IN 1866, Collis Huntington followed up on the map he had already had approved by the attorney general, the map that showed the CP going 150 miles east of the California-Nevada border. Now he wanted an amendment to the railroad bill of 1864 that Congress initially approved, ordering that the CP build until it ran into or even past the tracks of the UP In short, he wanted a race sanctioned by the U.S. Congress.
A race fit perfectly into the business climate of America. The businessmen spoke little and did much, while the politicians did as little as possible and spoke much. In historian Thomas Cochran’s words, the businessmen emphasized “time more insistently than anyone since the original creation.”1
Huntington hired Richard H. Franchot, an ex-congressman and former Union Army general, to represent his interests to Congress. Franchot, probably the first paid lobbyist, set a pattern for the hordes who followed him. He received $20,000 per year, the same salary the Big Four paid themselves. They did not even ask for a receipt, although his expense account may have reached millions of dollars as he dispensed information, cash, good cheer, and favors.
It was an ideal setup for a lobbyist, as the case made itself. All the CP wanted, it said, was the right to compete fairly. How could the Congress give the UP the right to build as far west as possible without allowing the CP to build as far east as it could? How indeed? The argument and the people making the argument were irrefutable.
In addition, the CP was still stuck at mile 54 out of Sacramento, was still chipping away at the Summit Tunnel, while the UP was almost 250 miles west of Omaha and going strong. The UP directors thought that the CP couldn’t possibly make it to the California-Nevada border before they got there. There was no point spending time or money to forestall the CP’s getting permission to build farther to the east.
Whatever the directors thought, they were up against their match. Huntington later recalled that the 150-mile limitation on the CP “ought not to have gone into the [original] bill, but I said to Mr. Union Pacific … I would take that out as soon as I wanted it out. In 1866 I went to Washington…. I went into the gallery for votes. I sat right there. I examined the face of every man … carefully through my glass. I didn’t see but one man I thought would sell his vote.” So he let the politicians vote as they saw fit.2 He knew he had them.
On June 19, 1866, the Senate approved the amendment to the railroad bill by a vote of 34 to 8. A week later, the House assented by 94 to 33, and on July 3, 1866, President Johnson signed it. The amendment authorized the CP to “locate, construct and continue their road eastward, in a continuous, completed line, until they shall meet and connect with the Union Pacific Railroad.” Another provision permitted the companies to grade three hundred miles ahead of the end of track. Still another said the railroads could draw two-thirds of the government bonds upon completion of acceptable grade and before track had been laid.3 Congress reserved the right to name the exact site where the two lines would connect. That would be decided later.
Meanwhile, the great race was on, exactly as the Congress and the President and the people they represented wanted. Or, as the Sacramento Union put it in a January 1866 article, “It is the duty of the Government to urge the construction of the road with all possible speed.”4 The Omaha Weekly Herald wrote, “American genius, American industry, American perseverance can accomplish almost anything.”5
It was indeed such an American thing to do. A race, a competition. Build it fast. The company that won would get the largest share of the land and the biggest share of the bonds. The cost to the country would be the same if it took ten years or twenty years or five years to build. People wanted to get to California, or back east. They wanted to see the sights, to ship the goods. The road could be fixed up later. Build it. Nail it down. And there was no better way than to set up a competition.
This was democracy at work.
• • •
HOPKINS and Huntington’s correspondence, handwritten, is long, even voluminous letters, full of detail. They had no other means of communicating, except by telegraph—which cost so much per word that they thought it outrageous and refused whenever possible to use it—or by a conference, nearly impossible when they were on different coasts. So they wrote, handsome letters, quite legible, well written, covering all the points. In the middle part of the nineteenth century, before the typewriter and the telephone, businessmen did so as a matter of course. So did the politicians, come to that, and the doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, generals and enlisted men, housewives, nearly everyone.
