AS the UP came out of Nebraska to begin its assault on Wyoming and the CP got through the Sierra Nevada, the railroads’ race toward each other became the top of the news. The anticipation of a transcontinental railroad, generally predicted to happen in 1870, mounted throughout 1868. Every newspaper in America carried the story nearly every day or week on its front pages. Lecturers filled Chautauqua halls with their “I was there, I saw it” speeches. The illustrated monthly magazines, along with the heavy-think journals, featured it. E. B. Crocker wrote Huntington in April 1868, “There seems to be a perfect mania for transcontinental railroads.”1
It mattered to every citizen. This was no “isn’t that interesting” item but, rather, one that already had, or was destined to have, an economic effect on the entire populace. One Nevada reporter caught this in an article he wrote in the summer of 1868. He opened his report: “The gap in the great span of iron that shall wed the two oceans is decreasing day by day…. No longer is the long and drowsy journey by the way of Panama deemed safe or expeditious by the busy man whose time is as coin to him …. The long and tedious stage ride grows less each day…. The Overland route is preferable even in winter for all practical purposes of travel.” He noted, “Every day sees a huge train of sixty cars laden with timber, ties and railway iron pass Reno [Nevada] on its way to ‘the front’”—i.e., to the end of track.2
The economic benefits of the railroad (and of the telegraph, with the line being built right alongside the tracks) to the business traveler were obvious. People eager to sell products to the populace of California and the West Coast, and to buy from there fruits and vegetables, and to enjoy the minerals from the mines, could scarcely wait. The California and West Coast residents referred to everything east of the Missouri River (or, increasingly, east of the end of track) as “the States”—or, more poignantly, as “home.” They wanted to get there, if only for a visit, and only the railroad made it possible for them to get there in a week rather than months, at a cost of not much more than $100 rather than $1,000 or more.
In August 1868, a correspondent for the Chicago Leader wrote that it might even be possible in the year 1869 that “old men, who predicted that the road would be built, but ‘not in our time,’ may have an opportunity of bathing in the Atlantic one week and in the Pacific the next—or sleigh-riding in New York on Christmas, and pulling ripe oranges in Los Angeles on New Years.”3
The story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad traveled. If it was not the top of the news in Western Europe, it was close, especially in Germany and even more in Ireland and Britain. In France, Colonel W. Heine, a Civil War veteran currently serving as secretary of the U.S. Legation at Paris, gave a lecture on the railroad to the French Geographical Society. At the urgent request of the society, Colonel Heine repeated it to a public gathering that drew a large and enthusiastic audience. He spoke of the “intelligence, the liberality and the foresight of the American Government in having taken the initiative in the creation of so grand an enterprise.” To widespread approval, he paid homage to Lincoln, “who had the honor of signing the land-grants of the greatest railroad of the world with the same pen that had decreed the abolishment of Slavery.” Throughout his speech, Heine drew cheers and ovations from the audience, who only wished that their government had the land to give away and the foresight to follow the Yankee lead. One of his remarks that drew a loud response bore testimony to “the perseverance of the men of the North, who at the time when all the world thought them lost, lost no time in organizing victory across three mountain ranges as well as on the field of battle.”4
Nearly everyone in the United States knew that, like winning the war, building the railroad was not easy. A reporter for the New York Tribune, sent to Salt Lake City in 1868 by Horace Greeley, opened one dispatch by reminding “even those readers who have little idea of the character of the Rocky Mountains generally” that they were not a “single long chain but a confused assemblage of elevations, and of chains of elevations of all descriptions.” Indeed, the Rockies were “Alps on Alps…. This immense assemblage of mountains is seamed and divided by innumerable valleys, and by canyons or mountain passes, a valley being an immense canyon.”5
Within the United States, the railroads received an abundance of criticism for their routes, their methods of construction, how they hired and paid a labor force, how they managed their finances, and more. Given the amounts of bonds the government was loaning the railroads, and the land it was giving away, criticism was inevitable. It centered mainly on what some reporters and politicians saw as cheap construction. They charged that the UP and the CP were failing to lay a first-class track. The UP’s ties were cottonwood. The rails were substandard. The CP didn’t move fast enough. The UP added miles to what was needed, just to get extra government bonds and land. The curves on both railroads were too sharp, the upgrade was too steep, the ballast was too much sand on the UP, the bridges were made of wood rather than iron and in any event were insubstantial, and so on. In short, the roads were being built too fast, too cheaply. The shoddiness was encouraged by the race set up by Congress. According to critics, the race was the fundamental error.
To the National Intelligencer of Washington, D.C., the roads were “simply a speculation, nothing more or less.” Charles Francis Adams, Jr., charged in the North American Review that the UP “was destined to be the most powerful corporation in the world; it will probably also be the most corrupt.” It would bring its investors “the largest possible profit, with the least possible risk.” Isaac Morris, a government inspector, said the road was being built much too rapidly because the temptations in lands and subsidies had been “too great for poor, avaricious human nature to resist.”6
Some editors and reporters disagreed. A Utah reporter declared: “The rivalry between the two Companies has already been a benefit to the public in the increased amount of road built in a comparatively short space of time to what it would have been if no competition had existed; and if it causes the completion of the entire road in a year’s time less than was first calculated upon, so much the better.”7
The New York Tribune was of the opinion that the government was saving money on the railroads, not giving it away. In an 1868 editorial, the Tribune calculated that, whereas the government was accustomed to paying as much as 40 or 50 cents per ton per mile to haul supplies to troops in frontier outposts, the UP had reduced that rate to less than 10 cents per ton per mile. That meant that, though the cost of government supplies in 1867 was $699,698, it would have cost $2,625,536 had the supplies been transported by wagons. The government had saved nearly $2 million in one year alone, and that in a year when the track had only reached the Nebraska-Wyoming border. Meanwhile, the value of its pub-lie lands alongside or near the railroad had gone up far more than what the government would have received for all its lands had there been no railroad. The Tribune reflected the optimism of the vast majority. “We shall look for a great stream of travel over the Pacific Railroad next year,” the paper declared, “and its completion will give a wonderful impetus to mining, settlement and industry throughout the new Territories, as well as on the Pacific coast.”8
MOST of the men who built the UP had participated in winning the war. They and a vast majority of their fellow countrymen in the North were well aware that during the conflict a great deal had been learned about how to build and maintain a railroad. They understood that the lessons were now being applied to the transcontinental railroad. Those lessons—or principles, as Dodge called them—had, in his words, “taught the American people that there was no problem in finance or relating to the development of the country so great that its people did not feel able to grasp and master it.”9
No problem. Not mountains, not deserts, not Indians, not finances or swindlers, not distance, not high interest rates or a scarcity of labor, not politicians whether venal or stupid, not even a civil war or its aftermath. Americans were a people such as the world had never before known. No one before them, no matter where or how they lived, had had such optimism or determination. It was thanks to those two qualities that the Americans set out to build what had never before been done.
