Oh, California—that’s the land for me! I’m going to Sacramento with my washbowl on my knee!
LEWIS AND CLARK had led the way to the Pacific. They did so by foot, pole, paddle, sail, or on horseback, whatever worked and whatever they had available. No progress had been made in transportation since ancient Greece or Rome, and none when they got back to civilization, in 1806. Steam power was first applied to boats the following year, and two decades later to the development of the steam-driven locomotive. George Washington could travel no faster than Julius Caesar, but Andrew Jackson could go upstream at a fair pace, and James K. Polk could travel at twenty miles an hour or more overland. The harnessing of steam power brought greater change in how men lived and moved than had ever before been experienced, and thus changed almost everything, but it meant nothing outside the seaboard or away from a major river, or until a track had been laid connecting one point with another.
In 1846, the young republic had completed the process of stretching the boundaries of the nation to the Pacific, in the north through a treaty with Great Britain that extended the existing continental line along the forty-ninth parallel; in the south, in 1848, by taking California and other Southwestern territory from Mexico. In Oregon the good land and bountiful rainfall had attracted Americans, but they could only get there via the Platte River Valley and then up the wagon route through the mountains.
Throughout the Pacific Coast, the territories from California north to Washington were like overseas colonies: immensely valuable, but so far away. They could be reached by sea—but the United States had nothing like a two-ocean navy—or overland via carts drawn by horses and oxen. But it took seemingly forever. Americans knew how difficult or impossible it was to defend overseas colonies—even for Great Britain, with the mightiest fleet of all. The French could not hold on to Haiti, or Canada, or Louisiana, just as the British could not hold their North American colonies.
A land communication between the mother country and the colonies was critical—but until the coming of the railroad, the distances separating the United States east of the Missouri from its Western colonies precluded any significant connection save by sea. That meant going around the continent of South America or making a hazardous trip over the Isthmus at Panama. If the United States was to be what Jefferson had dreamed of, an empire of liberty stretching from sea to shining sea, it was imperative that a transcontinental railroad be built as soon as possible.
But where? As noted, up until Lincoln’s inauguration, the slave states blocked the free states and vice versa. This was so even though, after 1848 and the discovery of gold on a branch of the American River about forty miles west of present-day Sacramento, everyone agreed on the need. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if everyone were going to California. Adventurers came from all parts of the United States and all over the world, from China and Australia, from Europe, from everywhere. By the end of 1849, the population of California was swelling, with more coming. How they got there, with no railroad, is a long story.
CHARLES Crocker said later, “I built the Central Pacific.”1 Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Theodore Judah, and Mark Hopkins could say the same or something near it. For sure, Crocker had lots of help, and people to point the way—but he was the one who could claim without blushing that he built it.
Born in Troy, New York, on September 16, 1822, Crocker commenced selling apples and oranges at nine years of age, then carrying newspapers. “I was always apt at trade, when a boy I would swap knives and could always get ahead. I was a natural leader in everything.” He moved to Vermont to make a living, but “I was too fast for that country. Everything there was quiet and staid. You didn’t dare laugh all day Sunday until sundown came.” He struggled with poverty, working sixteen hours a day for $11 a month. He never went to any school beyond eighth grade. In his twenties, he was certain he could do whatever was required at any job or trade. He was about five feet ten or eleven inches tall, with smooth clear skin, blue eyes, a high forehead, and a tremendous appetite. He was, in many ways, a typical American.2
In 1849, he got gold fever and gathered together his two brothers and four other young men. He purchased four horses and two wagons and his party made its way to South Bend, Indiana, where the members spent the winter working to make some money. In the spring they took off for St. Louis. At Quincy, Illinois, on the bank of the Mississippi, Crocker learned that the Missouri River was still frozen up, so he used the enforced wait to lay in a supply of corn, which he had the young men shell. Then he took the corn down to St. Louis, with instructions for the others to make their way overland with the horses and wagons through Iowa to the Missouri River. In St. Louis he purchased more goods, and set off on the first steamer that ascended the river that spring.
Near Council Bluffs, Crocker reunited with his men. They were all appalled at the price of supplies and food—flour was $25 a barrel and scarce at that. They were offered $3 a bushel for their shelled corn but turned it down. Crocker insisted on staying on the east bank for ten days, to let the horses fatten up on the grass and to wait for the grass on the west bank to grow high enough to pasture the horses. Finally, on May 14, they rafted the river and “the next day started on our trip leaving civilization behind us.”3
Crocker’s foresight was rewarded. Thanks to the shelled corn in one of the wagons, the party could travel faster than those who depended on grass alone. When they got to the Platte River, the road was lined with teams, so much so that they were always in view. Crocker’s party made about thirty miles a day, in part thanks to his leadership. “They would all gather around me and want to know what to do,” he later said.4 Once, when one of his horses strayed away, he went looking and found the horse. The men who were supposed to be looking after the animal were sitting on the banks of the river playing cards. Crocker brought them to the camp, called for all the cards, burned them, and gave a blistering lecture: “We are going across the plains. We don’t know where we are going. We don’t know what is before us. If we don’t reserve all our power we might not get to California. It won’t do to play cards. We must have our wits about us, watch our horses, and keep everything in ship-shape.”5
The Crocker party was going up the Platte River on its northern bank. The Platte, as everyone who traveled it then or now knows, runs a mile wide and an inch deep, with innumerable sandbars and willow stands, and a constant shifting of channels. It was and is immensely picturesque and tremendously irritating to those who had to cross it. Crocker did not. He was on the Great Plains of North America, which stretched out forever under an infinity of bright-blue sky, except when a storm hit, cutting the vision down to nothing. The Plains were flat or gently rolling.