Hopkins to Huntington on January 23, 1866: “It will require all the means and good management that we are master of to build the road over the mountains at the rate we are going.” February 16 (in reference to getting teamsters to pick up freight at the end of track to carry on the Big Four’s wagon road from Dutch Flat): “We are powerless to get freight taken unless we pay the teamsters $1.25 a ton—and even at that it was difficult to get them from the Pacific Road, for no better reason than because there were more taverns on the Pacific Road—more waiting girls and Bar maids and from long acquaintance that road was more familiar and homelike.”
In the same February 16 letter, after a discourse on the difficulty of building the railroad from Dutch Flat over the summit and down to the Truckee River, Hopkins wrote: “Snow prevents work about 5-6 months in the year, so we need to get it done this season if possible…. We’re pushing hard. For as we see it, it is either a six month job or an eighteen month job to reach a point where the road will earn us a heap and where in construction we can make a pile.” By that last phrase he meant that, when the track laying reached the desert in Nevada, the company could build more in a day than it could in months in the mountains, and thus receive more government bonds.
“This winter only pack mules can transport the stage passengers to Virginia City [Nevada]. Crocker’s camp supplies and much of his forage for his work animals are packed in at a cost of one cent per pound,” he added. February 24 (following a long discussion of water resources): “We need the right to take water for construction and operation. Without this grant from Congress we are entirely at the mercy of a set of water speculators—real water sharks—known as ditch companies. They go ahead of the RR and buy up all the water to make us, the farmers and the miners or anyone else pay them hugely for it. We have already paid $60,000 in construction costs to go over, along, and around these ditches.”
There is a great deal about money, and when the government will turn over bonds, and what price Huntington is getting for the bonds in hand, and what he is paying for rails, locomotives, cars, and other supplies. And a great deal on various dealings of the Big Four with regard to West Coast railroads. Plus personnel problems and hopes.
Hopkins again on May 5: “Our cuts weakened the support of the natural hillside formation, so at Tunnel hill, just above Secret Town, where the original intention was to make a tunnel, the material was too soft to tunnel without being lined by expensive masonry, so it was decided to make an open cut in the spur, which is near 100 ft thick. The cut was nearly done when in March it broke back several hundred feet and slowly continued to slide—imperceptible to the eye, yet continually moving. All the space that 500 men could make during the day with their carts and wheelbarrows would be filled the next morning.” And so on, as he recounted the perils of building a track in the mountains.
On July 9, Hopkins said that Crocker was suffering from a powder shortage because the powder company “can’t make it fast enough.” Then, turning to the good news: “It is a great consolation to know that you whipped out the UP at Washington [by getting Congress to approve the amendment]. They thought to Lord it over us, and get well paid. They must be in a bad fix if they have mortgaged a road up to within 150 miles of our state line. Send me a copy of the UP’s first mortgage. I will perhaps get some new ideas for the next mortgage we make.”
There were other problems. On Julyl6, 1866, Hopkins wrote to Huntington: “The ship Hornet burned at sea. Even using the invoices/schedules/and letters, it can not be determined what RR material went down with her. Our invoices show only 1182 bars of iron, 100 kegs spikes and 65 ball chains. But the bills you sent in have many other things listed, but for which we have no bill of lading.”
On July 21, Hopkins said that he was satisfied that each of the Big Four was doing what he ought to be doing—Stanford with the politicians, Crocker running construction, Huntington making loans and buying all equipment and supplies, and he himself in charge of finance. He felt he was useful “here, while I am sure no one of us could do so well as yourself there [New York, Boston, and Washington]. Until we can hear a locomotive whistle scream on the other side of the summit, so as to feel ourselves well out of the woods, I don’t intend to ask or suggest any change.”
Huntington agreed. “If it had not been for you and I,” he wrote back, “my opinion is that the Central Pacific would have gone to the Devil before this.” Huntington confessed, “I have gone to sleep at night in New York when I had a million and a half dollars to be paid by three o’clock on the following day, without knowing where the money was coming from, and slept soundly. I never worried.” He practiced more rigorously than man of any previous age the self-denial of conventional pleasures today in return for wealth and power tomorrow. CP lawyer Alfred Cohen later said, “I have seen Mr. Huntington trudging about from office to office trying to get people to lend him money…. They were put to terrible straits to get money to get over the mountains.”