GENERAL Dodge was one who had helped bring about victory in the Civil War. He was also instrumental in getting the Pacific Railroad Bill of 1862 and its amendments in 1864 through the Congress. He had then become the chief engineer of the UP, and as such he was going into 1868 full of hopes, plans, and ambitions. Dodge said he wished to build the way to the Salt Lake, almost five hundred miles from the end of track on the last day of 1867, and then endeavor to meet the CP at Humboldt Wells, which was 219 miles west of Ogden, and to do that in the spring of 1869. Maybe—perhaps—who knew?—the UP track layers could meet the CP at the California state line.10
That was hubris. But for the most part, Dodge had prepared the UP for 1868. To the west, he had surveyed across Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, right up to the California state line. To the east, the Chicago and North-western Railroad had reached Council Bluffs, Iowa, and with a temporary bridge over the Missouri River supplies could be gotten to Omaha at a much faster rate than ever before. Dodge and his subordinates had piled up an immense amount of rails (sixteen hundred carloads of track iron from the Chicago and Northwestern alone), spikes, fishplates, ties, and other supplies in Omaha, and had shipped enough to Cheyenne to keep the Casements and their men busy for a long time. And they in turn had plenty of men. Further, the railroad, in reaching the Black Hills, was now close to ample supplies of good timber for bridges and ties, which could be floated down mountain streams to the work itself, thus providing great relief to the strain on transportation from Omaha.
Ahead of the UP through Wyoming, there was relatively easy going. Even better news for the directors, who were as always concerned about money, was that, for the next 150 miles from Cheyenne onward, the company would be receiving $48,000 in government bonds for each mile of track laid and accepted. From there on it would be $32,000 per mile. From Omaha to Cheyenne, they had received only $16,000 in bonds per mile.
Greatly encouraged by all this welcome news, the directors told Dodge “to build as much road as possible in 1868.” He and the men working for him and thousands working for them set out to do just that.11 In January 1868, Dodge wrote his construction superintendent, Sam Reed, “You must do more hard work in 1868.”12
DODGE’S plans, like those of the CP, rested on a clause in the law (put into it in 1866) that allowed each company to grade three hundred miles in advance of a continuous line of track and collect part of the government bonds for each twenty-mile segment graded. If Dodge could lay track to within one hundred miles of Ogden, then the UP could send its grading crews as far west as Humboldt Wells.
The CP, for its part, if it could get track into Ogden, could advance three hundred miles eastward, well into Wyoming. Its problem was that the gap between the end of track at Donner Lake was still several hundred miles short of Humboldt Wells, which is what gave Dodge the thought that the UP might make it to the California state line before the CP got east of it.
Huntington had his own plans. In April 1868, he drew a red line across a map of a preliminary survey and sent it to Secretary of the Interior Browning. The line ran north of the Salt Lake, across the Promontory Mountains to Ogden, then eastward into the Wasatch Range and up a northern fork of Echo Creek. The map was fraudulent, but Huntington backed it up with a letter that lied about where the CP had its end of track. If Browning would approve, CP grading crews could occupy the ground in and east of the Wasatch. It helped that one of Huntington’s lobbyists was Thomas Ewing, Jr., a former associate of Browning. It also helped that Browning had an intense hatred of the UP, or at least of Doc Durant, which he regarded as one and the same. On May 15, he approved Huntington’s line as far east as Monument Point, Utah, but withheld his decision to Promontory and beyond.
Possession of Utah was at stake. “It is an important matter” Huntington told Stanford. “We should be bold and take and hold possession of the line to Echo.” Oakes Ames, meanwhile, stressed the UP’s need “to build 3 miles a day until next Dec. or Jany and get to Salt Lake before the Central.” Whether the UP could do that was to be seen. The CP crowd relied on the divided counsels of Durant, Dodge, the Ames brothers, and other officials of the UP. “Ha! Ha!” E. B. Crocker told Huntington. “What a time the Union Pacific folks have. That is a trouble we do not have [because] we are all united.”13
President Johnson’s Cabinet reached no firm decision on how far the grading could go. The Congress stayed aloof from the controversy. The railroads went ahead surveying as far as they could and making grade as fast as possible. Soon enough they were making grade beside each other in Utah, the CP going east and the UP going west, on parallel roads.
• • •
Push is the word for this season,” Sam Reed proclaimed at the start of 1868, and, like most of the leaders in the field for the UP, he pushed himself hardest of all. His telegram copy book, in the UP Archives in Omaha, shows just how hard. The copies cover all types of work and consist in large part of the kind of telephone conversations a twenty-first-century businessman would have with his superiors and subordinates. What follows is a tiny selection.
January 28, Reed to J. Lathrop at the end of track: “If you want anything from Omaha you will have to send it here to be approved.” Same day, Reed to G. W. Frost in Omaha: “Send for Dale Creek bridge four sets blocks for one inch line and one coil of seven-eighths line, two clamps that will span thirty inches to clamp timber for bolting Congdon will explain, three one and one quarter inch augers.”
Same day, Reed to M. F. Hurd at the end of track: “Put the station house on the north side of main track west of turntable track.” Same day, to Lathrop: “I have ordered ten dozen shovels and six dozen picks and handles for Carmichael.” Same day, again to Lathrop: “Is there any dirt cars at the station. Mulloy picked up some Sunday if there send one with ox for dumping to Miller and Co.” Same day, to Hurd: “On section 288 estimated 4000 yards earth instead of 6500 as you telegraphed look into it.”
Same day, to Frost in Omaha: “Send my bridge timber in preference to iron. Eighteen to twenty cars of Iron intended here daily must be cars enough to load timber in Chicago if there is any instead of sending it forward.” Same to same, also January 28: “Have you paid Bent and CO for 50 tons of hay furnished me some time since.”14
Here is another sample, all telegrams dated March 13, 1868. Reed to H. Bissell at Dale Creek: “Send a man over and count the boxes of bolts that have been received at the Bridge soon as possible and give me the answer.” Also to Bissell: “Has Butterfield put on another gang of raisers. How is he getting along raising the bridge.” To Frost in Omaha: “There was received here yesterday a lot of three inch plank. I have not ordered lumber of that description.” To Lathrop: “How many boxes of Dale Creek Bridge bolts have you received since February 1st and are there any at your place.” To H. M. Hoxie in Omaha: “Are there any boxes of Dale Creek Bridge bolts at Omaha. If so send them forward. 109 boxes have passed Chicago. 83 received here.” To Lathrop: “Were the bolts shipped by team from your place or sent to end of track and shipped from there. We are short at bridge, not all received.”