Robert Louis Stevenson described Nebraska: “We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression—on the Plains…. I spied in vain for something new. It was a world almost without a feature, an empty sky, an empty earth, front and back…. The green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven…. Innumerable wild sunflowers bloomed in a continuous flower-bed [and] grazing beasts were seen upon the prairie at all degrees of distance and diminution … in this spacious vacancy, this greatness of the air, this discovery of the whole arch of heaven, this straight, unbroken, prison-line of the horizon.”6
On May 25, Crocker’s party were camping beside the Platte River, eating supper in a tent. A powerful wind came up, blew down the tent, and scattered the meal. The men’s hats followed along with their plates and pots, all gone. A typical day on the Great Plains. On June 2, the party passed Fort Laramie in Nebraska Territory, on the North Platte branch of the river, where they had someone shoe their horses (they were entering rocky ground) at 25 cents per shoe. There too they met the legendary mountain man and guide Kit Carson, who had brought on a drove of mules from Taos, New Mexico, to sell to California-bound parties.
On June 9, the party crossed the North Platte on the Mormon Ferry, paying $4 for each wagon and 25 cents for horses. The ferrymen told Crocker that twenty-five hundred teams had already crossed.7 Following them, Crocker drove across a barren, sandy, alkali country twenty-eight miles without water to the Sweetwater River, flowing east out of South Pass in the Wind River Range of the Rockies.
On June 15, Crocker stood on the summit of the Rockies at South Pass, seven thousand feet above the sea. Although he was on the Continental Divide, it was “on a plane so level we could not tell by the eye which way it sloped.” The party found and drank at Pacific Spring, the first water they had encountered that flowed west. By June 18, they had covered another seventy-five miles across inhospitable land to make it to Green River. There the men camped to wait their turn for the ferry, paying $7 for each wagon. Because no grass grew around there—it was all grazed away—they drove the horses two miles down the river, to a meadow, for the night. By this time Crocker had in his company about twenty horses and ten men. He would put two men out on guard duty with the horses. On this night it was Crocker’s and C. B. DeLamater’s turn. Since they were the first party there, they selected the choicest spot and picketed the horses.
Another party, with about fifty horses and mules and half a dozen men, came up and grumbled about Crocker’s taking the best ground. Toward sunset, Crocker and DeLamater drove their horses down to the river to drink; on returning, they found the new party had staked their horses and mules in the choice spot.
“That ground is ours,” said Crocker. He drove their animals off and staked out his horses. The newcomers were very abusive and threatened to pull Crocker’s stakes.
“You do, if you dare,” Crocker said, as he pulled a pistol and proclaimed his right to the good spot. After some shouting and threats, the newcomers backed down. This was but one of a number of instances when Crocker had to use his pistol to uphold his rights, something he was proud of: he later told an interviewer that “a man who is well assured of his own position and shows bold front, need not fear anybody.”8 And DeLamater said of him, “Charley would look at another man’s pistol and break out in one of his hearty laughs…. He was always cool and self-possessed in the presence of difficulties—courageous in maintaining his own rights, never intentionally encroaching upon the rights of others.”9
Many adventures ensued as these young men crossed one of the most demanding, arduous, and exhausting landforms in the world. Crocker and his men would make frequent excursions to examine the picturesque features. DeLamater kept a diary: June 28, “Heavy hail storm. Hail as large as musket balls.” July 4, “Camp in Thousand Spring Valley—were awakened this morning by our guard firing a Salute in honor of the day. They burst one gun trying to make a big noise.”
On July 6, the party came to the Humboldt River, in the process passing the grave of a man killed less than a week earlier by an Indian. DeLamater wrote that, whereas “our hardships had been comparatively light this far,” as soon as they struck the Humboldt the hardships were “thick and fast.” The river—called the “Humbug” by the travelers—was overflowing because of melting mountain snow, so Crocker took them up to the bluffs and across sagebrush and alkali flats to get some grass, camping during the day and traveling at night, all the way to the “sink of the Humboldt.” There “the river spreads out in meadows and sinks into the earth,” DeLamater wrote, but “we fared better than thousands of others. I never saw so much suffering in all my life. We gave medicine here, a little food there, but had to pass on with the crowd, striving to reach the goal, or our fate might be as theirs—sickness—a lonely death—and a shallow nameless grave.”10
At the sink of the river there were splendid meadows and grass in abundance, so Crocker paused for a few days to recuperate. Then, leaving behind everything superfluous, including one of the two wagons and ten of the twenty horses, with all but one of the men walking, the party set out. They had waited until sunset to cross the thirty miles or so of alkali flats to reach the Carson River. “A dreary tedious journey,” DeLamater called it. Four hours after sunrise, the party reached “the sweet cool water of the Carson and its brooks and grassy meadows. It was like Paradise.” The hardships everyone had suffered since leaving the Missouri were instantly forgotten. “The future was before us with its golden crown.”
