CHARLES Crocker promised his partners in the CP that he would build a mile per day in 1868. They hoped so. But Collis Huntington thought Crocker could aim higher. On January 1, he wrote to E. B. Crocker, “I think you do not know the importance of extending the Central Pacific east of the [Salt] Lake to the Wasatch Mts.” If he were in charge of construction instead of purchasing materials and raising money, Huntington said, “I would build the cheapest road that I could and have it accepted by the [government] Comm[ission] so it moves ahead fast.”
Three weeks later, Huntington told Charlie Crocker to build as fast as he could. “When a cheap road will pass the Commission, make it cheap.” He wanted Crocker to “run on the maximum grade instead of finishing making deep cuts and fills, and where you can make time in construction by using wood instead of stone for culverts and pilings, use wood.” If the road washed out, Huntington advised, fix it later.
E. B. Crocker told Huntington a day later, on January 22, that he had heard the UP had set a goal for itself of four hundred miles in 1868. The CP intended to do as much, but “there are four essentials: 1st money, 2nd labor, 3rd ties, 4th iron and rolling stock. The 2nd and 3rd we got here, and the 1st and 4th depend on you.” The iron that was supposed to be coming wasn’t “coming on fast enough,” Crocker complained. “What you ship after June 1st will not reach the terminus of the track in 1968. We need you to send more iron, fast.”1
Huntington’s letters and telegrams to the other members of the Big Four, and theirs to him, would fill volumes. He wanted them to make track faster, to get farther east, to defeat the UP at whatever cost. He would sell bonds or borrow to get the necessary money, he would buy the material and ship it to California. They wanted him to be reasonable, but meanwhile to speed up the shipments of material and to sell more bonds and bring in more money. What follows is a small sample of the exchange, from January 1868.
Huntington to E. B. Crocker, January 3: “You have been hurrying me up to sell bonds but it turns out that I am selling them faster now than you can print them. I want 3 million in the next 3 months.”
Charlie Crocker to Huntington, same date: “Everything was done that could be done with the labor we could get and we used every exertion to procure more labor the whole season [of 1867]. Therefore I console myself & say well done. I am confident that the same number of men and horses never accomplished more work than was accomplished on the CP in the year.”
Huntington to E. B. Crocker, January 5:
You write that you don’t think that there are enough fish plates for all the iron as though that was a new idea to you. I wrote you early last summer asking about fish plates and you wrote back that you would not need them before 1868.
You wrote me some months ago that Charlie would write soon with an order for the number and kind of locomotives we’ll want for 1868 and I have not seen it. Next week I will finish buying 24 locomotives: 12 with 8 wheels, 5 ft. drivers and 16×24 cylinders; and 12 with 10 wheels, 4 ft drivers and 18×24 cylinders, and I hope to have all of them on the way by the first of May.
Huntington to Mark Hopkins, January 6: “I have just received a dispatch from Crocker which reads ‘send immediately 300 flat cars, we are going for 300 miles in’68; must have rolling stock.’ I hope you will make the 300 into 400 miles.”
E. B. Crocker to Huntington, January 8: “I met with one of the officers just in from China. He says that right after Chinese New Years (which is Feb. 5) every steamer which leaves China monthly will have from 800 to 1,000 men and he intends to send them all on to our work. Thousands more will come by sail, so we should have enough.”
Huntington to E. B. Crocker, January 13: “And then if we could find first the man (which would be very difficult) to go over and to live on the UP Road, and work amongst their men and send them over to our road. The right man could do that now. He should be found out. By all that I can learn they have a man that can lay more track in a day than any other man in the United States.”
Leland Stanford to Huntington, January 16: “We will increase the workforce beyond what it has ever been. Every one now seems to be fully up to a resolute determination. I think we can build 300 to 350 miles this year.”
E. B. Crocker to Huntington, January 22: “$705,000 in sales of bonds is splendid. We will have to start a printing mill to keep you supplied. If you think we do not understand and appreciate the importance of reaching Salt Lake first, you are mistaken. We do, so send the iron.”
Mark Hopkins to Huntington, January 27: “We don’t expect to make a road of the character we have been building through the mountains, but the cheapest possible one. We will build as fast as possible to be acceptable to the commissioners. And we already know the commissioners will readily accept as poor a road as we can wish to offer.”
Huntington to E. B. Crocker, January 29: “I sold 2 million of our first mort. Bonds today and got the price up to 98 per cent and interest. I expect to go to par in the next weeks. [Completing the tunnel through the summit did wonders for the value of the CP bonds.] The UP is at 90 per cent.”
E. B. Crocker to Huntington, January 31: “As far as paying for men to come here, that will not work. They leave as soon as they get here and chuckle at the thought of having swindled us. No, the Chinese are our men. They cost only about ½ and we have plenty of men here for foreman and to do the skilled work. You say the UP have a man who will lay more track than any other man in the U.S. Perhaps so, but we will see next summer. You send the iron along fast and in time.”
