and deployed. So brilliantly was the maneuver executed that few of the red wreckers escaped.
At Sedgwick the Indians made an exceptionally successful raid, capturing the entire outfits of two sub-contractors and killing such a large number of men that the survivors fled to civilization. It was only after considerable difficulty that others were induced to take their places.
The construction gangs fought off Indians with one hand and wielded pick and shovel with the other. No one will ever know how many men were killed by Indians in the building of the Union Pacific. Vice-president Durant didn't like to have such things made public.
The only settlements west of the Missouri, with the exception of Denver and a few other mining camps in Colorado and Nevada, were those of the Mormons in the vicinity of Great Salt Lake. Ogden was a village of a few hundred inhabitants.
An exception might be made to this statement if the community of something like three thousand inhabitants living in tents and shacks at the end of the track could be called a settlement. As fast as the road was finished to a convenient point it was operated to that point, which then became temporary headquarters from which the work of construction was managed. The town always moved with headquarters, and so came to be known as "Hell-on-Wheels," and the title was appropriate.
Aside from the railroad employees and a few storekeepers the population consisted chiefly of gamblers and desperadoes and the very worst class of women. The chief article of commerce was vile whisky, and the principal industry was robbery, either thinly disguised as gambling, or by more elementary methods whenever convenient. Only by the frequent application of lynch law were the murders kept down to an average of one a day the greater part of the time.
There was a ceaseless orgy of the lowest debauchery and the grossest crime in this Hell-on-Wheels that has left a stigma which will last as long as the Union Pacific itself. That such shameful conditions are not necessarily a part of railroad building was conclusively demonstrated in the construction of the Canadian Pacific.
At one of its stops, six hundred and ninety-eight miles west of Omaha, in August, 1868, "Hell-on-Wheels" assumed the dignity of a "city," which was divided into five wards and christened "Benton," in honor of the Senator who had taken such a conspicuous part in the fight on Whitney's project for a Pacific railroad. A mayor and full city government were elected, and ordinances to safeguard the public health were adopted. Being the end of the freight and passenger division, and the beginning of the construction division, Benton was an exceedingly lively place. Twice a day enormous trains arrived and departed, and stages left for the end of the Central Pacific track and other points in Utah, Montana, and Idaho. All goods for the front and for points on the plains and in the mountains had to be reshipped.
The streets were beds of alkali dust eight inches deep, which blinded and strangled all passers-by, and floated away in dense irritating clouds to settle in dirty white drifts on the wretched tents and shanties. There were one daily paper, five dance houses, and twenty-three saloons. The chief public resort was known as "The Big Tent," a canvas structure a hundred feet long and forty feet wide, at one side of which was a gorgeous bar lavishly set forth with plate-glass mirrors, cut-glass goblets, glasses, and ice pitchers. Brass bands brayed continuously day and night, while monte, faro, roulette, and chuck-a-luck games never closed.
When railroad headquarters moved, Benton moved also. In a few weeks not a shack was left standing.
While the Union Pacific was struggling with uncompromising Nature, bad Indians, and worse white men, the Central Pacific was also waging a great contest, though of a totally different character, against the Storm King of the Sierras.
To build a railroad through mountains where the slope is one foot rise in each foot of distance, and where winter is an almost continuous series of snowstorms accompanied by high winds, is no trifling matter. To cross the Sierras, fifteen tunnels were driven by the expenditure of a million dollars' worth of blasting-powder, the longest being 1,659 feet. Work on the tunnels had been stopped entirely during the winter of 1865-1866.
To avoid another such delay, Engineer John R. Gilliss kept three shifts of men at work day and night on the approaches to the tunnels in the summer of 1866. One night in the autumn he stumbled over two miles of rough mountain trail and laid out the east end of tunnel number twelve by the light of a bonfire. Before midnight the men were at work.
When winter began the headings were underground, so that the work could go on uninterruptedly, though it was necessary to dig snow tunnels two hundred feet long to keep the entrances open. That winter there were forty-four snow-storms, in some of which ten feet of snow fell. As the usual temperature was about thirty-two degrees above zero, the snow was wet and heavy.
During the storms the wind blew so violently that the drifting snow bid a warehouse thirty feet from the cabin of the engineers. One man was lost in going a short distance in a straight line between rock walls, and came in exhausted. In running lines outside it was necessary to dig deep cuts and tunnels in the snow to get at the original transit points. Yet the tunnel-headings met only two inches out of alignment. All summer the Central Pacific was pushed on with a force of ten thousand men, principally Chinese, and one thousand three hundred teams. By December 1, 1867, all the tunnels were pierced, and trains were running across the summit to Truckee, one hundred and forty miles east of Sacramento.