Traders from California had crossed the Sierra Nevada to bring flour, bacon, and other provisions for the Easterners—at $1.50 per pound. “But each days travel brought us nearer to California and provisions were cheaper.” In a few days the party crossed the summit of the Sierra Nevada. On August 7, they were in Placerville, California.11
It had taken Crocker and his team—young men, all in good condition, with some money and supplies plus horses and wagons—almost half a year to cross the plains and mountains. They had pushed themselves as hard as they ever had, getting more out of themselves than they had thought possible, and seen more dead, dying, and ill men than they had ever laid eyes on before. Thousands of others had gone before, or at about the same time, or shortly after Crocker, all headed for the gold in the hills. Virtually every one of them swore, “Never again.”
COLLIS Huntington was born on October 21, 1821, in Litchfield Hills, Connecticut, fifteen miles west of Hartford, the sixth of nine children. He did manual labor and attended school for about four months each winter. He did well in arithmetic, history, and geography, but was defeated by grammar and spelling.12 At age fourteen he was an apprentice on a farm for a year at $7 a month and keep. Then he got a job with a storekeeper, whom he impressed by memorizing both the wholesale and retail cost of every item in the cluttered stock and then calculating, without pencil or paper, the profit that could be expected from each piece. At age sixteen he went to New York City, where he bought a stock of clocks, watch parts, silverware, costume jewelry, and other items, then set off to Indiana as a Yankee peddler. When he was twenty-one, he drifted to Oneonta, in central New York. There he went to work for his older brother Solon, who had built a store. He did so well that when he was twenty-three years old he went into a partnership with Solon, contributing in cash the considerable sum of $1,318. That was on September 4, 1844; two weeks later, Collis went to Cornwall, Connecticut, to marry Elizabeth Stoddard, whom he had been courting.13
For the next four years, he went to New York City to make purchases for the Oneonta store. As in the past, he did well. In the 1890s, Huntington told an interviewer, “From the time I was a child until the present I can hardly remember a time when I was not doing something.”14 There were other young men, in New York State and elsewhere in America, getting ahead in the 1840s, a great age for just-beginning businessmen. But few did as well or moved as fast as Huntington, who seized the main chance before others even knew it was there. His looks, his self-assurance, and his bulk all helped; he weighed two hundred pounds and had a great round head and penetrating eyes. Strong as an ox, he claimed he never got sick.* He made it a habit to take charge of any enterprise in which he was involved.
Doing well in Oneonta with his brother, however, was not enough. Late in 1848, Huntington embraced the rumors of gold for the taking in California. He persuaded five other young men in town to come with him on a trip by sea to California. They joined many others. In the month of January 1849, eight thousand gold seekers sailed for California in ninety ships, to go around South America’s Cape Horn and then north along the coast.
Huntington, however, decided to take his chances on the shortcut across Panama. This was a bold, risky decision. After his steamer made its way from New York City to the Colombia shore, his plan was that he and his party would hire natives with canoes to take them up the Chagres River to its headwaters, then travel by mule down to Panama City to await a boat going to San Francisco. The drawbacks were the expense, the possibility of missing boats going north, and, more serious, the danger of contracting tropical fever.
Huntington was twenty-seven (a little older than Crocker), and he was leaving with no illusions about striking it rich on a gold-bearing stream. His companions and thousands of others headed toward California were looking for an easy fortune, but Huntington headed west in his already developed capacity as a trader. He brought with him to New York and had loaded on his steamer a stock of merchandise, including a number of casks of whiskey, which he intended to sell to the argonauts. He had no interest in the “mining and trading companies” forming at the New York docks. His interest was in starting a store, with his brother Solon sending on the goods from New York.15
On March 14, 1849, Huntington and his mates bought steerage tickets for $80 each on the Crescent City. It left the next day—about the same time that Crocker started west—with around 350 argonauts on board. Twenty-four-year-old Jessie Benton Frémont—daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who was a leading advocate of the Pacific railroad—was on the ship, on her way to California to meet her explorer husband, John Charles Frémont. He had just completed his fourth expedition through the Western reaches of the continent, this one in search of a usable railroad route to the Pacific.
Huntington was a long way from California and from building a railroad. On the first days out of New York, his concern was with the health of his mates and fellow passengers. Except for him, they were all seasick, vomiting nearly every morning and night and always full of queasiness. They had gone around the tip of Florida and past Cuba before the sea settled down. On March 23, after eight days at sea, the Crescent City hove to a mile or so off the mouth of the Chagres River. Huntington went ashore in a native canoe, along with some others, to discover that Chagres was a miserable place. He managed to hire natives to get 260 people to Panama City. It took three days to get the passengers and baggage to Gorgona, the headwaters of the river—a miserable trip. The passengers had to sleep for a few hours each night on a mud bank or slumped in the canoes. The natives had only poles to push the canoes along, and they had to be on the way at dawn in order to utilize every moment of daylight.