Huntington to E. B. Crocker, February 3: “I am satisfied that almost anything can be done that we really make up our minds to do and that we can build to Weber Canyon this year if we make up our minds to do it.”2
ALL the iron and other material Huntington was buying and shipping to California came at tremendous expense. Strobridge estimated that the railroad line would have cost 70 percent less than it did had economy been a consideration, but the line was built “without regard to any outlay that would hasten its completion.”3
Almost twenty years later, Lewis Clement wrote to Leland Stanford on the subject of the cost of building the line, a letter that Stanford submitted to the U.S. Pacific Railway Commission, which was investigating the finances of the UP and the CP Clement said that in 1863 iron rails cost $41.75 per ton. But Congress had required both railroads to buy American-made rails only, and by 1866 the cost was up to $76.87 and by 1868 to $91.70 per ton at the rolling mill. The rails had to come around Cape Horn or via the Isthmus of Panama to get to San Francisco, then were lightered (taken by smaller ships) to Sacramento, then taken by rail (and, until 1868, by wagon or sled over the summit after Cisco) to the end of track. Cape Horn was cheaper than the Isthmus but it took longer, so in 1868 all the rails came through Panama. It cost $51.97 per ton to ship the rails through the Isthmus, which put the cost of rail delivered to San Francisco at $143.07 per ton, with more expenses to come to get the rails to the end of track.
In 1865, Clement wrote, two engines cost $70,752 at the factory, then almost $16,000 more to ship. “But their power was absolutely necessary to supply materials needed for construction; without those engines there would be delay.”
In 1868, the costs remained high, or were up. Building the snowsheds was one factor, but there were many others. It cost money, for example, to ship the men and materials around the break in the track just east of the summit. In Nevada, “everything was expensive.” Barley and oats for the horses and mules was $280 per ton, hay $120. “Water was scarce after leaving the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers” and had to be hauled for steam and general use. “There was not a tree that would make a board on over 500 miles of the route, no satisfactory quality of building stone. The country afforded nothing. The maximum haul for ties was 600 miles and of rails and other material 740 miles.”4
Of course, the UP had the same or similar problems and difficulties until it got to the Wasatch Range, but for the CP, despite the handicaps, it was heavenly to be out on the desert making a mile or more per day instead of in those accursed mountains making a foot or a few yards per day.
• • •
A major expense, and a task that kept Clement working in the mountains for long periods in 1868, was making the snowsheds. It had to be done. In the winter of 1866-67 and again in 1867-68, half—and sometimes all—of the labor force had to be used to shovel the snow. Beyond the danger of the work, there was the constant threat of avalanches. Clement would send men hauling black-powder kegs to reach the threatening combs of great masses of compact snow leaning over the granite bluffs. “It required courage and determination and the call for volunteers for this daring undertaking was always answered.”5
In 1867, Crocker and Stanford had discussed the problem of snow. Stanford had taken out his pencil and begun estimating the cost of covering the vulnerable sections of the track with snowsheds. The cost was appalling, but as Arthur Brown, the CP’s superintendent of bridges and buildings, said of the winter of 1866-67, “It was impossible to keep the road clear from snow or open over half the time and that mostly by means of men and shovels, which required an army of men on hand all the time at great expense.” So Stanford and Crocker decided to do it. In the summer of 1867, Brown, then thirty-eight years old, got started. That year he had built about five miles of experimental sheds, primarily above and below Cisco, wherever the track ran through a deep cut and was thus even more vulnerable.
In June 1868, when some of the snow had melted or been removed, permanent construction began. Brown had twenty-five hundred men working for him. He kept six trains constantly busy bringing on timber and spikes and bolts. He kept every sawmill in the Sierra busy and used sixty-five million feet of timber and nine hundred tons of bolts and spikes. Workers were paid top rates, $4 per day for carpenters and $2.50 to $3 for common laborers. The total length of the sheds was thirty-seven miles. Nine miles west of the summit and four miles east of it, the sheds ran almost continuously. The cost was over $2 million. “It costs a fearful amount,” Huntington said. Brown called the cost “unprecedented in railroad construction.”