The spring of 1868 found the two companies on equal terms. While the Central Pacific had been crossing the Sierras the Union Pacific had surmounted Evans Pass, the highest point on the line, at an elevation of 8,242 feet. Both had ample funds at last, and both were almost equally distant from Monument Point, at the head of Great Salt Lake, the Union Pacific being 522 miles away and the Central Pacific 545 miles.
As soon as the weather permitted a construction campaign was begun which has never yet been equaled. From twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand men, and from five thousand to six thousand teams were employed, and from five hundred to six hundred tons of material were used daily. At one time the Central Pacific had no fewer than thirty vessels loaded with supplies at sea, on the long voyage of nineteen thousand miles from New York around the Horn to San Francisco. Twenty-five sawn- tills around Truckee worked up timber for the use of the Central Pacific, while a dozen mills in the Black Hills and the Rocky Mountains did a similar work for the Union Pacific.
Money was no object now. Speed, not economy, was the great desideratum. In their eagerness to earn as much as possible of the subsidy the rival companies pushed their grades ahead until they overlapped more than two hundred miles. In an attempt to get beyond Promontory Point, where there was a section of the most intricate alignment, heaviest grades, and sharpest curves on the entire line, the Union Pacific took the work out of the contractors' hands and put on day and night shifts to finish the job in a hurry.
The result was that at the finish it cost $618,000 to move 178,000 cubic yards of material, whereas it had cost but $623,000 to move 800,000 yards under the contract system. The track-layers followed the graders as closely as the delivery of material would permit. In 1867 the Union Pacific laid 240 miles of track; in 1868, 425 miles, and to May 10, 1869, when the tracks met, 125 miles. The Central Pacific laid 94 miles through the mountains in 1867, 363 miles in 1868, and 186 miles to May 10, 1869.
General Jack S. Casement and his brother, D. C. Casement, directed the Union Pacific forces, which were handled like an army. In fact, the force on the Union Pacific was largely composed of former army men. Operations partook somewhat of the nature of military maneuvers. The men marched to work to beat of drums, with outposts as a precaution against surprises by Indians. As expressed in one of the popular songs of the day, it was:
The engineers were the skirmishers, and the tiemakers, of whom there were fifteen hundred employed in the mountains, were the advance guard. The ties had to be sent to the railroad in large wagon trains, under strong military escort. Two thousand graders prepared the line. Back of these came the tie-layers. Bridges were framed and the pieces numbered at the mills, ready to be put together immediately on reaching the front."Then drill, my Paddies, drill;
Drill, my heroes, drill;
Drill all day,
No sugar in your tay,
Workin' on the U.P. Railway."
Twenty miles back of the tie-layers were the construction trains, and still back of these half a dozen miles were the supply trains. Cars were loaded with the proper proportion of rails, chairs, bolts, and spikes, so that there should be no delay in putting down the iron.
First of all was the boarding train of rough sleeping, kitchen, dining, and office cars, that the men might lose no time between their meals and their work. The boarding train would be pushed up to the end of the track while a supply train was run up behind it and unloaded. Then the boarding train would be pulled back, to allow the material to be loaded on little dump-carts, which two horses would take to the front at a gallop.
Arriving there, four men on each side would seize the rails, run forward, and drop them in place, in an average time of thirty seconds to the rail. A gang following them would half drive eight spikes to the rail and place the bolts. A second gang drove home the spikes and put in the rest with an average of three blows of the sledge to each spike and tightened the nuts on the bolts.
Lastly came the surfacing gang, which threw in the ballast, leveled the track, and tamped the ties in place. On many a day the construction gangs of the two companies laid more miles of track than an ox team averaged in a day's travel on the old overland trail. Such performances as these attracted the attention of the newspapers in the East, which began to send their star correspondents to the front and to announce the number of miles of track laid each day, as baseball scores are announced nowadays.
All this notoriety spurred the rival construction gangs to renewed exertions and made them boastful. One day the Union Pacific laid six miles of track. The Central Pacific thereupon laid seven miles in one day. Upon hearing of this feat the Union Pacific laid seven and a half miles.
The Central Pacific authorities declared that their men could lay ten miles in one working day if they wanted to. Vice-president Durant, of the Union Pacific, offered to bet ten thousand dollars that they couldn't do it. The money was covered, and April 29, 1869, was set as the day for the race.
A large party of distinguished guests assembled to see the bet decided. Four thousand men, trained by the discipline of four years to the precision of a machine, began their mighty task on the stroke of seven o'clock. Most of the working force was composed of Chinamen, but the Chinamen were not heavy enough to lay the rails.
For this work there were eight stalwart Irishmen, whose names have been handed down to posterity, Michael Shay, Pat Joyce, Thomas Daly, Mike Kennedy, Fred McNamara, Ed Killeen, Mike Sullivan, and George Wyatt. They handled the rails at the rate of one minute forty-seven and a half seconds to each two hundred and forty feet.