At Gorgona the Americans faced a twenty-mile trail over the low mountains, a trail full of potholes and fallen trees. By the end of March, the rainy season had begun and mud was everywhere. It took two days to cover the twenty miles. At the end of the trip, all were appalled by Panama City. It rained continually. Mud, mildew, and fungus oozed everywhere. Sanitation in the tent city was lacking or completely absent. Unwashed raw fruit caused epidemics of dysentery. Malaria and cholera were common, as were threats of smallpox. Vice, depravity, and selfishness thrived.16
Huntington and his companions had hoped to catch the Oregon as it steamed north on its maiden voyage, but they missed it and had to wait for another ship. The argonauts settled down to wait, meanwhile fighting with each other. Not Huntington. He went into business, selling his medicines (badly needed) and getting other stuff to sell. On his way from Gorgona, he had noticed ranches with food and other provisions—such as primitive cloth, rush mats, and the like—for sale. The business thrived. His buying and selling required frequent trips through the fever-laden jungle. Huntington estimated that he made the crossing at least twenty times. “It was only twenty-four miles,” he recalled. “I walked it.” What was for other men sheer agony was for Collis Huntington a challenge.
Once he varied his routine. There was a decrepit schooner on a little river. “I went down and bought her,” he recalled, “and filled her up with jerked beef, potatoes, rice, sugar and syrup in great bags and brought everything up to Panama and sold them.” Stuck on the beach at Panama City for nearly two months, Huntington managed to make $3,000.17
May 18, Huntington and his companions escaped via the Dutch bark Alexander von Humboldt, with 365 passengers plus crew. Once away from the coast, the Humboldt was becalmed. Day after day the bored passengers went through beans, weevily biscuits, tough beef, and vile-tasting water. After a week, all provisions had to be rationed. Finally, on June 26, five weeks since setting off, wind finally stirred the sails. Still, not until August 30, after 104 days at sea, did the Humboldt enter San Francisco Bay. Huntington gazed at one of the world’s most magnificent harbors, but what he most noticed was the deserted ships. On inquiry, he discovered that, when ships tied up at the wharves, all the crew—from wherever—immediately deserted and headed for the gold.
He had made it, and in the process he earned more money in Panama than he had had with him when he started. And he had avoided tropical fever. But it had been a trip of nearly half a year, dangerous and arduous beyond description, something he never wanted to do again.
ONLY those who were young, physically fit, and full of ambition would dare try to cross Panama, or go overland, from the eastern United States to the Pacific. There was a third way, by boat around Cape Horn, but that took at least six months and was eighteen thousand miles long, not to mention dangerous and expensive.
Lieutenant William T. Sherman went via that route in the first year of the Mexican War, 1846. A West Point graduate in 1840, he had been on recruiting duty in Zanesville, Ohio, when the war began. For Sherman it was “intolerable” that he was missing the hostilities. He left his sergeant in charge and made his way east, traveling by stagecoach (there were no trains west of the mountains). At Pittsburgh he found orders relieving him from recruiting and putting him in Company F, Third Artillery, which was gathering at Governors Island to take a naval transport to California. He took trains from Pittsburgh to Baltimore, then Philadelphia, and finally New York, “in a great hurry” for fear he might miss the boat. He made it, along with 113 enlisted men and four other officers from the company, plus Lieutenant Henry W. Halleck of the Engineers.
The Lexington was at Brooklyn, at the Naval Yard, making preparation, which meant taking on the stores sufficient for so many men for such a long voyage. The War Department authorized the officers to draw six months’ pay in advance, so they could invest in surplus clothing and other necessaries. When the ship was ready, on July 14, 1846, a steam tug towed her to sea.
Off the Lexington sailed, for the tip of the continent. On fair days the officers drilled the men in the manual of arms, or put them to work on the cleanliness of their dress and bunks, with some success. They played games, never gambling, “and chiefly engaged in eating our meals regularly,” according to Sherman. “At last,” he added, “after sixty days of absolute monotony, the island of Raza, off Rio Janeiro, was descried.” After a week in port, taking on supplies, the ship was off again. In October, the Lexingtonapproached Cape Horn. “Here we experienced very rough weather, buffeting about under storm stay-sails, and spending nearly a month before the wind favored our passage and enabled the course of the ship to be changed for Valparaiso,” At last the swelling sea at Cape Horn was left behind, and two months after leaving Rio, the Lexington reached Valparaiso.