There was no alternative, as Brown later said. “As the road was then rapidly progressing up the valley of the Humboldt, it became a matter of the most vital importance that the sheds should be so far finished that the supplies and building materials for construction ahead should not be interrupted” when the snows returned in the fall. The expense was increased because Brown had to keep the track clear for the traffic of construction trains going to the front, and because of the number of men kept busy shoveling snow all through June and into July.6
On June 16, Mark Hopkins wrote to Huntington about the men doing the shoveling. “This work was commenced as early in March as the storms would permit,” he said, “and has been continued by all the men who could be found willing to work themselves blind & their faces pealed and scared [sic] as though they had been scalded in the face with scalding water.”7
When the snow was cleared away to make room for work, the CP built two types of sheds. First, where the gallery was exposed to the terrible avalanches of snow and ice from the steep and rocky slopes, it was extended back up the slope of the mountain several hundred feet from the center line of the road. Thus the galleries were built along the side of the mountains in such a way that the slope of the roof conformed with that of the mountain, so that the snow could pass over easily. Second, massive masonry walls were built across ravines to prevent the snow from striking the sheds at right angles. They were strengthened on the downside by boulders. There it was necessary to build the sheds of enormous strength by bracing them against the mountainside, framing them and interlacing them with beams and crossbeams.8
The job wasn’t completely finished until 1869. The CP thought it up and did it, though other railroads, most notably in the Alps, later copied it. It was an engineering feat of the first magnitude—“the Longest House in the World.” The biggest one ran twenty-nine miles, which made it “The House Without End.” It had one hundred million board feet of lumber, and it withstood the Sierra snowfalls; in one season, sixty-five feet piled up.9
One of the problems was sparks from wood-burning locomotives that would get into the timber and set it afire. Initially the locomotives burned pinewood. The link-and-pin coupling was in use. The crews would “wood up” the tenders, from three to five cords at a time. The woodsheds were mainly beside the sidings. They were filled in September and October with a full winter’s supply. Chinese gangs on work trains did the loading and unloading. When a fire got a start in one of those woodsheds, it was impossible to stop it, and it burned for hours, sometimes days. Fire was always the archfiend, because not only were all the station buildings and sheds built of lumber but of course all the trestles and truss bridges.10
Constant spraying with water helped keep some control of the fires in the snowsheds, but after many years all the wood had to be replaced with concrete. The sheds remain one of the wonders of the CP. They were, until replaced with concrete, one of the wonders of engineering with wood. The timbers were fifteen feet or longer, almost as big as big tree trunks. Photographs of them continue to astonish and amaze. Except for their vulnerability to fire, the thirty-seven miles of sheds would still be there, being used.
In July 1870, Van Nostrand’s Engineering Magazine said of the work first planned by Stanford and Crocker, then laid out by Clement, then made under Brown’s supervision, that the men of the CP “just roofed in their road. They took the giant branches of the pines and braced them against the mountain side, framing them and interlacing them with beam. They sloped the roof sustained by massive timbers and stayed by braces laid into the rock, covered by heavy planks up against the precipice so that descending earth or snow would be shot clean over the safely housed track into the pine tops below. They have conquered the snow.”11
TO the east, out where the desert met the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, CP engineer Joseph Graham was in charge of building the road through Nevada. As he recalled, “On the first day of April, 1868, I set the first stake of the survey of the boundary for Reno. The original town-site comprised about 35 acres extending for about a quarter of a mile between the Truckee River as the south boundary and English Ditch as the north boundary.” Charles Crocker pulled the town’s name out of a hat. It was named for Jesse Lee Reno, a Civil War general and hero killed at the Battle of South Mountain in September 1862. The CP sold lots at auction. Because Reno was to be the trade center for the relatively nearby Virginia City, Washoe, and Carson City country, there was a rush of buyers, and choice twenty-five-foot lots sold for $1,200 apiece.12
HUNTINGTON had played a leading role in getting the 1866 Railroad Act amendment passed. The bill authorized the CP to “locate, construct, and continue their route eastward, in a continuous completed line, until they shall meet and connect with the Union Pacific Railroad.” As noted, with no point of junction specified by Congress, the roads were free to build as far as they could. The race that was therefore set up inspired the directors, the supervisors, the surveyors and engineers, the foremen, and the laborers of both the UP and the CP to go as far and as fast as they could.
There were some requirements. One permitted the companies to grade three hundred miles ahead of the end of track; another permitted them, upon completion of acceptable grade, to draw two-thirds of the government-subsidy bonds before the track had been laid. But first there had to be continuous track—not a problem of any magnitude for the UP, but a big one for the CP.
By 1868, the CP had been under construction for five years, but it had only 131 miles of track in place, and they were not continuous. There was a seven-mile gap on the eastern slope of the Sierra, just east of the summit. To the west the Chinese had laid sixteen miles from Cisco to the summit, but although track had been laid and spiked the line had been abandoned when the heavy snows came. In January, Secretary of the Interior Orville Browning had approved the CP’s proposed line from the Truckee River to Humboldt Wells. But the CP still had to get a continuous line from the summit down to the Truckee, and from Cisco up to the summit. It wasn’t going to be easy getting that done.
