Building the transcontinental railroad was the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century. Was it also the biggest swindle?
This immense project was not only an epic of logistics, organization, muscle, and endurance but also an opportunity to get very, very rich. The government had issued land grants along the right-of-way and low-interest bonds underwriting construction costs of up to $48,000 a mile in mountainous regions; thus encouraged to make a race of it, the lines did, passing each other in the spring of 1869 and keeping right on going, side by side, until the government called a halt to the work and chose a meeting spot.
Almost immediately, charges of fraud came boiling up, and even today the road is seen as perhaps the most lurid example of the excesses of the age of the “robber barons.” Stephen E. Ambrose began his researches into the railroad believing just that. In this article adapted from his book Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869 — just published by Simon & Schuster. The shows us an example of the kind of work that got the tracks built, visits the celebration that marked the end of the task, and reassesses its legacy.
Still, the rivalry between the two railroad lines continued. The competition had become a habit. At the end of April 1869, even though the race had been over for nearly three weeks, that competition captured the attention of the people of the United States.
In 1868 Jack Casement, the UP construction boss, had seen his men lay down four and a half miles of track in a single day. “They bragged of it,” Charles Crocker, who was in charge of CP construction, later said, “and it was heralded all over the country as being the biggest day’s track laying that was ever known.” Crocker told James Strobridge, his burly, profane, supremely capable overseer, that the CP must beat the UP. They got together the material, talked to the men, and did it, spiking down six miles and a few feet in a single day in 1868.
Casement had come back at them later that year, starting at 3:00 A.M. and keeping at the task until midnight. At the end of the day, the UP had advanced the end of track eight and a half miles.
“Now,” Crocker said to Strobridge, “we must take off our coats, but we must not beat them until we get so close together that there is not enough room for them to turn around and outdo us.” Ten miles ought to do it, he figured.
“Mr. Crocker,” Strobridge said, “we cannot get men enough onto the track to lay ten miles.”
Organize, Crocker replied. “I’ve been thinking over this for two weeks, and I have got it all planned out.”
Crocker’s plan was to have the men and the horses ready at first light. He wanted iron cars with rails, spikes, and fishplates, all ready to go. The night before, he wanted five supply trains lined up, the first at the railhead. Each of the five locomotives would pull 16 cars, which contained enough supplies for two miles of track. When the sun rose, his Chinese workers, the men who had punched the line through the Sierra, would leap into the cars of the first train, up at the end of track, and begin throwing down kegs of bolts and spikes, bundles of fishplates, and the rails. That train would then back up to a siding, and while the first two miles were laid, another would come forward. As the first train moved back, six-man gangs of Chinese would lift the small, open flatcars onto the track and begin loading each one with 16 rails plus kegs of bolts, spikes, and fishplates.
As this operation was being mounted, three men with shovels, called “pioneers,” would move out along the grade—that is, the right-of-way prepared to receive the track—aligning the ties that had been placed there the night before. When the loaded cart got to the end of the track, right after the pioneers, a team of Irish workers, one on each side, would grab the rails with their tongs, two men in front, two at the rear, race them forward to their proper position and drop them in their proper place when the foreman called out, “Down!”
The spikes, placed by the Chinese workers atop the rails, would dribble onto the grade as the rails were removed. The bolts and fishplates, which joined the rails together at their ends, were carried in hand buckets to where they were needed. When the cart was empty, it would be tipped off the grade, and the next one brought on. Then the first would be turned around, and the horses would be rehitched, to race back for another load.
Next would come the men placing and pounding in spikes. Crocker admonished Strobridge to have enough spikes on hand so that “no man stops and no man passes another.” The crew placing the telegraph poles and stringing the wire would keep pace.
Strobridge heard everything Crocker had to say, considered it, and finally said, “We can beat them, but it will cost something.” For example, he insisted on having a fresh team of horses for each car hauling rail, the fresh horses to take over after every two and a half miles.
“Go ahead and do it,” said Crocker.