There the officers replenished their supplies and the voyage was resumed. Now they were in luck: for the next forty days, they had uninterrupted favorable trade winds. Once they had settled down to sailor habits, time passed quickly. Sherman had brought along all the books he could find in New York about California, and he the other officers read them over and over. About the middle of January, the ship approached the California coast, but when land was made, there “occurred one of those accidents so provoking after a long and tedious voyage.” The navigator misread the position of the North Star, and the ship was far north of its destination, Monterey, the capital of Upper California. The captain put about, but a southeast storm came on and buffeted the ship for several days. Eventually it got into the harbor.18
It was January 26, 1847. The Lexington had left New York 202 days earlier. She was a United States Navy vessel, with a crew of fifty. Her passengers were all young men, fit and eager. The ship of no nation tried to stop her or impede her progress. Yet it took her over half a year to get from New York to Monterey. Her route was the only way to get any goods too large to be handled by horses and a stagecoach from the East Coast to the West Coast.
Besides Sherman’s Company F, Third Artillery, there were other American military units, navy and army, either in or making their way via land or sea to California, which the United States was taking over by right of conquest. Sherman traveled up and down the coast, finding the country very lightly populated. San Francisco, then called Yerba Buena, had some four hundred people, most of them Kanakas (natives of the Sandwich Islands). There was a war on; gold had not yet been discovered.19 But the conclusion of the war, the taking of full legal possession by the United States, and the discovery of gold, all in the next year, led to the rush to California.
The problem of getting there remained. Crossing the Great Plains on one of the emigrant roads meant more than half a year and included crossing the Rocky Mountains, then the Great American Desert, then the Sierra Nevada range. Taking a ship to Panama meant the extreme dangers of catching a mortal fever while crossing the Isthmus and hoping to catch another ship headed north at Panama City. Going all the way around South America by ship was expensive, boring much of the time, and often dangerous. California became a magnet for the argonauts from around the world, especially from the United States, but it must be doubted that ever before had such a desirable place been so isolated.
STILL they came on. One was Mark Hopkins, born on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario on September 3, 1814, who worked as a storekeeper and then a bookkeeper in New York City. About five feet eleven inches tall and weighing 160 pounds, with a straight nose and a neatly cropped beard and dark hair, he cut a handsome figure, and by age thirty-five was making a good salary. He could have been thought of as a man settled in his ways, but it wasn’t so. When news of the discovery of gold reached him, he joined with twenty-five others to form a mining company, the New England Trading and Mining Company. The partners invested $500 each. With the money they bought supplies and mining equipment that none of them knew how to use.
In January 1849, they set sail for Cape Horn. It was the beginning of a 196-day trip plagued by storms, bad food, not enough drinking water, and a tyrannical captain. They finally arrived in San Francisco on August 5, 1849. The partners quarreled and soon broke up.20 After some fruitless wandering around San Francisco and up in the mountains, looking for a spot to start a store, Hopkins in February 1850 went to Sacramento to set up shopkeeping. It was, as it happened, at 52 K Street, next door to a store Huntington had opened. Both men lost their investments in the terrible fire of 1852. Both immediately rebuilt. Out of shared interests and mutual troubles, they developed an abiding affection for each other, different though they were in ages and personalities. They became partners and switched from general-store merchants to dealing in heavy hardware for farms and mines.21
CROCKER, Huntington, Sherman, and Hopkins were part of a wave of immigration into California. The forty-niners, who came before statistics keepers from the government appeared to count them, were followed by more fortune seekers some years, less in others. In 1850, a record 55,000 emigrants, nearly all male, headed west from the Missouri bound for California. About 5,000 died from a cholera epidemic, so the next year the emigration count was down to 10,000. But by 1852, it was back up to 50,000. By 1860, more than 300,000 argonauts had made the overland journey.
They came whatever the cost and danger, the boredom or the time lost, the misery of the journey. In 1850, the year the territory became a state, there were in California, according to the U.S. Census, 93,000 white residents and 1,000 Negroes. Some 86,000 of the white population were males, 7,000 females. They were young, more than half under age twenty-four. A decade later, by 1860, the population had jumped more than four times, to 380,000 whites. It included 53,000 “other races,” mainly Chinese, but those under twenty-four years of age still predominated. As Lieutenant Sherman put it, “During our time, California was, as now, full of a bold, enterprising, and speculative set of men, who were engaged in every sort of game to make money.”22
Although they came from different ports and different continents and by different routes, the bulk of the Californians were young Americans who had families back east. They were accustomed to a civilized life—cities, towns, newspapers, roads and wagons, mail, industries. A bit of this was available in California, but there were no industries to serve the population’s needs. There was no foundry to make iron products, especially railroad tracks, no plant to make carriages, either horse-drawn or for a train, or one to make a locomotive, or a gun, or powder. It took months to receive a letter, more months to deliver a reply.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, California led the world in technology and transportation. America and the remainder of the world followed the trend set in California. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, California had made no progress at all. Whatever folks wanted, they had to import, which was terribly expensive and took what seemed like forever.