On it went. To Lathrop again, also March 13: “In Reynolds and Dowling bill for supplies, I find 300 pounds whole pepper. Does he want that amount.” To Bissell at Dale Creek: “There is a man in Omaha that represents that he is hiring men for Hall. Send a man to Hall’s Camp and find out if he wants the men.” Again to Bissell: “There has been sent from Carmichael to Dale Creek 109 boxes of bolts and washers if not received let me know immediately.” To Lathrop: “How much hay received from Casement since January 1st to March 1st. How much from McDonald. How much wood used in Casement’s boarding car and sent to them at Cheyenne since January 1st.” To Bissell: “Have you received the 109 boxes or only the 86 boxes of bolts and washers.” To Lathrop, same day: “Bissell reports only 86 boxes bolts and washers received at the bridge. Where are the balance.” To W. Snyder, Omaha: “Michael Haley is authorized to hire men for Hall. Send good rail road men only men wanted.” Also on March 13, Reed sent a thousand-word telegram to H. C. Crane, the UP’s secretary in New York.15
REED was “talking” to men in New York, Chicago, Omaha, and at the end of track. That the telegraph would keep up with the end of track was a requirement of the Pacific Railroad Act, and in any event absolutely necessary to the building of the road. There was a regular work gang for the telegraph. The poles were brought to the front on the material trains and distributed by wagons. One gang fastened the cross-arms to the top of the poles while another group, under a foreman, dug the holes. A third gang erected them. A wire was brought forward in a wagon and unwound from a reel as the wagon moved ahead. A wire gang raised the wire and fastened it to the insulators.
There was an intense rivalry between the telegraph gangs and the track gangs. Sometimes the telegraph workers were delayed by a lack of poles, but when that happened they connected the wires to a temporary telegraph set. That way, communication between Cheyenne, Omaha, Chicago, and points east and the end of track was never lost.16 Or, rather, almost never: the buffalo had a way of using the poles as scratching posts and would sometimes knock them down.
Besides the buffalo, Reed’s problems included liquor. On March 28, he sent a wire to Secretary Crane: “As soon as a party of men commence at work a lot of tents are put up on the vicinity and whiskey furnished to the men.” As a result, robbery and murder were commonplace. “Whiskey ranches interfere materially with our men. Two men were shot Thursday night. Can something be done through Congress to stop the indiscriminate sale of whiskey in the vicinity of our work.”
MORE examples of how the telegraph was used by the men making the line, the following all from April 9. Reed to L. Carmichael at Dale Creek: “I have written you this morning to put on night gang on cut west of bridge. Keep as many men on them as can be worked night and day.” To Reynolds and Dowling at Dale Creek: “Put night gang on first cut west of bridge. Keep as many men on as can be worked night and day there are plenty of carts you can have if you want more to surface road bed.” To M. Hurd in Cheyenne: “Can you let us have an engine and 2 empty box cars for an hour or two.” To Furst & Bradley in Chicago: “Send me one hundred more scrapers.” To G. W. Frost in Omaha: “Send on No. 3 tonight for immediate use 6 relays, 6 sounders, 6 keys, 6 switches, 2 coils insulated copper wire 6 clip boards.” To Hurd: “Have you the level notes from Sta 1500 west. Want to start engineering party out with Creighton Saturday.”
To M. F. Seymour at Dale Creek: “Have 9 boxes bolts from Pittsburgh will send them up to Summit tomorrow noon will send to Snyder for 500 extra.” To W. Snyder in Omaha: “Please send me on express train as soon as you can have them made 500¾ inch bolts 22¾ inches long answer.” To A. L. Thompson: “There are three cooking stoves at Mulloy shanties near Summit. You can have one. You will have to take down some of your shanties at Dale Creek for what lumber you want.” To J. E. Boyd in Omaha, with a copy to Gustavus Ames in Omaha: “When will you have a force on your work west of Little Laramie.” And, finally, the last one of the day, to G. W. Frost in Omaha: “Pay bill just received. You have charged for shovels $20 per dozen. I can buy them in Cheyenne for less.”17
Just before going to sleep that night, Reed wrote his wife, “I have too much for any mortal man to do.”18 So did nearly every man working for the UP, although it would be difficult to imagine anyone working more hours or harder than Reed. Still, he kept his optimism. On March 18, he had sent a telegram to his rival, Charlie Crocker. “My men have stuck stakes in the Humboldt Mts. We’ll meet you there.”
Crocker laughed at the audacity. “He won’t find his stakes when he arrives,” he told a reporter. “I’ll have trains running that far by the end of this year.”19
Reed was living in Cheyenne, as were the Casements and the workers. Dubbed the “Magic City of the Plains,” the town had grown from nothing, when Dodge platted and staked it out in July 1867, to a town of a few thousand that was selling lots at a record pace. Frame buildings were replacing tents. Leigh Freeman, the son of a UP employee, had been a telegrapher at Fort Kearney when he founded a newspaper, the Frontier Index (later in Cheyenne). In 1866, he moved his printing press (and thus the newspaper) by wagon to North Platte. He continued to follow the railroad westward, setting up in the Hell on Wheels towns and providing the UP’s workers with news and entertainment.20
THROUGH the winter of 1867-68 and indeed up to and even beyond the beginning of spring, the storms had kept most of the crews from working. On February 28, 1868, for example, Reed sent a telegram to Secretary Crane saying he had “just returned from the mountains [Sherman Pass] where I have been storm bound since last Monday. The storm has been more severe than any other this season. All the cuts were full of snow and it will take ten days to two weeks to clear them.”21
By the beginning of April, the worst seemed to be over, and the frost was leaving the ground. The Casement brothers and their men were eager, or, in the typically American phrase, “raring to go.” By April 5, the track-laying crews had covered ten miles and had nearly reached Sherman Summit at 8,242 feet of altitude, the highest point of any railroad anywhere. Or, as Reed put it in an April 7 telegram from Cheyenne to Secretary Crane in Omaha, “Track laid over highest railroad summit on the Continent. S. B. Reed.” Graders meanwhile had started down the west slope toward Dale Creek, four miles beyond Sherman and thirty-five miles west of Cheyenne.
AT Dale Creek, the engineers and the crews had to build a bridge over the creek. To support the effort, Dale City had come into existence. In December 1867, the Frontier Index had noted its presence: “We are informed that this is a right pert place, just now; contains about forty buildings,with a population of about six or seven hundred railroaders, tie men, teamsters, wood choppers, etc., and a good prospect of a steady increase for some months to come.” The workers were there to make grade, dig the cuts, and otherwise prepare for the coming of the bridge trusses, most of all to build masonry foundations for the big trestle. In March 1868, a post office came to Dale City.22
The bridge would be 126 feet above the streambed and seven hundred feet long, making it by far the highest bridge of the UP, ever. To stand at the site today, or to look at its photograph by Andrew Russell, is to be filled with astonishment. How could they possibly even imagine such a thing, much less do it? A bridge, built entirely of wood, 126 feet above the creek bed and seven hundred feet long? Sufficiently strong to carry a locomotive, a tender, a string of passenger or freight cars, while swaying in the Wyoming mountain winds? With a mile of cut on the west side and nearly as much on the east, through solid rock? Daunting at best, quite probably to most engineers impossible. Yet the UP did it, in what was one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century.
All this to get the tracks over Dale Creek. Engineer Hezekiah Bissell called it “a big bridge for a small brook that one could easily step over.” When the track got near Sherman Summit, the Cheyenne Daily Leader said the next day that “a vast and varied amount of freight and passengers went to the end of track today. There were five car loads of iron and spikes, twenty-five dirt scrapers, twenty quarters of fresh beef, patent plows, men’s boots, gunnies of ham, cases of pepper-sauce, sacks of grain, bales of clothing and working men with Winchester rifles, carpet bags, blankets and every other conceivable article of tools, food and wearing apparel.”23 Meanwhile, the grading crews were moving on west.