They waited until April 27, when the CP had only 14 miles to go, the UP 9. Crocker had offered a bet of $10,000 to Thomas Durant, vice president of the UP, saying that the CP would lay 10 miles of track in one day. Reportedly, Durant was sure they couldn’t and accepted the wager.
What the CP crews did that day should be remembered as long as this Republic lasts. White men born in America were there, along with former slaves whose ancestors came from Africa, plus immigrants from all across Europe, and more than 3,000 Chinese. There were some Mexicans with a touch of Native American blood in them, as well as French Indians and at least a few Native Americans. Everyone was excited, ready to get to work, eager to show what he could do. Even the Chinese, usually methodical and a bit scornful of the American way of doing things, were stirred to a fever pitch. They and all the others. They had come together at this desolate place in the middle of western North America to do what had never been done before.
The sun rose at 7:15 A.M. First the Chinese went to work. According to the San Francisco Bulletin ’s correspondent, “In eight minutes, the sixteen cars were cleared, with a noise like the bombardment of an army.”
The Irishmen laying track came on behind the pioneers. Their names were Michael Shay, Patrick Joyce, Michael Kennedy, Thomas Daley, George Elliott, Michael Sullivan, Edward Killeen, and Fred McNamara. Their foreman was George Coley. The two in front on each 30-foot rail would pick it up with their tongs and run forward. The two in the rear picked it up and carried it forward until all four heard “Down.” The rails weighed 560 pounds each.
Next came the men starting the spikes by placing them in position, then the spike drivers, then the bolt threaders, then the straighteners, finally the tampers.
“The scene is a most animated one,” wrote one newspaper reporter. “From the first pioneer to the last tamper, perhaps two miles, there is a thin line of 1,000 men advancing a mile an hour; the iron cars running up and down; mounted men galloping backward and forward. Alongside of the moving force are teams hauling tools, and water-wagons, and Chinamen, with pails strung over their shoulders, moving among the men with water and tea.”
One of the Army officers, the senior man, grabbed Charlie Crocker’s arm and said, “I never saw such organization as this; it is just like an army marching across over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.”
When the whistle blew for the noon meal, at 1:30 P.M. , the CP workers had laid 6 miles of track. Strobridge had a second team of tracklayers in reserve, but the proud men who had put down the first 6 miles insisted on keeping at it throughout the rest of the day. By 7:00 P.M. , the CP was 10 miles and 56 feet farther east than it had been at dawn. Never before done, never matched.
To demonstrate how well the track had been laid, the engineer Jim Campbell ran a locomotive over the new track at 40 miles an hour. Jack Casement turned to Strobridge. “He owned up beaten,” Strobridge later commented. But so far as can be told, Durant never paid Crocker the $10,000 he lost in the bet.
Grenville Dodge, the UP’s chief engineer, sneered at the record. “They took a week preparing for it,” he declared. “I never saw so much needless waste in building railroads.” But Dodge ended with a comment that summed up the triumphs and troubles he had seen, one that put his, the UP’s, and the CP’s achievement in reaching Promontory into perspective. He noted that “everything connected with the construction department is being closed up” and concluded, “Closing the accounts is like the close of the Rebellion.”
In the twenty-first century, everything seems to be in flux, and change is so constant as to be taken for granted. This leads to a popular question: What generation lived through the greatest change? The one that lived through the coming of the automobile and the airplane and the beginning of modern medicine? Or the one that was around for the invention and first use of the atomic bomb and the jet airplane? Or the computer? Or the Internet and e-mail? For me, it is the Americans who lived through the second half of the nineteenth century. They saw slavery abolished and electricity put to use, the development of the telephone and the completion of the telegraph, and most of all the railroad. The locomotive was the first great triumph over time and space. After it came, and after it crossed the continent of North America, nothing could ever again be the same. It brought about the greatest change in the shortest period of time.
Only in America was there enough space to utilize the locomotive fully, and only here did the government own enough unused land or possess enough credit to induce capitalists to build a transcontinental railroad. Only in America was there enough labor or enough energy and imagination. “We are the youngest of the peoples,” proclaimed the New York Herald , “but we are teaching the world how to march forward.”