The correspondence wasn’t all business. “Mrs. Hopkins will probably go east this spring, as the advanced age of her father and his feeble health induces her to change her promise never to make the voyage without me.”6
THE winter of 1865-66 was the wettest in years. On the lower slopes, below Colfax, the rains were heavy enough for the Sacramento Union to complain that the railroad’s “embankments are so miserably built that they give way under the soaking rains of this climate, and long delays are occasioned.”7 The soil was thick, spongy, a mucky trap for vehicles. Crocker got hundreds of mules to carry food, powder, tools, and their own forage to the camps beyond the end of track. A stagecoach setting out from Dutch Flat for Virginia City got so mired in mud near Gold Run that it was stuck for six weeks. Heavy landslides spread mud and boulders across the completed track, often blocking the road. The snows higher up hampered work on the tunnels. There were five feet of snow on New Year’s Day, 1866.
From then until March, as often happens in California, the skies were clear and calm. But in March, the storms came again, bringing sleet and snow which lasted until the end of May. Indeed, from May 20 until June 1, the weather was almost one constant snowstorm. Strobridge later said, “The winter made the roads on the clay soils of the foothills nearly impassable for vehicles. The building of the railroad was prosecuted with energy but at a much greater cost than would have been the case in the dry season…. All work between Colfax and Dutch Flat was done during this winter in the mud.”8
Crocker and Strobridge stayed with it. By the spring of 1866, they had hired and put to work the largest number of employees in America. The CP had over ten thousand men working on the railroad, eight thousand of them Chinese. Some one thousand of these labored for Arthur Brown, who had charge of the company’s trestling, timbering, and bridging. He had his men felling trees, shaping timbers, and driving piles for bridges. The track-laying foreman, Henry H. Minkler, had his men spiking in rails in early May up and around Cape Horn.9
Charlie Crocker rode up and down the line with a leather saddlebag holding gold and silver coin to pay the men. “Why, I went up and down the road like a man bull,” he told an interviewer. He was inspecting, criticizing, or roaring with anger. Once he told Stro, “Rule them with an iron hand.” That was after he saw a group of white men talking excitedly in a group. “There is something breeding there,” he told Strobridge.
“They’re getting up a strike,” Stro replied. After Crocker had paid off the other men, Strobridge said, “There, they are coming. Now get ready.”
When the men got close enough to hear, Crocker said, “Strobridge, I think you had better reduce wages on this cut. We are paying a little more than we ought to. Reduce them about 25 cents a day.”
Hearing this, the men stopped and talked. Finally, one of their leaders stepped forward and said to Crocker, “We thought, sir, that we ought to have our wages raised a little on this tunnel. The tunnel is very wet, and the cut is wet.” Crocker replied that he had just been talking to Stro about lowering their wages.
“We thought we ought to get an advance,” said the worker, “but you ought not to reduce it, certainly.” Crocker asked Stro what he thought.
“I wouldn’t make a fuss over it. We had better let them go on at the same figure.”
“All right,” said Crocker, and that was that.10
STROBRIDGE lived in a manner that all the others, even Crocker, envied. His wife, Hanna Maria Strobridge, and their six adopted children were with him, living in a standard passenger car pulled by the headquarters locomotive, which stayed right behind the end of track. Strobridge had it made over into a three-bedroom house on wheels. Mrs. Strobridge had an awning fitted to her front porch, and when the train was halted she hung houseplants and a caged canary around her entrance. People wiped their feet before entering. She was the only woman on the CP line, and Stro was the only man with a family life.11
WORK on the Summit Tunnel went slowly at best. Montague decided it would be worth the cost to sink a shaft from the top so that the Chinese could work on four facings at once—the ones at each end, and two others going in opposite directions from the middle. The shaft would be eight by twelve feet wide, and seventy-three feet deep.