Most of the young Americans in California were there to pan for or, later, to mine gold, or to make money, wherever and however. “Not only did soldiers and sailors desert,” William Sherman noted, “but captains and masters of ships actually abandoned their vessels and cargoes to try their luck at the mines. Preachers and professors forgot their creeds and took to trade, and even to keeping gambling-houses.”23
There were exceptions. Crocker, Huntington, and Hopkins were storekeepers. Sherman was in the army. But what the state needed was men to plow, to harvest, to sail ships, to engage in manufacturing, to build houses, roads, bridges, and railroads.
There were few among the argonauts who had such skills. In November 1849, Sherman was ordered to instruct Lieutenants Warner and Williamson of the Engineers to survey the Sierra Nevada, to look for a way for a railroad to pass through that range, “a subject that then elicited universal interest,” But Lieutenant Warner was killed by Indians, and that cast a pall over the whole enterprise.24 In any event, there were no rails or spikes or locomotives of any kind in California.
Nor any railroad, come to that, but one was wanted. In 1852, a group of optimistic Californians formulated plans for a railroad to run north and east from Sacramento to tap the rich placer-mining regions of the lower Sierra slopes. Captain William T Sherman was one of the group. The name of the line was “Sacramento Valley Railroad,” and stock was sold at 10 percent down. The next year, after a trip east, Sherman resigned from the army and became a banker in San Francisco and vice-president of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. But the need for an experienced railroad engineer became obvious, and in late 1853 the president of the corporation sailed to New York to find such a man. He conferred with Governor Horatio Seymour of New York State (elected 1852) and his brother Colonel Silas Seymour, who knew and recommended a twenty-eight-year-old engineer, Theodore D. Judah.
Ted Judah was born on March 4, 1826, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His father, an Episcopal clergyman, moved to Troy, New York, while Ted was still a boy. Ted passed up a naval career to go to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, where he graduated with an engineering degree. It was an age and a place of great railroad-building. Young Judah threw himself into it with gusto, imagination, and energy. From 1844 on, he was continuously engaged in planning and construction, mainly of railroads. He worked on the Troy and Schenectady Railroad; the New Haven, Hartford and Springfield Railroad; the Connecticut River Railway; the Erie Canal; and several other projects.
At age twenty-one, he married Miss Anna Ferona Pierce, daughter of a Greenfield, Massachusetts, merchant. She was an artist, a lively writer, a splendid personality, and the perfect choice as someone to help his career. She moved with her husband twenty times in a half-dozen years. They went to Niagara Falls, where he planned and built the Niagara Gorge Railroad, one of the great feats of engineering of the 1840s. In an 1889 letter, Anna Judah wrote, “Our cottage on the banks of the river, between the falls and the suspension bridge, is still there, with the beautiful view of both falls and whirlpool rapids below the bridge. He selected the site, built the cottage, there had his railroad office and did his work for that wonderful piece of engineering,”25 Obviously he was a man of many talents, most of all for the America of his day, where everything was booming, and where engineers who knew what they were doing were in great demand.
In 1854, Judah was in Buffalo, building part of what would later become the Erie Railroad system. An urgent telegram from the Seymour brothers summoned him to New York City. He went, had a meeting, and three days later sent Anna a telegram: “Be home tonight; we sail for California April second.”
He got back to Buffalo that evening. “You can imagine my consternation on his arrival,” Anna wrote. He burst through the door and blurted out, “Anna, I am going to California to be the pioneer railroad engineer of the Pacific coast. It is my opportunity, although I have so much here.”
She was not about to stand in his way. He had read and studied for years the problem of building a continental railway, and talked about it. “It will be built,” he used to say, “and I am going to have something to do with it.”26
Big talk for a young man still in his twenties. But he was a quick study, hard worker, inventive, sure of himself, not much on humor, and supremely competent—which is why nearly every railroad then being built in the East wanted Judah to be its engineer. Besides being fully employed, Judah had reason to be suspicious of California—everything had to be imported, and his brother Charles, already there, had told him in correspondence something of the harshness of life there. He went anyway, not so much to build the little Sacramento Valley Railroad as to find the route, and the money, and the construction gangs, to build the first transcontinental railroad.27
He could hardly wait to get going. In April 1854, three weeks after meeting with the Seymours and the president of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, he had swept up Anna, returned to New York, and was off by steamer for Nicaragua. The ship was crowded, mainly men searching for wealth. But Judah found a number of men returning to California, and he sat at the dining table with them, soaking up all he could about the new land. At Nicaragua he and Anna proceeded by the Nicaragua River and Lake for the Pacific Ocean, where they boarded a crowded Pacific Mail steamer bound for San Francisco. In the middle of May, they arrived in San Francisco. Judah proceeded at once to Sacramento, where he immediately got to work for the Sacramento Valley Railroad.
Until that time, no train whistle had ever been heard west of the Missouri River. Nevertheless, the Californians wanted, needed, had to have a railroad connection with the East. The state legislature passed resolutions demanding that the federal government make it possible. This wasn’t calling for the impossible, for by 1854 train technology had advanced far enough to make a transcontinental railroad feasible.