As Reed’s telegrams show, the construction superintendent and the men working for him made the bridge a top priority. Reed especially stayed after the company supplying the trusses. The wood was cut in Michigan, then shipped to Chicago, where it was fashioned to specification into double-framed trestles with bents spaced forty feet apart. Then it was shipped by rail (across the temporary bridge over the Missouri River from Council Bluffs to Omaha) to the end of track.
Except for the Russell photographs, the UP made no record as to the detailed plans of the bridge and the actual work of building it. In October 1946, the only description the Engineering Department of the UP could find was: “Dale Creek is crossed by a pine timber trestle ridge of 40-footspans, with double bends resting on piers of granite masonry raised only to a small height. The roadway is suspended by a low truss frame resting on these bents…. The timber trestle was replaced in 1876 with an iron bridge known as the ‘spider web,’ it appeared so slender, 707 feet long, 127 feet high at the deepest point.”24
Progress on the bridge was enough to make even Reed indulge in a little smile now and then, but on April 14, when the bridge was half finished, a storm came up. Reed sent a telegram to the Chicago firm, “Wind blowing a gale, no work being done on bridge. Do not ship the truss bridges until further orders.” He ordered a transit and levels sent to the bridge, and the bridge wired for more cables, then more, then even more.25
Engineer Bissell was there to see the near-catastrophe. “The bridge men were scared out of their wits,” he wrote in his diary, “and doing nothing to save the thing.” Bissell sent men to the contractors, telling them “to bring every rope and chain they could get hold of to the bridge as soon as possible. When the ropes first came, no one dared to go and put them on to guy the bridge. I finally induced two or three to go, and soon there were plenty of others. I probably saved the bridge.”26
Two days later, April 16, Durant, Dodge, and a party of big shots arrived in Wyoming. They were there to watch the first train go over Sherman Summit. “In the presence of such a large number of distinguished army officers and citizens,” Dodge told Secretary Browning in a telegram, Durant insisted on pounding in the last spike on the final rail at the summit. After that was done, Dodge reported, “the Union Pacific Rail Road crossed the Summit of the mountains this day, the highest elevation reached by any rail road in the world.”27
What a day! What a week! On April 23, Reed wrote his wife, “Bridge finished.” The track was over the bridge, the cuts through the rock on either end were nearly done, which meant a “great load off my mind.” Meanwhile, James Evans had already surveyed a location from Fort Sanders, just west of Dale Creek, all the way to Green River. Two weeks later, on May 6, he had completed the final line and was able to telegram Dodge triumphantly, “We save considerable in distance and altitude both over the preliminary lines.”28 By then the graders were approaching the Green River, and Reed planned to go to Salt Lake City to convince Brigham Young to get the Mormons started grading east up the Weber Canyon.29
• • •
THE Casements were pouring it on. The railroad was over the divide of the Black Hills and had nothing to impede it from there all the way to the Wasatch Range. On April 21, Jack Casement wrote his wife, “I have never been hurried up more in my life.” He loved it. “Have crossed the high Bridge [at Dale Creek] today and want to commence laying three miles a day at once.” He, his brother, Dodge, Durant, all the workers on the railroad were on the march with clear objectives in front of them—Weber Canyon, Ogden, Promontory, Humboldt Wells. At three miles per day, maybe even more, nothing could stop them.
“We are now Sailing,” he wrote on May 2.30 A few days later, the road ran down the Black Hills’ western slope all the way to Laramie. With the grade ready for track clear to Green River, more than half the way through Wyoming, the Casement construction train and the crew were ready to roll. Many others were ready to follow. Leigh Freeman moved his printing press to Laramie and set about publishing the Frontier Index there. In its first issue, May 5, the paper predicted that Laramie would soon rival Chicago. When it was only two weeks old, the Index boasted, “Laramie already contains a population of two thousand inhabitants.” The UP was now building the ramshackle Union Pacific Hotel beside the tracks and a $10,000 windmill to pump water for its men and engines (it was the largest ever erected).31
The grade went nearly straight north out of Laramie. Then, just past Rock Creek it turned straight west across the Medicine Bow River, up to and across the North Platte River.* Fort Steele was on the western side of the North Platte River, then, a bit farther west, a town founded by the UP and called Benton, then Rawlins Springs (today called Rawlins). The most important work, after the Dale Creek Bridge was operating, was to get the bridge up and the tracks over it ready for trains at the crossing of the North Platte River. Arthur Ferguson was one of the surveyors assigned to that duty.
On Saturday, April 25, 1868, he and others left Omaha at 5:30 A.M. on a train headed west. After a delay of two hours on account of reported Indians ahead, the train arrived in Cheyenne at 6 P.M. Thus did Ferguson cross Nebraska in one day. In Cheyenne, he “witnessed strange sights. The whole city was the scene of one high carnival—gambling saloons and other places of an immoral character in full blast—streets crowded with men—various houses illuminated—vice having unlimited control, making the Sabbath evening a sad and fearful time.” He went to bed early.
The next day, a construction train took Ferguson to the end of track, at that point five miles west of Dale Creek. Then on by wagon to Fort Sanders, where he and his party slept three to a bed. Continuing the next day along the grade, Ferguson was struck by the land, a “dismal and desolate country, a terrible country, awful, all sage brush and grease weed.” He and four others were in the wagon, with three hundred rounds of ammunition and lots of fear of Indians, especially after passing a short distance from what he called “a camp of several hundred hostile Indians.”
On Sunday, May 3, Ferguson got to the North Platte, but not at the site where an army contingent was camped. So everyone turned out for guard duty, all night long. In the morning it began to snow, and not until May 6 could he and his party get to the proper site and begin their work of measuring, leveling, surveying.
On Tuesday, May 12, Ferguson opened his diary entry, “This has been a fearful day.” He had begun by running the line west of the river, but found that he had lost the tape line and started back over the river to search for it. Everyone piled into the wagon, but the driver didn’t know the ford. “The first thing we knew was that the water was floating in the wagon box, and our mules were out of their depth and being swiftly carried down stream by the terrific violence of the current.” The wagon box capsized and all the men were floundering among the waves. Ferguson retained the leveling instrument in his hand but he got tangled up in the wagon box, which was pressing him down. “I immediately saw that it was for me a struggle for life or death and therefore dropped the instrument.” Eventually he got out, but two of his companions were drowned. He said he would never forget “the look of awful terror and despair that had settled on their countenances.” Attempts to locate the leveling instrument, plus the three guns that had gone down, not to mention the bodies of the drowned men, were unsuccessful.32
• • •
WHILE Ferguson’s party was putting up the bridge, men, mules, horses, and wagons went over by ferry. There was quite a bit of horror, including mules and horses drowned, wagons tipped into the river, and so on. On May 17, Ferguson noted, “Two more men drowned in the river yesterday. Quite a number of grading camps are here waiting to cross the river.” But, no matter the death toll, the engineers were concerned with the bridge and, not incidentally, with making some money on the side. Thus Ferguson recorded that on May 20 he and two others bought three lots in the town of Benton, which was not yet founded. Five days later, they sold the lots (for which they had paid $2.50) for $25 each.