By hand, the Chinese began to cut it through, haul the debris (mainly granite chunks) up from the bottom, and lower the timbers into place to shore it up. The bosses decided some mechanical aid might speed things up. An old locomotive, the Sacramento (one of the first locomotives in California), was cannibalized and sent to the top of the digging, to serve as a hoisting engine. Minus its cab, wheels, and turning shafts, the Sacramento was loaded by a winch onto a reinforced freight car and hauled to the end of track, near Colfax. There a mule skinner named Missouri Bill took over. His job was to drag the twelve-ton engine, now called the Blue Goose, to the summit, fifty miles away as the crow flies, seventy-five miles on the mountain trails. The wagon the Blue Goosetraveled on, specially designed, had wooden wheels two feet wide. Ten yokes of oxen pulled it, spurred on by Missouri Bill’s profanity and whip. When the oxen encountered a team of horses pulling wagons, the horses kicked, bucked, and otherwise created havoc. Bill sent one man ahead to blindfold approaching horses.
Going downslope, Bill put blocks under the wide wheels; heavy logging chains were attached to the largest trees nearby and, with a few feet of slack, attached to the wagon. Bill then knocked out the blocks, and the wagon and the Blue Goose slid a yard or so. Then the process was repeated. He used the chains to climb, too. This went on for six weeks, until the summit was finally reached. After the engine was set up in a building fifty feet square that had been built for it, and placed on a bed of huge timbers at the top of the tunnel shaft, it began to haul up the granite and lower the timber. Work went faster, as much as a foot a day. But it wasn’t until December 19 that the bottom was reached and the Chinese could get started drilling and blasting.
Crocker then decided that he wanted more experienced men for the tunneling. He sent an emissary to Virginia City, Nevada, to persuade some of the best Cornish miners to come to his site, with the lure of higher wages. They came, but instead of giving them exclusive charge of excavating the tunnel, Crocker faced them in one direction and Chinese workers in the other. “The Chinese, without fail, always outmeasured the Cornish miners,” he recalled. “That is to say, they would cut more rock in a week than the Cornish miners did. And there it was hard work, steady pounding on the rock, bone-labor.” The Cornishmen quit. “They swore they would not work with Chinamen anyhow,” said Crocker. After that, “the Chinamen had possession of the whole work.”12
In the mid-twentieth century, a Hollywood firm tried to duplicate Missouri Bill’s feat of hauling a dismantled locomotive to the summit, using a smaller engine. The engine was moved up the mountain for a total distance of five hundred yards. The firm gave up the task as impossible.13
AT the tunnels, especially Summit Tunnel, the Chinese were using great amounts of black powder, up to five hundred kegs a day. Despite the end of the Civil War, the price had gone steadily up, from $2.50 per keg to $15 a keg. This was a seller’s market, for real. As Stanford explained, the CP spent its money with the greatest of economy “except in the matter of speed, and then we never hesitated to make a sacrifice.”14
Crocker and Strobridge decided to experiment with nitroglycerin, which was brand-new (and spelled as two words). Said to be an extraordinary explosive, it had been invented in Italy in 1847, then refined in the 1860s by demolitions engineer Alfred Nobel in Sweden. It was five times more powerful by bulk than black powder, and thirteen times more destructive. The Railroad Record in August 1866 said that “its storing and transport involve no danger.”
Would that it were so. There were terrible accidents, ignored for the most part by the CP but nevertheless more than enough to force most companies to swear off it. The Dutch Flat Enquirer, a booster of the explosive—“the work of blasting has been greatly facilitated,” it reported that spring—said that in one explosion in New York City “nobody is to blame, it is perfectly safe and harmless and simply blew up from maltreatment and in self-defense.”15
The CP found that, when they got to drilling holes of fifteen to eighteen inches into the granite, poured in the liquid nitroglycerin, capped the hole with a plug, and fired it with a percussion cap, the nitroglycerin did a far better job than powder. The work progressed at nearly double the speed, and the granite was broken into far smaller pieces. But the accidents proved too much. In one, after a number of charges had been set off simultaneously, a Chinese worker hit a charge of nitro that hadn’t exploded with his pick. It exploded and killed him and the others working near that spot.