One year before the rails were joined at Promontory, Walt Whitman began to celebrate this new force when he wrote in his “Passage to India”:
Parts of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific ran through some of the grandest scenery in the world, but the spot where the two were joined together was improbable and undistinguished. No one had ever lived there, and shortly after the ceremony no one would ever again, as it is today a National Park. The summit was just over 5,000 feet above sea level, a flat, circular valley, bare except for sagebrush and a few scrub cedars, perhaps three miles in diameter. The only “buildings” were a half-dozen wall tents and a few rough-board shacks, set up by merchants selling whiskey.
The ceremony was scheduled for May 8. The Central Pacific’s regular passenger train left Sacramento at 6:00 A.M. on May 6, with a number of excursionists. A special train followed, carrying Leland Stanford, the former governor of California and president and director of the CP; the chief justice of California; the governor of Arizona; and other guests. Also on board were: the last spike, made of gold; the last tie, made of laurel; and a silver-headed hammer.
The Stanford special moved along briskly with its excited and expectant passengers. But up ahead, just over the summit, some Chinese were cutting timber above the entrance to Tunnel No. 14. After seeing the regular train pass, with no way to know that another, unscheduled train was coming right behind, they skidded a 50-foot log down on the track. The engine struck the log and was damaged. A telegraph was sent ahead to Wadsworth to hold the passenger train until Stanford’s coach could be attached.
This was done. The locomotive pulling the passenger train was named Jupiter . It was the CP’s Engine No. 60, built in Schenectady, now headed toward a permanent place in railroad history.
On Friday afternoon, May 7, the train arrived at Promontory Point, but there was no one from the UP. Stanford sent a message to the UP’s Ogden office, demanding to know where the hell the delegation was. Casement replied that because of very heavy rains, the UP wouldn’t get its trains to the summit before Monday, May 10.
Stanford and party were stuck in one of the least scenic spots, with the fewest residents, on a train that had food but made no provisions for entertaining its passengers on a two-day layover. Stanford had the train pull back to a more pleasant location at the Monument Point siding, 30 miles west of the summit, where at least there was a view of a lake. There he and his party spent a quiet Sunday. For most of the day, it rained.
The Alta California correspondent spent the day poking around the summit, looking for a story. He got it. As he was watching, the Wells Fargo Overland Stage No. 2 came onto Promontory summit with its last load of mail from the West Coast. “The four old nags were worn and jaded,” he wrote, “and the coach showed evidence of long service. The mail matter was delivered to the Central Pacific Co., and with that dusty, dilapidated coach and team, the old order of things passed away forever.”
The dawn on May 10 was cold, near freezing, but the rising sun heralded a bright, clear day, with temperatures rising into the seventies. Spring in Utah, as glorious as it can be. A group of UP and CP workers began to gather, but there were not many of them left, and the best estimate put the crowd at 500 or 600 people, far fewer than the predictions (some had gone as high as 30,000). During the morning, two trains from the CP and two from the UP arrived at the site, bearing officials and their guests, as well as spectators.
Among those representing the CP were Stanford, Strobridge, and some minor officials, plus George Booth, engineer of the Jupiter ; R. A. Murphy, the fireman; and Eli Dennison, the conductor. The UP contingent included Dodge, Durant, and Casement. Sam Bradford was the engineer on No. 119, the opposite number to the Jupiter , with Benjamin Mallory as conductor. Cyrus Sweet was the fireman (twenty years old, he would live through World War II and die on May 30, 1948).
A battalion of soldiers, from the 21st Regiment, under Maj. Milton Cogswell, was there. The soldiers had come by train and were headed to the Presidio of San Francisco, which surely must make the 21st the first Army unit to cross the continent by rail. The military band from Fort Douglas, Wyoming, was also there, along with the Tenth Ward Band from Salt Lake City.