Mainly they worked. Measuring, leveling, putting in pilings, staking out bents, then setting in rails and putting sidings on each side of the bridge.
THERE was more excitement, primarily from Indians. Ferguson’s diary contains numerous references to their war parties. For example, May 24: “The Indians made a dash on some pilgrims who are camped on the opposite side of the river and succeeded in capturing 19 head of stock.” June 4: “At about sunrise, were attacked by Indians and succeeded in shooting one.” June 20: “The Indians made a dash on the camp and captured some stock and killed one man.” June 21: “Indians killed two men. Both had been horribly mutilated about the face by cuts made by a knife or a tomahawk. They captured one hundred head of stock.” June 30: “Four men were killed and scalped today about two miles above camp.” July 2: “Indians ran off 70 head of cattle and killed two more men last night within three miles of here.”
Ferguson also recorded rumors that had little or no foundation in fact. As one example, July 16: “Out of a party of 25 men who were on the Sweet Water, 24 of them are said to have been killed by Indians.” He also recorded death by accident or by shoot-outs among workers, which in truth were nearly as serious as the Indian threat. June 7: “Two men were shot this evening in a drunken row—one was instantly killed, and the other is not expected to live.” June 26: “This evening another man was shot.” July 7: “This afternoon one man was shot and wounded in the knee and another killed.” July 11: “One of the workmen was killed within five feet of me by the falling of a bent. In falling he was struck on the head and then fell through the work into the water and was drowned before my eyes. This evening another man was shot and killed, which was occasioned by some personal difficulty.” July 14: “Another man shot this evening.” July 18: “Another man shot last night.” July 19: “Another man and four mules drowned in the river today.”
It was an arduous job that was not finished until July 15, when “the first locomotive crossed the bridge, with two more following directly afterwards.” They were construction trains, pulling freight cars loaded with rails, fishplates, ties, and more. Still, Ferguson could write, with considerable pride, “The bridge is a success.” On July 21, he could record that “the first passenger train that was ever west of the north fork of the Platte crossed the ridge about noon today. Men commenced digging the water tank today. They will work all night.”33
On August 3, Ferguson himself was almost caught by flying bullets. He commented, “It is owing to the carelessness of individuals in our vicinity whose reckless disregard of life and limb in their promiscuous shooting is perfectly outrageous and alarming.”34
Life came cheap on the Union Pacific Railroad, as Ferguson knew as well as any. Nevertheless, he directed his emotions not at the workers who shot their fellows and who were more dangerous than the Native Americans, but at the Indian boys who sometimes killed and often stole from the whites. In fact, the Indian outrages were exclusively committed by teenage boys. The threat of war parties, so severe in 1867, had gone away. This was thanks to the resolution of the veterans who were working for the UP, and to the five thousand troops stationed along the line of the UP between Omaha and the Salt Lake.
Another factor was the quality of the rifles. The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho were using muzzle loaders, with loose powder, balls, and percussion caps. The U.S. Army soldiers were not much if any better off until 1867, when the Springfield rifle was first issued to the infantry on the Great Plains. It was a breechloader, made from the old Springfield musket, sighted for a thousand yards maximum range. On two occasions in the fall of 1867, the Sioux lost some of their best warriors to the quickness and range of the Springfield, which was a splendid weapon.
Further, the Pawnees protecting some of the graders and others were getting better at their task. In truth, they were living what they regarded as a joyous life. The army furnished them with arms and ammunition, food, clothes, and pay, all this to do what they wanted above all other things to be doing, fighting their enemies. And if their enemies proved to be too strong for them, they could always retreat to the nearest white troops for protection. In addition, they were now much farther west than they had ever been or would have dared to go by themselves.
David Lemon was an engineer for the UP. Fifty-six years after the event, he wrote a reminiscence of one of his experiences on the railroad. During the first week of October 1868, at night, he was in the cab of a locomotive on the line, with two boxcars of oats and corn followed by twenty-three cars of railroad iron. Sioux Indians had removed bolts and fishplates from the rail joint and torn down telegraph poles to pry apart the rails.
Lemon crashed. “You can well imagine the ugly wreck.” Not until daylight did a relief crew arrive to assist him. Pawnee troops gave chase to the Sioux. When they returned, they had seven scalps. They said the scalps were all from Sioux, “although one of them had long red hair, which was probably that of an escaped white convict who had taken refuge with the Sioux tribe.” That night the Pawnees had a grand scalp dance.35
IN the eyes of the men of the UP, the Indians deserved extreme punishment and even more. President Oliver Ames came west and raged, “I see nothing but extermination to the Indians as the result of their thieving disposition, and we shall probably have to come to this before we can run the road safely.”36
General Sherman hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he was ready if it did. British reporter Henry Stanley had been at North Platte, Nebraska, in the fall of 1867, for a peace council. He heard Sherman say to the Indians: “We built iron roads, and you cannot stop the locomotive any more than you can stop the sun or moon, and you must submit, and do the best you can…. If our people in the east make up their minds to fight you they will come out as thick as a herd of buffalo, and if you continue fighting you will all be killed. We advise you for the best. We now offer you this, choose your own homes, and live like white men, and we will help you all you want.”37
Ferguson was more rabid. “I have no sympathy with the red devils,” he wrote in his diary on August 17, “notwithstanding the halo of romance by which they are surrounded by the people of the East, who, secure in their happy and peaceful homes, know naught of the wild and awful horrors of the West.” He added that, for his part, having been “surrounded by too many perils, and knowing too much of the savage details of Indian warfare,” he wanted them eliminated. “Let the savage strength of the demoniac Indian be broken,” he wrote. “May their dwelling places and habitations be destroyed. May the greedy crow hover over their silent corpses. May the coyote feast upon their stiff and festering carcases, and the sooner the better.”38
As bloodthirsty as that was, Ferguson had the same kind of mixed emotions as most of his fellow surveyors and engineers. To a man, they loved the wild life, the scenery, the game, the swift and clear-flowing streams, the untouched prairie and forest, the flowers and trees, the birds, the opportunity to ride across an unfenced country. And they also loved Indians, as long as the Indians stayed out of the white man’s way.
But they were also aware that, as the first white men other than the mountain men ever to come into this paradise, this Eden, this unspoiled country, they had the job of wiping it out by bringing to it the very thing that had brought them into the wilderness, the railroad. Much as they loved the wild country, they were going to tame it. Thus Ferguson observed, “The time is coming and fast too, when in the sense it is now understood, THERE WILL BE NO WEST.”39
That was partly right. The West was not going to be eliminated from the maps or from American territory or from people’s imaginations. But it surely would be changed. One such change was in fact already evident. In the summer of 1868, a herd of eight hundred Texas cattle was trailed into the vicinity of North Platte. The first Nebraska cow town was born. In the next year, seventeen hundred head arrived and were put out to graze on the prairie. By 1870, the total cattle herd was up to seven thousand, with a smaller number of sheep. And this was just the beginning.40 The cattle and sheep were displacing the buffalo even as Ferguson was helping build the UP.