In six hours they had laid eight miles of track, so they nailed a board with the word "Victory" on it to a stake, and stopped for dinner on the boarding train, which was now run up.
After the usual noon rest of one hour, work was resumed. At exactly 7 P.m. ten miles and two hundred feet of track had been laid. To do this required the bringing up and placing in position of 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails averaging 560 pounds each, 55,000 spikes, 7,040 plates, and 14,080 bolts, a total weight of 4,362,000 pounds.
Durant acknowledged himself ten thousand dollars poorer and returned to his own camp. Then, to prove that the job was well done, Campbell, the boarding boss, got on the locomotive and ran the heavy train back over the ten miles of newly laid track in forty minutes.
Ten days after this great track-laying feat, which has never been equaled, all was ready for the driving of the last spike which would unite the two roads, making a continuous line from the Missouri River to San Francisco Bay.
When the two roads met the grades overlapped some eighty miles. The Union Pacific had wasted a million dollars in its reckless race to seize the lion's share of the fat government subsidy. The Central Pacific was too crafty for its rival, for it had induced the Secretary of the Treasury to advance it two-thirds of the bond subsidy on its graded line to Echo Summit, forty miles east of Ogden, before the track was completed to Promontory Point, while the Union Pacific had actually laid its rails to Ogden. There was a pretty row over this incident, which waxed so virulent that Congress interfered; but the companies concluded it would be the better part of discretion to compromise, which they did; and Congress ratified the agreement by a joint resolution which was adopted April 10, 1869.
A space of a hundred feet had been left between the ends of the two tracks on May 9, 1869. Early on the morning of the following day Leland Stanford and his party arrived at the end of the Central Pacific track in a special train drawn by the locomotive "Jupiter." Soon after the Union Pacific official train, drawn by engine No. 116, bringing Vice-president Durant, Directors Dillon, Duff, and others, arrived.
A strangely mixed crowd of Mormon saints, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, negroes, Irish laborers, army officers and their wives, Eastern bankers, bullwhackers, muleskinners, frontiersmen, and camp followers had assembled to watch the proceedings with varying degrees of interest, curiosity, or ennui. Mrs. S. W. Strowbridge, wife of the Central Pacific's superintendent of construction, who, by the enthusiastic interest she had taken in her husband's work, had earned the title of "Heroine of the Central Pacific, was given a place of honor.
After the Rev. Dr. Todd, of Massachusetts, had offered prayer, a Chinaman carefully smoothed the spot on which the last tie was to be laid. The tie, of California laurel, beautifully polished, was brought up by the two superintendents of construction, Strowbridge, of the Central, and Reed, of the Union Pacific. In the center of the tie was a silver plate bearing this inscription:
LAID IN THE COMPLETION OF THE PACIFIC
RAILROAD, MAY 10, 1869.
A spike of gold, silver, and iron from Arizona, and one of silver from Nevada were handed to Durant, of the Union Pacific, who stood on the south side of the track. When he had driven these Dr. Harkness handed the last spike, of California gold, and a silver sledge to Leland Stanford.
Then, at 12.45 P.M., the man who six years before, amid the jeers of a knot of street loafers in Sacramento, had tossed the first shovelful of sand turned in the building of the first transcontinental railroad, drove the last spike which completed that splendid achievement.
The motley crowd of six hundred which saw the blows struck was but an insignificant part of the audience which participated in the ceremony. Through connections between the sledge and the telegraph wires the whole Nation heard the strokes that drove home the last spike. Cannon boomed and bells rang out in response to those taps in every city in the land. At Chicago there was a procession four miles long and an address by Vice-president Colfax. At New York the mayor ordered a salute of one hundred guns, and a "Te Deum" was chanted in Trinity Church while the chimes pealed forth the solemn notes of the "Doxology."
San Francisco was delirious with joy. The celebration began there on May 8 and continued uninterruptedly until the night of the 10th. The buildings and the shipping in the harbor were decked with flags and bunting, cannon boomed, bells rang, and whistles tooted for hours; there were speeches and processions, and every one kept open house for all comers.
The completion of the Pacific railroads did more than anything else to put an end to organized outlawry in the West, and to curb hostile Indians, who up to that time had cost the government one hundred thousand dollars each to kill. It developed a traffic which earned for the Central Pacific alone, in the first three months, $1,703,000. Also, the construction of the Union Pacific netted its builders the neat profit of $16,710,432, or twenty-seven per cent on the cost. Finally, it created one of the greatest scandals this country has known when the people who had lacked the nerve to invest their money in the enterprise undertook to get even with the men who had risked and won.