In the twenty-first century, public-relations officials from the two companies would have long since taken over the ceremony, but as things were, almost nothing had been planned. Still, it had been decided to have a telegraph wire attached to the Golden Spike, with another to the sledgehammer. When the Golden Spike was tapped in, the telegraph lines would send the message all around the country. (The spike would be placed in a hole already drilled, so that it had only to be tapped down and then could easily be extracted; the spike today is at Stanford University.)
If it worked, this would be something wholly new in the world. People in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, and Los Angeles, even people in Montreal, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and London, England, would participate, by listening, in the same event.
Many other decisions had to be improvised. Before the scheduled time to begin, which was at noon, Dodge, Durant, and Stanford are said to have argued for nearly an hour over who should have the honor of putting in the Golden Spike. “At one time the Union Pacific positively refused connection,” the San Francisco News Leader reported, “and told the Central people they might do as they liked, and there should be no joint celebration.” Just a few minutes before noon, Stanford and Durant settled the controversy.
The crowd pressed forward. On the telegraph, W. N. Shilling, a telegrapher from Western Union’s Ogden office, beat a tattoo of messages to impatient inquiries from various offices: TO EVERYBODY. KEEP QUIET. WHEN THE LAST SPIKE IS DRIVEN AT PROMONTORY POINT, WE WILL SAY “DONE!” DON’T BREAK THE CIRCUIT, BUT WATCH FOR THE SIGNALS OF THE BLOWS OF THE HAMMER .
The preacher was introduced. Shilling clicked again: ALMOST READY. HATS OFF; PRAYER IS BEING OFFERED .
The spikes were brought forward. Shilling clicked, WE HAVE GOT DONE PRAYING . Stanford gave a brief, uninspired speech. Dodge spoke up for the UP. He mentioned Sen. Thomas Hart Benton and Christopher Columbus. Shilling again: ALL READY NOW; THE SPIKE WILL SOON BE DRIVEN. THE SIGNAL WILL BE THREE DOTS FOR THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE BLOWS .
Strobridge and Reed put the last tie, the laurel tie, in place. Durant drove in his spike—or rather tapped it in, for it was partially seated in the pre-drilled hole already. Then came Stanford. When he tapped in the Golden Spike, he would signal the waiting country. Reporters compared what was coming to the first shot fired at Lexington.
Stanford swung and missed, striking only the rail. It made no difference. The telegraph operator closed the circuit, and the wire went out, DONE !
Across the nation, bells pealed—even the venerable Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Then came the boom of cannon, 220 of them in San Francisco at Fort Point, 100 in Washington, D.C., and countless others. Everywhere there was the shriek of fire whistles, firecrackers and fireworks, singing and prayers in churches. In New Orleans, Richmond, and Atlanta, and throughout the old Confederacy, there were celebrations. Chicago had its biggest parade of the century, seven miles long.
A correspondent there caught exactly the spirit that had brought the whole country together. The festivity, he wrote in the Chicago Tribune , “was free from the atmosphere of warlike energy and the suggestion of suffering, danger, and death which threw their oppressive shadow over the celebrations of our victories during the war for the Union.”
At Promontory, the Jupiter and the UP’s No. 119, uncoupled from their trains, moved forward ever so slowly, until their pilots touched. The photographer A. J. Russell urged the crews to form a wedge radiating out from the point of contact. When he told his subjects they were free to move, two more whistles joined the others across the nation and a roar exploded from the crowd. Champagne bottles were smashed against each engine.
The engines backed up and hooked onto their cars. No. 119 then came forward until it had crossed the junction of the tracks, halted for an instant, then reversed. Jupiter came forward, crossed the junction, and also backed away. The transcontinental railroad was a reality.
Stanford invited the UP officials to his car for a celebratory lunch, with plenty of California fruit and wine to mark the occasion. Telegrams went out and came in. To President Grant: “Sir: We have the honor to report that the last rail is laid, the last spike is driven, the Pacific Railroad is finished.” Signed by Stanford and Durant. Another from Dodge to Grant. One to Vice President Schuyler Colfax. One from Dodge to Secretary of War John Rawlins, with a nice touch: “The great work, commenced during the Administration of Lincoln, in the middle of a great rebellion, is completed under that of Grant, who conquered the peace.”