The tame was replacing the wild. As Ferguson understood, there had to be a price. One that he recorded but apparently did not understand was accidents. To UP workers they were just a part of the job, bound to happen. Moving all those iron rails, throwing down fishplates and spikes also made of iron, swinging sledgehammers all day long, and all the other movement of goods and supplies, meant accidents. How many could not be said. Nor is there an accounting of how many men lost a limb or their lives.
Accidents involving locomotives were another matter. First of all, they cost money—even by the standards of the UP or the CP, big money. Second, it was thought that locomotives would last, if not forever, at least through a man’s lifetime. That a locomotive accident could cost lives was taken for granted, but the trouble was that they often cost valuable or even irreplaceable lives—namely, the engineers running the trains.
That there would be accidents with locomotives was inevitable. They were the biggest moving things ever built by man, and they moved faster than anything ever built. Even the fastest animal—say a cheetah—could outrun them for only a short distance. They could go farther pulling a heavier load than anything else.
Morris Mills, an early employee of the UP, noted in 1926 that more radical change in operating practice for the railroads came in the 1870s than in any other decade before or since. This included advancing from hand to air brakes, from a coupling hook to automatic couplers, from iron to steel rails, from eight-wheel locomotives to ten-wheelers, from ten-ton capacity for freight cars to forty-or even sixty-ton capacity, from snow-plows of the wedge type to the rotary plow, and more. But none of those and other improvements had been made before 1870. Indeed, as Mills pointed out, “Railroading in the days of hand brakes, soil ballast, light power, and mountain grades, entailed hardships that produced a type of employee that were a veritable survival of the fittest.”41
Accidents were so common they hardly got reported. The Chicago Tribune gave one paragraph to an incident in which a construction train in eastern Nebraska, near Fremont, ran over a cow. The accident threw several cars off the track. Five men were killed, twelve wounded (and two of them died the following day). “Several ladies were badly mangled.”
Another report, dated July 15, 1868, dateline Laramie City, said that a westbound freight train that had just passed over the Dale Creek Bridge ran into a car carrying gravel. The car had become detached from an eastbound train and ran down the grade toward Laramie “at such fearful velocity that it demolished the rear car of the freight train, which contained a number of persons.” One man was killed, another seriously injured, and others were cut or bruised.42
After the track got up to and beyond the second crossing of the North Platte, a boiler malfunction, sometimes even an explosion, became commonplace. This was because, throughout the Wyoming desert, from Rawlins to Green River, the water was an alkaline concoction that destroyed theboilers faster than they could be replaced. It looked like water but, according to Morris Mills, when heat was applied to it “it became a law unto it-self and defying the ingenuity of man it would shoot out through the smoke stack like a miniature geyser.” Engines headed east rolled into Cheyenne looking as if they had been whitewashed. Eventually the UP learned how to apply a chemical process to the water to make it behave.43
THE region west of Rawlins was an “awful place,” according to Jack Casement. It consisted of “alkali dust knee deep and certainly the meanest place I have ever been in.” Surveyor James Evans said, “It is not a country where people are disposed to linger.”44But the railroad, and those who worked on it and those who worked on them, had to get across it.
On June 21, 1868, Arthur Ferguson recorded in his diary, “Large numbers of wagon teams, men and women, the latter principally prostitutes, are now crossing the [North Platte] river, bound as far west as Green River, which they say is quite a town.”45
The sharpers, the cooks, the bartenders, the musicians, the girls, and the women were leaving Benton for the next end of track to boast a city, or at least a railroad establishment. Leaving Benton was no problem. A Cheyenne, Wyoming, reporter described the place as reminding him of “the camps of the Bedouin Arabs, [because it] is of tents, and of almost a transitory nature as the elements of a soap bubble.” Novelist J. H. Beadle was there in the summer of 1868 and, tramping through the alkali in his black suit, he said he came to resemble “a cockroach struggling through a flour barrel.” He found “not a green tree, shrub or patch of grass. The red hills were scorched as bare as if blasted by lightning.”
Samuel Bowles, the travel writer from Massachusetts, described Benton as “by day disgusting, by night dangerous, almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of lowest vice; averaging a murder a day; gambling, drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce.” He thought the inhabitants a “congregation of scum.”46
A month or so later, they were all gone. There was not a single house or tent, only the rubble of a few chimneys and the sole surviving institution, the cemetery. This was because, as Ferguson noted, Hell on Wheels was on the move. Like the UP Railroad, Green River was the next stop.
• • •
THERE was money to be made out of the railroad. Among the many who knew that basic fact were Doc Durant and his fellow stockholders in the Crédit Mobilier. Dodge might want to build a first-class railroad, one that would last. Durant was for that, in his own way, but meanwhile he wanted to make money, not from any dividends the UP might pay from profits earned down the line, but from the construction phase. So he and his fellow trustees began handing out the Crédit Mobilier profits to none other than themselves, as UP stock-and bondholders. On January 4, 1868, the dividend was 80 percent of their CM stock, paid in UP first-mortgage bonds, and 100 percent in UP stock. Then, in June, they made three distributions to CM stockholders who also held UP shares. The first distribution amounted to 40 percent in stock of the UP, amounting to $1.5 million in face value or $450,000 at the current price of $30 per share, plus 60 percent in cash, or $2.25 million. The second was 75 percent in UP bonds, worth $2,812,500. The third was a cash allotment of 30 percent, or $1,125,000.
A man holding a hundred shares of Crédit Mobilier stock, which had cost him $10,000, received in 1868 alone $9,000 in cash, $7,500 in UP bonds then selling at par, and forty shares of UP stock worth about $1,600 in cash, or a total of $18,100. Added to the earlier dividend, he received $28,200 for his $10,000 investment, or 280 percent in one year.47
No one could accuse Doc of thinking small. Indeed he was thinking of much more than money. Though money was nice to have, and his lever for power, he also wanted every American to know his name and his accomplishments. At forty-eight years of age, he had time to make that happen, but he knew that just making money would never get him there. He wanted a place in history. Not from politics: he was contemptuous of politicians, a feeling common to the men of the Gilded Age. Durant wanted what such contemporaries as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt had, or something like what Collis Huntington or Leland Stanford would have. Doc wanted, above all else, to be remembered as the Man Who Built the Union Pacific Railroad.
Doc’s competition for that title was Grenville Dodge. Durant knew that Dodge had a sizable lead on him, one that perhaps could not be overcome. Dodge was the one who told Lincoln where the railroad should run, the one who had pushed Lincoln on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Bill and the 1864 revision, the one who had brought Grant and Sherman into play. Durant knew—better than anyone else, since he was the person who had insisted on bringing Dodge into the company as chief engineer—that Dodge had been indispensable. He knew in addition that Dodge was the one who had found the route out of Omaha, the route up Lodgepole Creek to Cheyenne, the route to Sherman Summit and beyond to Laramie, and then to Green River and beyond. Plus which, all the employees, from the Casement brothers, Evans, Reed, and so on down to the lowliest Irish laborer, reported to Dodge. Back in New York, or even in Boston, people might think of it as Durant’s railroad, but not west of the Mississippi.