The track structure of a railroad is a thing on which everything else depends. By 1850, Robert L. Stevens’s development of all-iron rails in place of wooden rails with a strap-iron surface had been adopted everywhere—and in form and proportion it is still in use today. Stevens also developed the hook-headed spike for fastening the rail to the wooden ties, and connected the rails together at the ends by a rail chair, a device in the rough shape of a “u” that was spiked to the joint tie. Another development: wooden ties surrounded by ballast had replaced the stone blocks (which gave a too-rigid support). Locomotives, developed mainly in the United States, had by 1850 increased in weight and power (by 1860, they were up to forty to fifty tons, with four lead wheels and four driving wheels, thus designated a 4-4-0). New devices were constantly being added, including the reversing gear, the cab for engine driver and fireman, the steam whistle, the headlight, the bell, the equalizing levers and springs, engine brakes, and more, even the cowcatcher on the front of the locomotive. New passenger and freight cars had evolved. Bridges were built to carry trains across rivers and gorges.
It had been thought originally that human beings could not travel at sixty miles per hour, that trains could not climb an incline or go around a curve. But soon engineers discovered that they could climb a grade of 2 percent, or 106 feet per mile, and that a train could manage a curve of ten degrees (radius 574 feet). And sixty miles per hour did not harm the passengers.28
ON May 30, 1854, Judah reported to the owners of the Sacramento Valley Railroad that the line from Sacramento to Folsom, on the western edge of the Sierra, was more favorable than any he had ever known. There were no deep cuts to make, no high embankments to be built, and the grade was nearly as regular and uniform as an inclined plane. A railroad could be built at a cost of $33,000 per mile, including everything. He had counted the potential freight-and-passenger traffic on the route and calculated probable earnings for the corporation. They would be huge. “With such a Road and such a business,” he concluded, “it is difficult to conceive of a more profitable undertaking.”29 He was too low on his cost estimate and too high on the earning potential, but not by much.
In June, the Sacramento Union, one of the leading newspapers in the state and one where Judah had friends, reported, “Mr. Judah is pushing the survey and location with as much rapidity and energy as is consistent with correctness.”30 By June 20, his surveys had reached Folsom. On November 30, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, financed by stock on which investors had put 10 percent down, signed a contract with a well-known firm of Eastern contractors, Robinson, Seymour & Company, for a total of $1.8 million, of which $800,000 was paid in capital stock at par and $700,000 in 10 percent twenty-year bonds ($45,000 per mile).
On February 12, 1855, actual grading commenced with a one-hundred-man workforce. Robinson, Seymour started sending rails and rolling stock on the clipper ship Winged Racer. It arrived in June. On August 9, the first rail west of the Missouri, and the first in California, was laid. Two days later, Judah, assisted by three officials of the company, carried a handcar to the tracks and took the first ever railroad ride in California, for a distance of four hundred feet.
Shortly thereafter, the locomotive Sacramento landed on the levee, and on August 17 a trial trip to Seventeenth Street delighted the delegation from San Francisco, hundreds strong, who made the journey. By January 1, 1856, the road was bringing in $200 a day. By Washington’s Birthday, it had been completed to Folsom and held a grand opening excursion and a ball.31 A railroad had come to the Pacific Coast.
Over the following months, Judah worked on various railroad surveys and projects; the Sacramento Valley Railroad had a difficult time staying in business, because receipts from the placer mines west of the Sierra fell off and the population of the canyon towns diminished. He was with the California Central Railroad and the Benicia and Sacramento Valley Railroad Company, and then became chief engineer of a yet-to-be-built line called the Sacramento Valley Central Railroad.
Meanwhile, in 1856, he and Anna made three sea voyages back east, to go to Washington to promote a transcontinental railroad, on the correct assumption that only the federal government could afford—by selling the public lands it held—to finance it. By then the railroad across the country had become an obsession with the young engineer. He was ambitious, accustomed to thinking big and getting done what he set out to do, and eager to seize the opportunity. Anna later wrote, “Everything he did from the time he went to California to the day of his death was for the great continental Pacific railway. Time, money, brains, strength, body and soul were absorbed. It was the burden of his thought day and night, largely of his conversation, till it used to be said ‘Judah’s Pacific Railroad crazy,’ and I would say, ‘Theodore, those people don’t care,’… and he’d laugh and say, ‘But we must keep the ball rolling.’”32
JEFFERSON Davis’s report on a Pacific railroad route came out in twelve volumes. The reports were almost as valuable as those of Lewis and Clark. They contained descriptions of every possible feature of the physical and natural history of the country, with numerous plates beautifully colored, barometric reconnaissances, studies of weather, and more. But, according to Judah’s biographer Carl Wheat, “It is doubtful if an equal amount of energy was ever spent with so small a crop of positive results.”33 Newly elected Representative John C. Burch of California later wrote, “The Government had expended hundreds of thousands of dollars in explorations, and elaborate reports thereof had been made … yet all this did not demonstrate the practicability of a route, nor show the surveys, elevations, profiles, grades or estimates of the cost of constructing the road.”34
As everyone expected, Davis recommended the Southern route, New Orleans to Los Angeles. To make it happen, Davis had ordered the importing of a corps of camels to provide animal power in the desert. The United States had paid $10 million to Mexico for the Gadsden Purchase (named for James Gadsden of South Carolina, who negotiated the treaty). The Purchase included the southern part of present-day Arizona and New Mexico, which Davis considered the preferred route to the Pacific. No free-state politician would accept such a route. Nor would Judah.