In mid-April, Strobridge moved a large number of Chinese from Nevada back to the still-snowbound region above Donner Lake and to the west and put them to work shoveling out the surveyed line of the unfinished track and on the grade west of the summit. Snow had covered it to depths of ten to thirty feet, with ice on the grade below the snow. Cuts made between Tunnels No. 8 and 10 were simultaneously buried under snowdrifts twenty to sixty feet high. Meanwhile, the completed track running up from Cisco to the summit lay beneath snow so firmly impacted that snowplows couldn’t get through. On both sides of the summit, thousands of men had to clear the track. Besides shovels, they used picks and blasting powder.13
As the finished track progressed, California (and national) politicians were getting after the CP for its freight and passenger rates. On April 14, Huntington wrote Hopkins, “I notice that everybody is in favor of a railroad until they get it built and then everyone is against it unless the railroad company will carry them and theirs for nothing.”14 Despite Huntington’s complaints—which he most certainly regarded as legitimate, and which would continue and increase, as would the political attacks on the CP and the UP—the work went on.
“Keep right on laying rails just as though you did not care for the snow, and we’re bound to get to Weber Canyon before the Union Company,” Huntington told Charlie Crocker in a letter on April 15, “If you do that I will forever pray that you will have your reward!”15
By May 1, 1868, the CP line from Reno to Truckee was completed. The crews were meanwhile clearing the snow near the summit so that the track layers could re-lay the track between Cisco and Tunnel No. 12 and complete the last seven-mile gap to open the line to Nevada.
On May 15, Huntington filed with Secretary Browning a map of the definite location of the CP’s proposed line from Humboldt Wells to Weber Canyon. Browning’s approval was necessary before the crews could start clearing the grade. At that time, the CP’s tracks were five hundred miles west of Echo Summit, yet that was where Huntington hoped to reach. The Pacific Railroad Act forbade the builders to draw subsidies on work done more than three hundred miles ahead of their continuous track, yet the CP officials still wanted to get to grading in Utah. The CP chief engineer, Montague, had his surveyors running lines north of the Great Salt Lake and east of Ogden, in the Wasatch Range, where they were working next to the flags of the UP surveyors near Fort Bridger, Wyoming. The UP surveyors were simultaneously staking out a line across Utah and Nevada to the California border.
It was about this time that Stanford went to Salt Lake City to try to talk Brigham Young into putting his Mormon shoulders to the plow. Brigham had not immediately agreed, Stanford told Hopkins, “Have Charley [Crocker] double his energy and do what is necessary to secure what labor is required to push the road to its utmost. Anything less than the most that can be done will very likely end in defeat.”16
On June 15, 1868, six days after Stanford’s telegram to Hopkins, the CP’s gap between Cisco and Truckee was finally closed. Crocker sent a triumphant telegram to Huntington: “The track is connected across the mountains. We have one hundred and sixty-seven continuous miles laid,”17 A day or two later, he sent three thousand of his Chinese graders, with a fleet of four hundred horse-drawn carts, to Palisade Canyon, on the Humboldt River, three hundred miles in advance of the end of track. Getting supplies and food to them was frightfully costly, but he got to work on it anyway.
On June 18, 1868, the CP ran its first through passenger train from Sacramento to Reno, a distance of 154 miles.* A reporter for the San Francisco Daily Alta California was aboard. He wrote that the train, which departed at 6:30 A.M., consisted of one boxcar stocked with freight, one baggage car with freight and the U.S. mails, and three of the CP’s new passenger cars. The locomotive was the Antelope, which had just been overhauled and painted, with bright-red wheels, a walnut cab, shiny brasswork, and a portrait of an antelope painted on the headlight. A truly fitting picture for the first locomotive ever to cross the Sierra Nevada.
Hank Small was the engineer. He checked out the locomotive, oilcan in his hand. Then he got started. After Roseville, California, “we proceeded on our way and now the mountains appeared so close that it seemed that we could put our hand out of the window and touch them…. The engine blows and wheezes, with short, sharp aspirations and the feeling of weight as we ascend a steep and increasing grade.” At 9:50 A.M., the train had gone up 2,448 feet, to Colfax. Then came the jaws-to-the-floorboard passing around Cape Horn, with passengers looking “anxiously and with evident trepidation into the depths below.” Then came Secret Town and an elevation of nearly three thousand feet.
“Up and up, onward we climbed skyward.” Then came Dutch Flat. Two miles farther, it was Alta at 3,625 feet. The first tunnel, five hundred feet long, was seventy-five miles from Sacramento and forty-five hundred feet above the sea. The snow levels came down to the road. “Chinese are swarming everywhere. They have nearly finished their work in this vicinity and are packing preparatory to passing over the summit into the great interior basin of the continent.”
At 102 miles from Sacramento, “we stand 6,800 feet above the sea. Two miles more and the cars reach the entrance of the great summit tunnel, 1,659 feet in length. We have scaled the great Sierras at last and a plus ultra might be written on the granite walls of the great tunnel before us. We are 7,043 feet above the sea.”
On the west side of the tunnel, “a swarm of Chinese are busy shoveling away the snow, which has come down in great slides bringing with it huge granite boulders upon the tracks.” It took two hours to clear the track. The passengers waited with whatever patience they could muster until conductor George Wood called out “All aboard!” On the trip down to the Truckee, “the snow banks come down so close to the track that the eaves of the car rake them on either side.” The road wound around the precipitous mountainside, almost encircling Donner Lake as it descended,scended, making a circuit of seven miles to gain not more than a quarter-mile.