Freight rates by train also fell incredibly. Mail that once cost dollars per ounce and took forever now cost pennies and got from Chicago to California in a few days. The telegraph, meanwhile, could move ideas, thoughts, statistics—any words or numbers that could be put on paper—from one place to another, from Europe or England or New York to San Francisco or anywhere else that had a telegraph station, all but instantly.
Together, the transcontinental railroad and the telegraph made modern America possible. Things that could not be imagined before the Civil War now became common. A nationwide stock market, for example. A continentwide economy in which people, food, coal, and minerals moved wherever someone wanted to send them, and did so cheaply and quickly.
Mistakes had been made all along the line, caused by both errors of judgment and a certain cynicism, encouraged by Congress and cheered on by the populace at large. There was an emphasis on speed rather than quality, on laying as much track as possible, without regard for safe grading. On September 4, 1872, the New York Sun had a bold headline:
The newspaper had launched what became the biggest scandal of the nineteenth century. The House of Representatives had a series of hearings to inquire into the working of the Crédit Mobilier—the limited-liability stock company incorporated in 1864 to finance construction of the UP—and into the workings of the UP itself, as well as of the CP. Every official from the companies was required to testify, and in virtually every case the testimony was twisted and given the worst possible interpretation. The hearings went on for a full six months, featuring for the most part acrimony and sensationalism, although most charges were true and would be proved.
The UP and the CP were the biggest corporations of their time and the first to have extensive dealings with the federal, state, county, and township governments. They could not have been built without government aid in the form of gifts—especially land grants, plus state and county purchases of their stock and loans in the form of national government bonds. The CP’s directors became extraordinarily rich thanks to the railroad and the way it was financed. The men who held stock in the Crédit Mobilier also got rich from it. In large part this was done by defrauding the government and the public, by paying the lowest possible wages to the men who built the lines, and by delaying or actually ignoring payments of bills to the subcontractors and workmen. In many ways they used their power to guarantee profit for themselves. Most Americans found it difficult, even impossible, to believe that they had actually earned those profits. The general public sentiment was: We have been bilked.
The case was a smash hit. People couldn’t get enough of it. As in so much else since the road began, the Union Pacific was once again leading the way as the central character in the action. As well it should have been, since what was being argued about was nothing less than the relationship between government and business. Practical matters were involved, such as when government intervention or regulation is justified.
The Central Pacific, or more particularly the line’s Contract and Finance Company, which underwrote it, was also investigated, but all its books had been burned—whether deliberately or by accident was and is in dispute—so nothing was pinned on its directors, even though they were as vulnerable as the UP’s.
Congress felt it had the right, the responsibility, and the power to go after the UP and the CP, because the companies would not have existed had Congress not loaned them government bonds and given them land grants. This has caused enormous controversy ever since. Both companies have been accused of stretching out their rail lines in order to get more land grants, a notion that is completely wrong. Despite 130 years of working to reduce the length of the lines, only a few miles have been shaved off, and that mainly caused by the fall of the level of the Great Salt Lake, which allowed the railroad to make a shortcut below Promontory Summit by erecting a causeway through the water.
The land grants are much misunderstood, especially by professors teaching American-history survey courses. The grants are denounced, lambasted, derided. In one of the most influential textbooks ever published, The Growth of the American Republic , Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, who were two of the most distinguished historians of their day, if not of the whole twentieth century, wrote: “The lands granted to both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific yielded enough to have covered all legitimate costs of building these roads.” A colleague of theirs, also distinguished, Fred A. Shannon, wrote, “The half billion dollars in land alone to the land grant railroads was worth more than the railroads were when they were built.”
It was the land grants and the bonds the government passed out that caused the greatest outrage, at the time and later. Still, although the concern of the investigators was justified—it was, after all, the people’s money that had been taken—there is another side.