IN 1856, Ted and Anna Judah arrived in Washington on their second trip. There he wrote a pamphlet (published January 1, 1857) that he distributed to every member of Congress and the heads of administrative departments, entitled A Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad. Hecalled the railroad “the most magnificent project ever conceived,” but added that, though it had been “in agitation for over fifteen years,” nothing had been done, except for Davis’s useless explorations. Not a single usable survey had even been made. Cutting to the heart of the failure, he wrote, “No one doubts that a liberal appropriation of money or public lands by the General Government ought to insure construction of this railroad, but the proposition carries the elements of its destruction with it; it is the house divided against itself; it [the Pacific railroad] cannot be done until the route is defined; and if defined, the opposing interest is powerful enough to defeat it.”
What was needed was facts. Facts based on solid foundations—that is, a genuine survey, one on which capitalists could base accurate cost calculations. The capitalists didn’t care how many different varieties and species of plants and herbs, or grass, were located where; they wanted to know the length of the road, the alignment and grades of the proposed railroad, how many cubic yards of dirt to be moved. Any tunnels? How much masonry, and where can it be obtained? How many bridges, river crossings, culverts? What about timber and fuel? Water? What is an engineer’s estimate of the cost per mile? What will be its effect on travel and trade?
With such information the capitalist might invest. But the facts were not there, because “Government has spent so much money and time upon so many routes that we have no proper survey of any one of them.”
Judah discussed other factors, such as snow, hostile Indians, probable operating conditions, the development of locomotives, rates and tariffs, and the like. The U.S. Army would benefit.* Then his conclusion: “It is hoped and believed … that Congress will, at this session, pass a bill donating alternate sections of land to aid in the construction of this enterprise.”35
Judah’s pamphlet was a splendid idea and an eloquent presentation. The land grant solved at a stroke the problem of financing. But although practical and sensible, it said nothing about whether the eastern terminus of the railroad should be in a free state or a slave state. Congress talked about Judah’s proposal, at length, but nothing came of it. A number of bills were submitted, but sectional jealousies defeated every one of them.
Judah wrote to the Sacramento Union in January 1859 from Washing-ton that “there is no chance this session of Congress to do anything toward developing the Central Route. The President [James Buchanan] is in favor of the extreme Southern Route for the Pacific Railroad, and, it is understood, will veto any bill for a road over any other to the Pacific.”36 By the spring of 1859, it was clear that if California, Oregon, and the other Western territories (especially Washington and Arizona Territories) wanted a transcontinental railroad they must move of their own accord.
On April 5, 1859, the legislature of California, acting apparently under Judah’s urging, passed a resolution calling for a convention to consider the Pacific railroad. Judah returned from the East to attend as representative from Sacramento. The convention opened in Assembly Hall in San Francisco on September 20, 1859, with over one hundred in attendance. Debate centered on the route to be adopted and the western terminus. Judah said such decisions should be left to the corporation picked to build the road, but the convention adopted a resolution recording its “decided preference” for a central route to Sacramento. Having lost there, Judah won on his motion to keep the government from becoming an interested party by keeping it out as a stockholder; such action, he said, “shuts the door to fraud, corruption, or political dishonesty. It affords no hobby to ride, and presents no stepping stone to power, advancement or distinction.”37
Judah was on the mark, here and in most other resolutions he sponsored and supported. On October 11, the convention’s executive committee appointed him as its accredited agent to convey its memorial to Congress, a selection that was universally applauded. The San Francisco Daily Alta California newspaper, for example, wrote, “In saying that no better selection could have been made for this responsible duty, we but reiterate what is well known to all who are acquainted with Mr. Judah. Few persons in California have a more thorough acquaintance with the question of the construction of the Pacific railroad than has Mr. Judah, and his services in this capacity will be invaluable.”38
ON October 20, 1859, Judah and Anna sailed for Panama on the steamer Sonora on their third trip east. He was thirty-three years old. He had shown himself to be a practical engineer capable of building railroads and bridges wherever, whenever. He had built the only railroad then running in California. He had great imagination and a most persuasive way of putting his ideas. He had a gracious wife. Only nincompoops called him “Crazy Judah.” Those who knew what they were about, such as the delegates to the convention or the newspaper editors, called him inspired. While Crocker, Huntington, and Hopkins were running their stores, and newcomer Leland Stanford was dabbling in politics, and William Sherman had sold out or lost everything in California and was currently a schoolmaster in Louisiana, Theodore D. Judah was preparing the way for the greatest engineering achievement of the nineteenth century.
* He did once, in 1849 in California, when amoebic dysentery dropped his weight from 200 to 125 pounds. With self-medication, he recovered.
* It cost $30 million a year to supply the Western troops, by horse or ox team.