On it rolled, to the Great Basin of Nevada. “The mighty task is accomplished. Words cannot describe it.” The Chinese onlookers did, in their own way. The Alta California reporter watched them as they watched the train. He called them “John,” and wrote: “John comprehending fully the importance of the event, loses his natural appearance of stolidity and indifference and welcomes with the swinging of his broad brimmed hat and loud, uncouth shouts the iron horse. With his patient toil, directed by American energy and backed by American capital, John has broken down the great barrier at last and opened over it the greatest highway yet created for the march of civilization.”18
Theodore Judah, who did the original surveying, had thought it could be done. He had convinced the Big Four, then Congress, then the President that it could be done. Now that it had been done, he must have looked down from heaven and smiled.
AT the lush Truckee Meadows, the wild grass grew two to three feet high. The California pioneers had stayed there to fatten their horses and cattle before pushing over the Sierra. When the track was open from Sacramento to the meadows, Crocker sent fifty carloads of supplies to Strobridge per day, divided into five trains each hauled by two locomotives. Crocker told Bancroft that those trains “were the heaviest that ever went over the road and the heaviest that ever will probably.”* He said the trains went over the seven miles of completed track just past the summit “and went safely. If the track had not been good, it could not have been done.”19 As quick as the supply trains were unloaded, they started back over the mountains for another load.
The CP was on the move. The Truckee’s Lower Canyon headed east, going through a narrowing meadowland that lay between great bare brown hills, until the river swung left some thirty-five miles past Reno and headed north, toward its outlet at Pyramid Lake. As the end of track moved east, the construction superintendent’s headquarters train, along with dormitory cars, stayed right behind. J. C. Lewis, editor of the week-old Reno Crescent, described it. “A locomotive came rushing down the track having in tow a string of boarding and lodging houses. One and four-story houses, which we called the Hotel de China. In the lower deck was cooking apartments; the second, third, and fourth decks were sleeping and eating rooms. Next several houses of a superior quality for the officials of the company…. Altogether a novel sight and one we shall long remember. We are prepared for anything Charlie Crocker may do in the future.”20
On July 1, 1868, Huntington wrote to Crocker to tell him that he had sent 60, 146 tons of rails from New York, all on fast ships, and he expected to raise the figure to ninety or a hundred thousand tons by the end of the year. Then he added, in a near-perfect expression of his many exhortations and therefore perhaps the most widely quoted of all his words, “So work on as though Heaven were before you and Hell behind you.”21
The same day, July 1, engineer Graham got to the Big Bend of the Truckee, where he set the stakes to found the town of Wads worth. Crocker came up a bit later and walked over the site, and after a half-hour he pointed to where he wanted the engine house and the station buildings for the town. This spot, 189 miles from Sacramento, became the base of supplies for the remaining five hundred miles of construction.
After Wadsworth, where the crews said good-bye to the Truckee, and until the track got to the Humboldt Sink, the route was northeastward across the Great Desert, a vast waste of sand and sagebrush and white alkali deposits, with high mountain ranges to the south and bleak hills to the north. The desert ran nearly a hundred miles, without a tree, without water, without anything that could be used for construction. A popular saying was that “a jack rabbit had to carry a canteen and haversack” to get across it.22
The CP spent big money trying to drill wells, but to almost no avail. Clement remarked, “Tunnels were bored into the mountains east of Wadsworth to develop small springs and when water was found, it was carefully protected and conveyed, in some cases, over eight miles in pipes to the line of the road.”23 The water for men, horses, and locomotives came from the Truckee River and was carried in huge, semiconical wooden vats on flatcars. The vats had big spouts that worked like the spouts of railroad water towers. At the end of track, much of the water had to be transferred to barrels and sent ahead by wagons to the graders. Timbers and boards for ties, bridges, station houses, and other structures, plus wood for fuel and rock for retaining walls and other masonry, came from the Sierra Nevada, where such materials were boundless. It was still expensive to bring them east, but it was done.
That year the CP had a most unusual but major problem with its Chinese workforce. Charlie Crocker explained it to Huntington. “The most tremendous yarns have been circulating among the Chinese,” he wrote. “We have lost about 1,000 through fear of Indians out on the desert.” It seemed that they had been told “there are Snakes fifty feet long that swallow Chinamen whole on the desert, and Indians 25 feet high that eat men and women for breakfast and hundreds of other equally ridiculous stories.” Crocker solved the problem by sending twenty-two Chinamen taken from different groups “up the Humbolt [sic] to see for themselves and they have just returned and things are more quiet since.”24
The track layers were making great strides, while the graders ahead of them moved even faster. The Alta California described the way the thousands of men at work moved their residence each day. “Camp equipage, work shops, boarding house, offices, and in fact the big settlement literally took up its bed and walked. The place that knew it at morning knew it no more at night. It was nearly ten miles off and where was a busy town of 5,000 inhabitants in the morning, was a deserted village site at night, while a smooth, well built, compact road bed for traveling stretched from the morning site to the evening tarrying place.”25
One good thing about the desert—it was flat. Wadsworth, where the Truckee River turned north, was a bit more than four thousand feet in altitude. From there the route moved up in about as gentle a grade as the Nebraska plains. For 275 miles it gained only a thousand feet of altitude. So, in July and early August, the track layers put down and spiked forty-six miles of iron, or an average of one and a half miles per day.