Yet, even if Doc couldn’t compete with Dodge on the ground, he could send in the “interfering engineer,” Silas Seymour, to fight for him. From the beginning, that had been Seymour’s role, to work for Durant by second-guessing Dodge. From Omaha westward, Seymour had questioned Dodge’s route and often tried to change it, primarily to add more miles, so that the UP would collect more government bonds and land grants. In most cases, Dodge was able to overrule Seymour.
On April 23, 1868, Dodge met with Doc and the UP’s Dillon and Seymour at Cheyenne. They had what Dodge called “a very plain talk.” Doc assured Dodge that “he had no desire to interfere with the work or delay it, but only wanted to help.” For his part, Dodge vowed that “nobody could go over his work superficially and change it.”
Less than two weeks later, Durant, from Fort Sanders, issued his “General Order No. 1” (a nice way for Doc, who had never been in the military, to steal a military phrase from one of the heroes of the Civil War). He took advantage of the multitude of duties that descended on Dodge, who was not only a member of Congress but also chief engineer, surveyor, the man in charge of selling the land grants, and more, duties that involved him in much travel. So Durant declared, “In order to prevent unnecessary delay in the work during the absence of the Chief Engineer from the line of the road, the consulting engineer [Seymour] is hereby invested with full power to perform all the duties pertaining to the office of acting Chief engineer and his [Seymour’s] orders will be obeyed accordingly by everyone connected with the engineer department. Any orders heretofore given by the chief engineer conflicting with orders that may be given by the consulting engineer are hereby rescinded.”48
Seymour had told Durant that Dodge’s line from Green River to the Salt Lake was all wrong, that he had laid out a new one and it was much better, and longer. That was one of the causes of General Order No. 1. But more important was Durant’s desire to be the man who built the railroad.
This, and other disputes between the vice-president and the chief engineer, came to a head. On July 26, the Republican nominee for the presidency, General Ulysses S. Grant, along with Generals Sherman and Sheridan and others, including Durant, was going to be in Fort Sanders. Dodge had been in Salt Lake City when he received word that he too was expected. He took a chartered stagecoach to the UP’s end of track, then a train to Laramie, arriving on July 25. Grant was there as part of a campaign tour whose purpose was to shake the hands of as many Union veterans as possible. Sherman, who was with him, wrote his brother the senator, “Of course Grant will be elected. I have just traveled with him for two weeks, and the curiosity to see him exhausted his and my patience.”49
Dodge took Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and the other generals to the end of track, then at Benton, 124 miles beyond Fort Sanders and Laramie. In his own words, he “took great pains on this trip to post them thoroughly about everything connected with the Union Pacific.” What an opportunity for a reporter! Or, come to that, for a tape recorder! But neither was there. Still, one can imagine General Dodge, the top railroad man in the Union Army, the man on whom Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, not to mention Lincoln had relied to keep the trains running or to lay new track for them, telling his confederates about the progress and prospects for the longest railroad in the world. And one can imagine how hard the generals listened, the questions they asked, and how impressed they were.
At one point Dodge declared that he was ready to quit his job if Durant, Seymour, or anyone else changed his final location. Grant heard him, thought for a moment, then exacted a personal promise from Dodge that he would not resign until the railroad was finished.50
The men rode the train back to Fort Sanders. July 26 was a baking-hot day. At the Officers’ Club at the fort, a big log bungalow, the generals met with Durant and Seymour. Durant took the floor. He was bold enough to attack Dodge, telling Grant and the others that Dodge had selected extravagant routes, wasted precious time and money on useless surveys, ignored the sound judgment of Silas Seymour, was about to bypass Salt Lake City, had neglected his congressional duties, and more.
Grant turned to Dodge. “What will you do about it?” he asked.
“Just this,” Dodge answered. “If Durant, or anybody connected with the Union Pacific, or anybody connected with the government, changes my lines, I’ll quit the road.”
There was a tense, but momentary, hush. Then Grant spoke. “The Government expects this railroad to be finished,” he declared, speaking as if his election was assured. Then he turned to Dodge. “The Government expects you to remain with the road as its Chief Engineer until it is completed,” he said.
Doc Durant took it all in. He pulled at his goatee, then managed to mumble, “I withdraw my objections. Of course we all want Dodge to stay with the road.”51
Three days later, after traveling from Fort Sanders to Omaha on the UP, Dodge entertained Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan in his house in Council Bluffs. They talked about the war, and the coming election, and of course about Durant and the UP. Dodge managed to get in some digs against the CP.
The showdown at Fort Sanders has gone into the history books as decisive, but Dodge was not yet clear of Durant. The vice-president fired off from New York a series of telegrams to the men in the field. He wanted more speed. To Reed: “Work day and night…. Increase track-laying to 4 miles a day.” To Evans: “Notify Casement that 16,000 feet of track per day won’t do.” To Casement: “What prevents your doing 5 miles per day.”
On August 8, Dodge wrote Ames, president of the UP, that Seymour was still in command on the line while Durant controlled company headquarters in New York. He charged that Durant’s orders were “to skin and skip everything for the purpose of getting track down, & your temporary Bridges will now hardly stand to get trains over them.”52 Meanwhile, Seymour was trying to ruin “the finest location that was ever made” with his excessive grades and curvature. And he warned, “Somebody will have to answer for the swindle. I doubt whether a mile of Road will be accepted, with such a location.”53
DESPITE all the harassment, the Casement brothers and the men under them continued to move west. The undulating double row of glistening rails stretched on, on, on. Every twenty miles or so the Casements laid a side track. One of their workers said, “There we sorted material for the front and our engine went back to bring up material needed at the front. Then it would go back to the end of track and throw off iron, ties, spikes and bridge timbers on both sides of the track.” The side tracks were filled with supply trains bearing hundreds of tons of iron and thousands of ties.
The last terminal base, by late summer well past Rawlins, was brimming with riotous life, grotesque with makeshift shacks and portable buildings. There too was the Casements’ takedown warehouse with dining room. Toward the end of track, the construction trains waited their turn, among the dining cars, the bunk cars, the combined kitchen, stores car, and office car, each eighty feet long. Among them there was, sometimes, the Lincoln Car, for Durant or other notables.