Strobridge declared, “Bury that stuff.” Crocker said to get it out of there. And even though Nobel perfected dynamite in 1866, it was never tested or used by the CP. In 1867, the CP ignored the dangers and did make and use its own nitroglycerin, but except at Summit Tunnel did not make a practice of it.16
According to Henry Root, Strobridge spent most of his time that fall near or at the Summit Tunnel—No. 6, as it was called. He had assistants who traveled over the work and were known as “riding bosses.” Root said, “More powder was used by the rock foremen than was economical, but time was the essential of all operations, so there was a good reason.” Thus did the CP imbue even their modest assistants with the spirit of the enterprise—nail it down! “In the vicinity of Cisco,” Root wrote, “the rock was so hard that it seemed impossible to drill into it a sufficient depth for blasting purposes. Shot after shot would blow out as if fired from a cannon.”17 Clement told Stanford, “Perseverance alone conquered.”18
The CP would not wait for the Summit Tunnel to be cut and tracks laid through it. The company would push on beyond the Sierra Nevada by outflanking the Donner Pass. Partly this was to keep the enormous workforce employed, but mainly it was to get into Nevada and head east before the UP could get to the Salt Lake and head west. The Big Four had not set up the race in order to lose it.
The CP sent three exploring parties prodding through Nevada to look for routes for the railroad between the Big Bend of the Truckee River, some thirty miles east of today’s Reno, and the Salt Lake Valley, five hundred miles beyond. The leaders were survey engineers Butler Ives, William Epler, and S. M. Buck. The direct route, straight east, had a series of mountain ranges, including the Clan Alpine, the Desatoya, the Shoshone, the Towabe, the Toquima, the Monitor, the White Pine, the Shell Creek, and the Snake—all in Nevada—and the Needle, the Wah Wah, the Confusion, and others in Utah. Still, it had to be explored.
East of Reno, according to one observer, “desolation began to assume its most repulsive form. Miles on miles of black, igneous rock and volcanic detritus. Outcrops of lava, interspersed with volcanic grit,” were the main features. Another traveler said that the country was “so destitute of vegetable and animal life, as not to rise to the rank even of a howling wilderness.” There was no water. The desert was filled with the bones of thousands of animals who had not made it to California.19 The second route, to the north of the Humboldt River, was just as bad.
Samuel Bowles, who had just crossed the continent, declared that “the Humboldt route would be more easily built” than going across central Nevada. “It goes through a naturally better country as to wood, water, and fertility of soil. It is generally conceded to be the true natural roadway across the Continent. The emigration has always taken it.”20 He had it right. Even today the Humboldt is, as it was for Charlie Crocker and his group in 1850, a narrow but wonderful oasis. The grass is green and high, the ducks, geese, herons and eagles, the grazing horses and cattle, are numerous. So are the deer. The water is clear and plentiful until the river gets to the Sinks, where the grass grows in great meadows but the river sinks into the earth.
Butler Ives led the exploration of the Humboldt Valley for the CP. When he got to the Humboldt Wells, where the river rises in northeastern Utah out of the East Humboldt Range at the northern edge of the Ruby Mountains, he tried two approaches to Salt Lake City. One angled southeastward across the Great American Desert and around the bottom of Salt Lake to the city. No good. Then he returned to the wells and set off in a northeasterly direction, across the top edge of the desert, across the Promontory Mountains, around the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, across Bear River, and then southward along the western base of the Wasatch Range to Weber Canyon. That was the way to go.21
IN the meantime, Crocker was having shacks for laborers and warehouses for materials constructed along the Truckee River, twenty miles east and considerably below the Donner Summit. He would send gangs of workers there when the snows fell on the Sierra, to make grade and lay track while waiting for the Summit Tunnel to be completed. He began with a thousand men; another thousand soon followed. They started to make grade back toward Donner Pass.
The editor of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise was delighted to learn of Crocker’s plans. “What a joyful day it will be,” he declared, “when the shrill whistle of the locomotive shall be heard as the train of cars from across the mountains shall go rattling down the Truckee. And that day is not two years distant.”22 Freight trains from Sacramento were pulled up the Sierra in a steady procession. “A 116-foot grade, with a dozen heavily loaded freight cars, is no sardine,” said the Dutch Flat Enquirer, “but they manage to do it somehow.” At Colfax, later at Dutch Flat, eventually at Cisco, the cars were unloaded and the supplies put onto wagons, to go up and over the Sierra Nevada, then down to Nevada.23
On November 5, the CP laid its track to Emigrant Gap, eight miles west of Cisco, twenty-one miles west of the summit, and five thousand feet above sea level. It was now only two thousand feet or so below the summit. It expected to reach Cisco in ten days.