FROM the beginning of the summer of 1868 to the end, Charles Crocker kept in much closer personal touch with the men. “I used to go up and down that road in my car like a mad bull,” he told an interviewer, “stopping along wherever there was anything going amiss, and raising Old Nick with the boys that were not up to time.” When he slept, which wasn’t often, it was on the train. When he woke, he could tell from the movement of his car exactly where on the line the train was. When Mrs. Crocker complained that he talked to her too roughly, he would reply, “Well you know that I don’t mean anything when I am abrupt with you.”
“Well,” she replied, “your manner is overbearing and gruff. That is the way you talk with me and with everybody.”
Crocker told his interviewer, “I got so that I was really ashamed of myself. That sort of bearing was entirely foreign to me.”26
ON September 3, government commissioners rode from Sacramento to the end of track to make their inspection. W. H. Rhodes, correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle, accompanied them. Some excerpts from his long dispatch:
Really, the speed is terrific…. Truckee is a young and flourishing town, full of people, who all seem to be busy in the great lumber trade. Hundreds of saw-mills are at work and millions of feet of timber are daily flatted out into boards….
We arrived at Reno and here beheld another new town. The noise of hammer, and plane, and saw re-echoed on all sides, and the city rises like an exhalation. It is a complete mirage on the desert, and will probably be as magnificent.
After spending the night at Wadsworth, the inspectors set out again, one of them scrutinizing the ties, rails, and grade with a spyglass, another lying down to sleep.
The argument being this, that if the passengers could sleep the track must be level, easy and all right. He slept profoundly and did not wake until we overtook the end of the road just 307 miles from Sacramento.
Here we found a very large number of men at work—principally Chinese—laying the track. The scientific part of the job is superintended by white men, but the rough work is done by the Chinese.
Shocking to modern readers, taken for granted by readers in the nineteenth century, the white superintendents of the Chinese were called “herders.”
Rhodes got a horse, “and I rode on a gallop to the front. The grading is completed several hundred miles in advance so that there is no delay in placing the rails. It would be impossible to describe how rapidly, orderly and perfectly this is done, without seeing the operation itself. There are just as many employed as can conveniently work, and no more. Vehicles laden with ties are always in advance, and Chinese with gauge and leveling rod place them across the grade, almost as quick as thought. The car with the rails is brought up at a gallop, and six white men—three at each rail—roll the iron off the car, and drop it upon the track, with the velocity of steam. The empty car is lifted off the track, and then one fully loaded is drawn to the front, and the same operation repeated ad infinitum.”
Rhodes pulled out his watch to time the last half-mile being laid. It was done in “a little less than twenty-eight minutes…. It is a fact, beyond dispute, that this company has laid over six miles of track in a single day.”27 The inspectors judged the final twenty-mile section of the line to be acceptable, and the bonds were issued.
By this time, the crews were picking up speed to a fare-thee-well. “They can and do lay the track now at the rate of four miles a day,” another reporter wrote. He had just talked to Charles Crocker, who told him that, if the additional fifty locomotives then on ships en route to San Francisco arrived soon, the CP would be into Salt Lake City by December. The company already had seventy locomotives at work. The reporter’s conclusion was apt: “This is railroading on a scale surpassing anything ever before conceived.”28
Far to the east, Butler Ives, with a party of twelve men, was making the final location from Humboldt Wells to the Wasatch Range. “They keep me out in these infernal regions of salt and desolation,” he wrote his brother, “because I am familiar with the country & don’t fear the Indians.” Montague had told surveyor Ives that “the necessity for pushing ahead will compel us to sacrifice good alignment & easy grades for the sake of getting light work. Make temporary location by using sharp curves and heavy grades wherever you can make any material savings on the work. The line we want now is the one we can build the soonest, even if we rebuild immediately. Keep this in mind.”29
ON October 21, Huntington wrote to Crocker, “Why doesn’t Stanford go to Salt Lake and stay until the roads meet?” Stanford did, and stayed for almost three months. Huntington went on, “I have got the new line to Echo Summit approved,” which wasn’t quite true. “You must lay tracks to the tunnel. By God, Charley, you must work as man never worked before. Our salvation is you.”30
By the end of October, the line was open to Winnemucca, Nevada. According to the Humboldt Register, the town was “improving rapidly. Several large stores had opened.” The CP made Winnemucca into a division point and intended to build roundhouses and machine shops there, along with other buildings. So, the Register concluded, “the town may yet survive and become an important place.”31
That remained to be seen.* Engineer Graham noted the scarcity of inhabitants in northern Nevada and commented on the sight of empty land: “What settlements were there when the line was being built? Winnemucca was a small town, there was a wayside hotel at Humboldt station, there was a little store at Mill City. I don’t remember any habitations until we touched Corinne [Utah], 20 miles east of Promontory.”32
THAT October, Huntington filed with the Interior Department maps and profiles of the CP’s proposed line from Monument Point to Echo Summit. Secretary Browning accepted the documents, but he was about to become a lame duck, since Republican candidate General Grant was the almost certain winner of the 1868 election. So, when Huntington filed an application for an advance of $2.4 million in subsidy bonds for grading that had been done on the line, on the grounds that the CP’s was the only line, the true line, the one on which bonds could be issued, Doc Durant and Oliver Ames protested mightily. Browning then decided to do nothing until January 1869, after the election, when he would appoint a special commission headed by General Gouverneur Warren to go to the site to determine the best route through the disputed territory. The UP then got Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch to agree that he would not issue any bonds until Warren’s commission had reported.