The land grants never brought in enough to pay the bills of building either railroad, or even to come close. In California, from Sacramento to the Sierra Nevada range, and in Nebraska, the railroads were able to sell their strips of land at a good price, $2.50 per acre or more. But in most of Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, the companies could never sell the land. Unless it had minerals on it, it was virtually worthless, even to cattlemen, who needed far more acres for a workable ranch. So too the vast amount of land the government still owns in the West.
The total value of lands distributed to the railroads was estimated by the Interior Department’s auditor as of November 1, 1880, at $391,804,610. The total investment in railroads in the United States in that year was $4,653,609,000. In addition, the government got to sell the alternate sections it held on to in California and Nebraska for big sums. Those lands would have been worth nearly nothing, or in many cases absolutely nothing, if it had not been for the building of the railroads. As the historian Robert Henry points out, the land grants did “what had never been done before—provided transportation ahead of settlement.”
But they were not a gift. They were loans, to be paid back in 30 years or less. The requirement was met. In the final settlement with the railroads, in 1898 and 1899, the government collected $63,023,512 of principal plus $104,722,978 in interest, making a total repayment of $167,746,490 on an initial loan of $64,623,512. Professor Hugo Meyer of Harvard looked at those figures and quite rightly said, “For the government the whole outcome had been financially not less than brilliant.”
An automatic reaction that big business is always on the wrong side, corrupt and untrustworthy, is too easy, and the error is compounded if we fail to distinguish between incentives and fraud.
It is well, perhaps, to remember what Charles Francis Adams, Jr., a man of iron rectitude and the scourge of the Union Pacific’s financing, later wrote of the road’s original directors, after he became president of the line: “It is very easy to speak of these men as thieves and speculators. But there was no human being, when the Union Pacific railroad was proposed, who regarded it as other than a wildcat venture. The government did not dare to take hold of it. Those men went into the enterprise because the country wanted a transcontinental railroad, and was willing to give almost any sum to those who would build it. The general public refused to put a dollar into the enterprise. Those men took their financial lives in their hands, and went forward with splendid energy and built the road the country called for. They played a great game, and they played for either a complete failure or a brilliant prize.”
Both railroads have gone through major changes in the century and a third since they were built. The UP went into receivership in 1893, but as the country turned into the twenty-first century, it remained one of the oldest and richest corporations in the world, and its holdings included what had once been the CP.
In a way, the personnel have changed less. The men who built the CP were mainly Chinese. For the most part, as individuals they are lost to history, but many of them stayed with railroad work. The Irishmen working for the UP also found jobs on other railroads. They too were discriminated against—“no dogs or Irishmen allowed”—but not so thoroughly as the Chinese. They and their sons and daughters and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren went on to participate actively and successfully in American life.
Firemen, brakemen, engineers, conductors, mechanics, welders, carpenters, repair-shop men, the clerical force, the foremen, directors, supervisors, and people in every job for either the UP or the CP stayed with the railroads for their careers, and so did their children, followed by the third generation and beyond. These are the people who run the modern railroad. They repair it, improve it, take care of it, make sure the damn things go. More than in almost any other profession, railroading is something a family is proud of and wants to remain a part of.
Railroad people are special. Like all the rest, they lose jobs, have to move, are underpaid, and otherwise have a lot to gripe about. But on the job, they love being responsible for all that fabulous machinery. Their spirit is a living tie to a momentous achievement.
The dreamers, the politicians, and the financiers; the surveyors, the soldiers, the engineers; the construction bosses, the railroad men, the foremen; the Chinese, the Irish, and all the others who picked up a shovel or a sledgehammer or a rail; and the American people who insisted that it had to be done and who paid for it: They built the transcontinental railroad.
Things happened as they happened. It is possible to imagine all kinds of different routes across the continent, or a better way for the government to help private industry, or maybe to have the government build a railroad and own it. But those things didn’t happen, and what did take place is grand. So we admire those who did it—even if they were far from perfect—for what they were and what they accomplished and how much each one of us owes them.