That November, the stage-line owner Ben Holladay arrived in Alta, after riding the train from New York to Fort Kearney, Nebraska, then proceeding in a special horse-drawn coach. He brought with him the chilling news that the UP was on the march. It was coming on. In October, it had laid sixty-five miles of track. The editor of the Sacramento Union was not impressed. “The building of one mile of road anywhere between Newcastle and Cisco involves more labor and expense than the construction of 20 miles on the level prairie,” he wrote.
Two weeks later, Montague was able to send a telegram from Alta: “Track will be laid tonight within 4,500 feet of Cisco depot. Ties will be distributed tonight and track laid tomorrow. Can run passengers to Cisco Thursday [November 29]. Snow at Crystal Lake this morning 8 inches deep and 12 inches at Cisco. Temp. 28.”24
The tunneling went on, up and down the line. Lewis Clement declared, “No matter what the cost, the remaining tunnels would be bored in the Winter.”25
On November 24, 1866, the first trains arrived at Cisco Station. They were loaded with ties, rails, chairs, fishplates, and measuring rods. It took three engines to pull the freight up the mountain. Strobridge had wagons and carts to meet the train, with hundreds of Chinese aboard. All night they loaded rails and the rest onto the wagons and carts. They also pulled two locomotives off the tracks and put them atop skid sleds. (These were logs split down the middle and rounded at the ends. They were greased with fat on the bottom to help them slide.)
At dawn, the procession toward the summit began. Carts went first, followed by the wagon train. At the rear, hundreds of Chinese tugged at ropes alongside mule teams and horse teams to skid the locomotives over the summit. And then the snow came.
The workers on the CP, from the bosses down, believed that there was more rain and snow in the winter of 1865-66 than had ever before been seen in California, This winter of 1866-67 was much worse. The snow came early and stayed late. There were forty-four separate storms. Some deposited ten feet of snow, some deposited more. At the summit the pack averaged eighteen feet on the level.* Strobridge put hundreds of the Chinese to work doing nothing but shoveling the snow away to keep open a cart trail to the tunnel opening. If it had not been for the race with the UP, the CP would have closed down that winter, but the fear of losing all Utah and Nevada to their rival drove them on.
The Chinese laborers dug snow tunnels from fifty to five hundred feet long to get to the granite tunnels. Some were large enough for a team of horses to walk through. Alternatively, a temporary railbed was placed on top of the snow and material was lowered from the surface by steam hoist, sometimes as much as forty feet. The waste was hauled out the same way.26 Windows were dug out of the snow walls, to dump refuse and let in a bit of light. Also chimneys and air shafts. But for the most part the Chinese worked, ate, drank their tea, gambled, smoked opium, and slept in the remarkable labyrinth they were building under the snow.