Another government commission, out to inspect tracks already laid and in use, traveled by rail from Sacramento to the end of the CP’s track in mid-November. On December 3, they sent a highly favorable report to Secretary Browning. “On the new portion of the road,” they said, “through Humboldt Valley, cross ties, bridges, and rails are up to standard. Minor defects can be remedied at small cost when hurry of pushing forward the road is over. Heavy trains of rails, ties and fuel are running safely to the extreme end of the road, 445 miles from Sacramento. The road is being constructed in good faith, in a substantial manner, without stint of labor, materials or equipment, and is worthy of its character as a great national work.”33
ON November 9, 1868, a reporter from the Alta California explained how Strobridge and his men could make that great national work press east so rapidly. He wrote that Strobridge was comfortably established in his camp train, which contained hotel, telegraph office, store, kitchen, sleeping quarters, and a “home that would not discredit San Francisco.” In the train were the officials, the clerical force, and some Caucasian workers. Mrs. Strobridge was there, in her boxcar, which was divided into three small rooms, with windows and a narrow, recessed porch on the right side, plus a ventilator in the roof.
Mrs. Strobridge was the only white woman who “saw the thing through from beginning to end.” The men called her “The Heroine of the CP.” Her car was “neatly fitted up and well furnished.” An awning veranda, with a caged canary bird swinging at the front door, gave it a homelike appearance.
The reporter noted long lines of horses, mules, and wagons near the train. At dawn the stock was eating hay and barley. As the sun came up, trains shunted in from the west with materials for the day’s work. Foremen were galloping about on horseback shouting out their orders. Swarms of laborers—Chinese, Europeans, and Americans—were hurrying to their work. There was a movable blacksmith shop with a score of smiths repairing tools and shoeing horses. Next to it was a fully equipped harness shop, hard at work on collars, traces, and other equipment.
Down the track, a line of telegraph poles “stretched back as far as the eye could reach.” The telegraph wire from the last pole was strung into the car that was the telegraph office. Its last message the previous evening had been back to Sacramento to report on the progress made that day.
To the east stretched the newly disturbed earth, the grade for the ties and rails. By the side of the grade were the campfires of the Chinese, blue-clad laborers who were waiting for the signal to begin. “They are the vanguard of the construction forces. Miles back is the camp of the rear guard—the Chinese who follow the track gang, ballasting and finishing the road bed.” The reporter judged that the Chinese were “systematic workers, competent and wonderfully effective because tireless and unremitting in their industry.” Divided into gangs of thirty men each, they worked under American foremen.
When the sun cleared the horizon, the signal to begin rang out. “What at first seemed confusion to the visitor soon resolved itself into orderly action.” A train of some thirty cars carried ties, rail, spikes, bolts, telegraph poles, wire, and more. These were thrown off the train as near to the end of track as possible. There the rails were loaded onto low ironcars and hauled by horse to the end of track. Then came the rail gang, placing the rails on the ties, while a man on each side distributed spikes, two to each tie. Another distributed splice bars, and a third the bolts and nuts for the fishplate. Behind them were the spikers, two to each side. Two more men followed to adjust and bolt the splice bars.
Simultaneously, wagons were distributing telegraph poles along the grade. Men nailed cross-arms onto them, while another gang dug holes for the poles and a third gang erected the poles, keeping pace with the rail gang. “At times lack of wagons make it impossible to keep up the supply of poles, and the telegraph gangs, who pride themselves on never letting the track get ahead of them, utilize sage brush, barrels, ties—surreptitiously taken from the track—or anything else that would keep the wire off the ground until the supply of poles again equal the demand.” Then came a wagon bearing a reel of wire. As the wire uncoiled, it was carried up on the poles and made fast to the insulators.