At the end of track, Casement directed the work of a thousand and more men. The track layers were the elite of the force, experts in their job, selected by the Casements for their physical strength, endurance, coordination, and ability to learn. The supply teams, three or four hundred of them, plodded back and forth along the grade, covered with desert dust, red with pulverized granite, white with soda and alkali, blue with Irish dudeens. The line of wagons toiling on, bearing ties, hay, and other supplies up the interminable grade, stretched out. On the grade, ahead of the track layers, tiny antlike figures delving, plowing, scaling, cursing as they finished the grade. Scattered throughout there were three hundred or more African Americans, former slaves. The Salt Lake Daily Reporter noted that, out in the Wyoming desert, “as the successive gangs of graders advance in this direction they close together until it seems as if every inch of ground was covered with men, and that there would be no room for any more.”54
Everyone worked fast, at top speed, partly because that was what Dodge, Durant, and the Casements wanted, partly to stay ahead of the track layers or the telegraph men or to keep up with the crews making the bridges, or to satisfy an eager public and to realize the full utility of the road once finished, or just to get the hell out of that infernal desert, or most of all to beat their rivals on the CP. But, no matter how fast they went, they did their best. By 1868, for example, there were almost no Cottonwood ties, and the crews were rapidly replacing existing ones.
By the end of the summer of 1868, the New York Tribune asserted that the railroad project was, and would continue to be for years to come, “the great absorbing fact of the West.”55
For sure it drew the reporters. Durant put out a call for them to come see for themselves, and that summer they did so, in a party headed by Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun. They dubbed themselves the Rocky Mountain Press Club. It was a rousing success, and led to two months of good stories as well as increased sales of UP stocks and bonds. A few weeks after their tour, Schuyler Colfax, Grant’s running mate, toured the road. After him came a band of professors from Yale. They were all impressed, although Jack Casement complained that the visitors were “a great nuisance to the work.” But his men laid four miles of track in one day, which mightily impressed the professors. They, like everyone else in America—or, indeed, the world—had never seen anything like it.56
In August 1868, the track was thirty miles past the bridge over the North Platte River, almost seven hundred miles from Omaha. On September 21, the end of track was just outside Green River.* In a few days, the town had become another Hell on Wheels. A month later, it had been left behind. From July 21 to October 20, seventy-eight working days excluding Sundays, the Casement crews had laid 181 miles of track, an average of 2.3 miles per day. They often did three miles, sometimes five, and once (October 26, 1868) set a record of almost eight miles in one day, for which they got triple pay. They did all this in altitude as high as most mountains, in scorching sun or freezing nights, with ill-tasting water. Durant was so pleased he wired the news of eight miles in one day to Oliver Ames, declaring that the feat “has the ring of work in it” and was “the achievement of the year.”57
A reporter for the Western Railroad Gazette told how it was done through a “barren alkali desert, with nothing but distant mountains to invite the eye or cheer the hope.” He wrote that, in the process of laying track, “there is no limit to its speed except the ability of the road to bring up the ties and rails. For the track laying a picked force of about four hundred men are employed.” The ties were carried ahead a mile or two from the supply train by horse-drawn wagons and laid by a special team. The rails were brought forward “to the very edge. Two are dropped to their places, the car pulled by a trained horse over them, and two more dropped, and so on, while the moment they fall men adjust them exactly, others follow with spikes and rivets and others still with shovels and bars to level and straighten the whole work.” When the car was empty it was tipped off the track and sent back for another load while a fresh one came to the front. And so it went, without pause.58
More good news followed. Secretary Browning had appointed a three-man Special Commission to look at the charges of scandal and defects in construction, charges that were widespread and widely believed. But on November 23, the commission, composed of Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, Jacob Blickensderfer, and James Barnes, reported that the line had been “well constructed.” The members unanimously agreed that Dodge had picked “the most favorable passes on the continent” along with “favorable alignment unsurpassed by any other railway line.” Further, “so few mistakes were made and so few defects exist” as to be “a matter of surprise.” Overall, “the country had reason to congratulate itself that this great work of national importance is so rapidly approaching completion under such favorable auspices.”59
In early November, the end of track was 890 miles west of Omaha. Another Hell on Wheels was born, Bear River City. It was typical. Brigham Young assured the shocked Mormons that it wouldn’t last long. Bear River City was just short of the Wyoming-Utah state line, on the Bear River, on the eastern side of the Wasatch Range. Meanwhile, Jack Casement reported that he was “straining every nerve to get into Salt Lake Valley before the heavy snows fall. Thirty more days of good weather will let us do it.”60
AT the other end of the line, at Omaha, the UP was also moving ahead in giant strides. In late November, the Western Railroad Gazette reported, “The first corps of workmen have arrived for building the great Union Pacific Railroad Bridge.” The contractor was L. B. Boomer of Chicago, who had built so many of the UP’s bridges and was generally thought to be one of the best (if not the best) in the country at his job. The location would be from Council Bluffs to Omaha. When it was finished, it was hoped within a year, and the UP had hooked up with the CP (at a point yet to be determined), there would be a continuous line of rails running from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The bridge work, the Gazette said, would “be prosecuted with all the energy which money, men and skill can impart to it.” The bridge would be “an immense structure” and would cost about $2 million.61
SUCH progress alarmed the men of the CP. Collis Huntington was the only man among the Big Four who had met Durant, and in 1868 he had sent his appraisal to Mark Hopkins: “You have no ordinary man working against you. Durant is a man of wonderful energy, in fact reckless in his energy, and it looks to me now as though he would get to Salt Lake before we can.”62
That was certainly accurate. But even as the Crédit Mobilier paid out nearly 300 percent in one year’s dividend, the UP was desperate for cash. “Money is awful tight and we have large amts to pay,” Oliver Ames moaned. “We hope to get through but things look Blue.” To Durant he wrote, “The demands for money are perfectly frightful.” Undaunted, the trustees of the Crédit Mobilier on December 29 declared a 200 percent dividend payable in UP stock, even as Ames ordered Durant to “cut off all useless expense and economize everywhere.” Ames took the sting out of his message with the qualifying phrase “where it will not delay work.”63
Durant was unfazed. He was determined to beat the CP not only to Ogden but beyond, at least to Humboldt Wells if not farther west. To do that, he needed to get the UP track through Echo Canyon, Utah, down to Ogden and, he hoped, beyond, before the winter froze the ground and covered it with snow. To that end, on December 18 he sent a telegram to Casement: “How fast are you sending men to head of Echo? We want 2,000 as soon as can be had.”64
The race was into its final stretch. The men working for the UP and for the CP, from the top on down, were in sight of each other. In late September 1868, Frank Gilbert sent a dispatch to his newspaper, the Salt Lake Daily Reporter, stating that General Dodge had just made a trip from Promontory to Humboldt Wells. In the area between the north end of the Salt Lake and Humboldt Wells, the UP had “four locating parties, and two construction parties of engineers, while the Central Pacific Company also have six parties of engineers between the same points. We understand that the lines of the two companies are being run nearly parallel, and everything now seems to indicate that there will be two grades if not two roads, between the Lake and the Wells.”65
* Professor John Wesley Powell, on his way to his epic journey of exploration down the Colorado River, arranged to take the UP from Omaha to Green River. There he put into the river and descended to the Colorado.
* The North Platte River comes out of the Sierra Madre range, flows north until it receives the Sweetwater River, then turns northeast to skirt the Medicine Bow Mountains, then southeast out of Wyoming into western Nebraska, until it joins with the South Platte River at the Nebraska town of North Platte.