This was cruel work, dangerous and claustrophobic. Still, they pressed on, drilling the holes in the granite, placing the black powder and then the fuse, lighting the fuse, getting out of the way, then going back in to clear out the broken granite. At four facings. They made six to twelve inches a day, at each end and toward the two ends from the middle.27
There were accidents of all kinds, mainly from blasting powder. Sometimes the heavy explosions started avalanches, and entire camps of workmen would be buried alive. Near the Summit Tunnel an avalanche carried away some twenty Chinese, whose bodies were found after the spring thaw. The CP eventually sent their bodies to their homeland for burial. How many died we don’t know. The historian Thomas W. Chinn has written that, without doubt, the “loss of life was heavy.”28 On Christmas Day, 1866, the Dutch Flat Enquirer reported that “a gang of Chinamen were covered up by a snow slide and four or five died before they could be exhumed. The snow fell to such a depth that one whole camp of Chinamen was covered up during the night and parties were digging them out when our informant left.”29
J. O. Wilder, a young surveyor,* wrote, “There was one large snowslide at Camp 4, where there were two gangs of Chinese for Tunnels 11 and 12, also a gang of culvert men. The slide took it all, and one of the culvert men was not found until the following spring. At our camp the snow was so deep we had to shovel it from the roof and make steps to get to the top. We were snowed in, and our provisions got down to corn meal and tea. Had it lasted one week longer we would have been compelled to eat horse meat, for there were two hundred or more men in my camp…. The cuts were filled by landslides, which had to be removed by gangs of Chinese. A Push Plow loaded with pig-iron to hold it to the rails, with three engines behind, would back up and take a run at the snow and keep going until it got stuck, and then back up and take another run.”30
The plow was a monster—ten feet wide, eleven feet high, and thirty feet long. It was square and sheer in the rear; in the front it looked like a big wooden wedge laid on its side, with iron plates reinforcing the forward edge that slanted down almost to the rails. Just back from the forward edge, a sharp iron prow rose like a ship breasting a wave. The idea was that the wedge should scoop up drifts like a spade and the prow would part them, tossing snow up onto both sides of the track. Sometimes it worked.
AND still it rains,” reported the Sacramento Union in late December. “The roads become sloughs, through which stage horses stagger, or in which they break down altogether…. The rain washes and the swollen streams sap the high embankments over which the locomotive has ascended to the region of snow.”31
The editor of the Union wrote that, “within five hours ride of Sacramento, where roses still bloom and the air is balmy, snow has fallen to a depth of three feet on a level, and the sleigh-bells are making music along white highways…. The locomotive makes this concentration of the seasons—this transition from Spring flowers to Wintry delights—on the same day…. Each puffing engine is armed with a snow plow. And this suggests the beginning of that battle of the railroad men with the white storms of the Sierra.”32The next day Cisco reported the worst storm in ten years. Strobridge’s prediction was that the railroad, now shut off, would be back in operation in ten days.
On December 22, Charlie Crocker’s brother E.B. wrote Huntington about the “terrible storm that has given our RR a severe trial We do not know the exact extent of the damage as Charlie and Montague are up on the road and have not reported. Those deep cuts and fills are sliding in and settling.” He could not get particulars, because the telegraph above Colfax had been down for nearly a week. Still, “on the whole it has not been as bad as we expected for we had great fears about a good many of the banks and cuts standing a heavy storm.” The snow, E.B. said, “is the least of our troubles and we no longer fear it. Since the storm I have greater confidence than ever in successfully working our road in the winter.”33
ON the last day of the year, the CP was able to announce that it was “in daily operation from Sacramento to Cisco.” That was ninety-two miles, within twelve miles of the summit and 5,911 feet above sea level—the highest altitude yet reached by a railroad in the United States, or anywhere else. Some ten thousand men had been engaged in construction on the track. Much of the masonry and heavy rock excavation had been done beyond Cisco. Twelve tunnels were being constructed, night and day, by three shifts of men, a total of eight thousand, mostly Chinese, at work. Except for the Summit Tunnel, they would be completed by the spring of 1867—and the Summit Tunnel by September.
A large force of laborers was at work in the Truckee Canyon. The graders were almost three hundred miles beyond the end of track. Grain for the horses and food for the men, plus supplies, had to be hauled by teams pulling wagons over the desert for that great distance. Water for men and animals was hauled forty miles. A. P. Partridge, a white man working for the CP, recalled that the snows came early that year and drove as many as three thousand Chinese out of the mountains and down to Truckee, “where they filled up all the buildings and sheds. An old barn collapsed and killed four Chinese. A good many were frozen to death.”34
Still, the CP expected that by the end of 1867 the end of track would be beyond the California-Nevada border, and that it would be building at a mile per day once it got into Nevada. The railroad was well into its assault on the Sierra Nevada and on its way east.35
* More snow falls there than anyplace in the United States south of Alaska.
* He worked for the CP-Southern Pacific railroads for fifty-four years, finally retiring in 1920.