Twice a day the camp train moved to the end of track—at noon, to give all hands a hot dinner, and at night, to give supper and sleeping accommodations. Through the telegraph (there was a battery on his car and an operator to work it), Strobridge would order his supplies for the next day. “Thus hand in hand on their sturdy march,” the reporter wrote, “go the twin giants, the railroad and the telegraph, linked mailed purveyors of civilization which is ere long to wrest from its pristine wilderness a continent.”
Altogether, it was a great modern army, moving forward with a will and a plan, unable to stop, determined to win the battle.34
ON November 13, Huntington wrote Stanford, in Salt Lake City, “If it is within the power of God, man, or the devil to get out rail laid to within 300 miles of Echo by, say the tenth of December, it should be done.”35 Echo was four hundred miles away. To get to within three hundred miles would require more than three miles per day in the month of track laying still ahead, a record beyond any previous accomplishment of the CP.
Stanford was much more interested in getting the Mormons to build west from Ogden in order to connect with Crocker’s graders moving east. He was sending Benson, Farr & West crews up to Promontory to “take possession.” He wrote Huntington on November 21 that the UP was retreating, because Durant also wanted to get control of Promontory and had therefore ordered UP men to come off the work at Humboldt Wells to work at Promontory.
Plus which, Stanford pointed out, the UP “have the grading substantially done from the mouth of Weber [eastward] to their track,” which was just short of Echo. They had built the grade and laid the tracks on the exact line Huntington had handed in to the Interior Department on his maps. So the CP had nothing to complain of, and it was hopeless to try to build all the way to Echo. In any event, the UP was “making desperate efforts to get into Echo before the winter storms and cold shall shut them out.”36
At the end of November, Stanford and Lewis Clement went to Promontory, where they spent several days looking around. Stanford had earlier decided that the line laid out by the CP surveyors would not do, because it required a tunnel of eight hundred feet through solid limestone. On this occasion he and Clement decided to lay out a new line, “somewhat at the expense of the alignment,” but it would eliminate the tunnel and thus save $75,000. The new line would also require a fill of about ten thousand yards.
Stanford also noted that the UP had surveyed a line that ran very close to the CP line, often within a hundred feet. Neither company had yet built a grade over Promontory. On December 4, he wrote E. B. Crocker: “Clem [Lewis Clement] has sent me a profile of the line at Promontory avoiding the tunnel and it looks better than I expected. During the next week the Mormon contractors say that they will have the whole work covered from Ogden to Monument Pt.” That is, they would have graders at work on it. “Then, if I have the right of way secured, I shall assert our line to be the only one of the Pacific RR and that others must keep off our right of way.”
That last remained to be seen. So too the hope Stanford expressed at the end of his letter: “I have strong faith in our being first to the mouth of Weber. I do think there is ground for hope.” Four days later he ended another letter, “Could not Charley, by staying out on the track, push forward faster?” But there were other worries, to the west of Promontory. Stanford said, “At Humboldt Wells I think the true policy is to follow our own line disregarding entirely what the UP has done there, using their grade or not just as our line may make it necessary.”
With regard to Huntington’s hope to reach Echo, Stanford thought it “such utter folly in every way” that it had to be disregarded. The UP was already there.37 Huntington, knowing Stanford’s objections, told Hopkins in a December 15, 1868, letter, “I think it a terrible mistake that we have made in letting matters run as they have at Salt Lake”—that is, with Stanford in charge. “I sometimes swear terribly about it, but that doesn’t do any good.”38
IN 1868, the CP had constructed 362 miles of road. That was virtually the mile per day that Charles Crocker had promised. Both lines were about to enter Utah. There they had completed as much as two-thirds of the grading, but still had track to lay and more grades to make. In Utah was by far the biggest city between Omaha and Sacramento, Salt Lake City. Up to that time, the westward-building UP and the eastward-building CP had been going into a land nearly without people. The roads had been setting a precedent. Instead of building a railroad that would connect one town or city with another, they had been building into a void. They were not striving to take over trade routes; instead they hoped to attract settlement.
The UP and the CP had a lot at stake in Utah. Government bonds, land grants, the sale of their own stocks and bonds, future trade, and more. But what mattered most was winning. Far more so than gamblers, card players, athletes wrestling or boxing or running or playing games, brokers dealing in stocks and bonds, lawyers trying a case, bankers making or calling a loan, whoever else or whatever other competitors, the directors, superintendents, surveyors, engineers, foremen, grade makers, rail layers, ballast men, cooks, telegraph builders and operators, and everyone one else connected to the road wanted to win. In fact, they were all desperate to win and would do whatever winning required. And the final act would be played out in Utah.
* Actually, it eventually came true: Winnemucca went into the twenty-first century a thriving town.
* The run meant rapidly rising revenues for the line. By the end of 1868, Mark Hopkins found that the CP had its biggest net profit ever, more than $1,250,000.
* Not true, but close enough for the nineteenth century.