IN 1862, Clarence King graduated from Yale’s distinguished Sheffield Scientific School In 1863, he crossed the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada by mule, got a job with the California Geological Survey, began to build his reputation, and, still well short of his thirtieth birthday, landed another job. It was to do the Fortieth Parallel Survey for the federal government along the lines of what would become the first transcontinental railroad.
With a team of scientists, King examined the southeastern corner of Wyoming (today’s Cheyenne) through Utah and Nevada to the crest of the Sierra Nevada. His task on what became known as the “King Survey” was to describe the flora, fauna, minerals, and other natural features. He later became the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey.1
In his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, King wrote about those mountains based on his 1866 exploration: “For four hundred miles the Sierras are a definite ridge, broad and high, and having the form of a sea-wave.” On the eastern face, “buttresses of somber-hued rock jut at intervals from a steep wall.” On the western face, “long ridges of comparatively gentle outline” dominate. “But this sloping table is scored from summit to base by a system of parallel transverse canyons, distant from one another often less than twenty-five miles. They are ordinarily two or three thousand feet deep, falling at times in sheer, smooth-fronted cliffs, again in sweeping curves like the hull of a ship, with irregular, hilly flanks opening at last through gateways of low, rounded foot-hills out upon the horizontal plain of the San Joaquin and Sacramento. Every canyon carries a river, derived from constant melting of the perpetual snow.”
This western slope faces a moisture-laden, aerial current from the Pacific. The wind strikes first on the Coast Range, which forces it up, and it there discharges, as fog and rain, a great sum of moisture. “But being ever reinforced, it flows over their crest, and, hurrying eastward, strikes the Sierras at about four thousand feet.” Below, the foothills are habitually dry. Above, it is nearly always wet, for the wind condenses on the mountains’ higher portion a great amount of water that “piles upon the summits in the form of snow, which is absorbed upon the upper plateau by an exuberant growth of forest.”2
The Sierra Nevada that King described are the principal topographical feature of the American Far West. They are a massive granite block. On the eastern front they rise from four thousand feet or more in the north to seven thousand feet or more in the south. The western face is some fifty to sixty miles broad with a gradual rise of 2 to 6 percent. The summits, many enveloped in glaciers, run from six thousand feet in the north to ten thousand feet west of Lake Tahoe in the center. There are twelve peaks exceeding fourteen thousand feet in the south.
IF California was the land of superb natural bays, gold, silver, and other minerals for the picking, fertile agricultural lands, the best weather anywhere in the continent for humans, animals, and plants, and no warlike Indian tribes to resist the coming of the Americans, it was also a land that the Americans could scarcely get to or out of because of that granite block between them and the Eastern United States. It was as if those mountains had been designed to divide California permanently from the remainder of the country. They were too big, too snowy, too steep, too rugged, too extensive, too formidable ever to be crossed easily. The mountains challenged even humans on foot, as the fate of the Donner Party (1846-47) made clear.
The idea of driving a railroad over or through the Sierra Nevada was so audacious as to suck out the breath of those who heard it discussed. The audacity of Ted Judah in proposing it, even though he had found a place where there was just one summit to cross instead of two, and of the Big Four in taking him up on it, was monumental. Nothing like it had been done, anywhere. Not east of the Mississippi River over the Appalachians. Not in Europe. Not in Asia. Nowhere. Charles Crocker, who proposed to do it, later said, “People laughed at the time of building a railroad across those mountains.”3
To get a locomotive through that granite would require tunnels. Without them, no locomotive could get over the summits, even at the passes or with switchbacks. Tunnels through granite had no precedent. To make it happen, a way had to be found. Early in 1865, the Central Pacific went to work on the apparently unsolvable problem.
First money had to be found. That seems hard to believe for a much-needed and much-anticipated railroad whose president was also governor of the state of California, a railroad with millions in bonds pledged to it from the federal government, a railroad that could sell its own stocks and bonds, a railroad that had Collis Huntington raising money in Boston and New York, but it was so. A railroad that was building in the land of milk and honey, gold and silver, needed money. Nevertheless, there was no money at the beginning of 1865, only horrendous expenses.
As soon as the UP and the CP went into the market for rail—they could use only iron made in the United States, by act of Congress as decreed in the Pacific Railroad Bills—the prices jumped 80 percent, from $41.75 to $76.87 per ton, and by 1865 had jumped again, to $91.70 per ton. Shipments via the Panama Isthmus cost $51.97 per ton, meaning that rail delivered at San Francisco cost $143.67 per ton. Then came the charges for transfer from ships at San Francisco to the lighter, then unloading at Sacramento, then for transportation up the Sacramento River.
Locomotives went up in price too. Two engines in 1865 cost the CP $79,752. The CP paid it, more or less gladly, because, as Assistant Chief Engineer Lewis Clement explained to Leland Stanford, “the power of those engines is absolutely necessary to supply materials needed for construction; without these engines there will be delay.”
As the grading and then the tracks made their way up the Sierra Nevada, the expenses increased. As Clement explained, the ground was kept bare for the graders by having half of the men shoveling snow. After storms, the entire grading force was put to work removing snow. There were many other costs, especially as the tunnels began to be driven through the granite and as part of the CP’s workforce moved east of the mountains. But there was no money, either to pay the laborers or for supplies. Until 1865, the CP operated, mainly, on the Big Four’s money or on loans. In 1863 and 1864, not a penny in aid reached the railroad.
Still it operated, even though in the winter of 1864-65 it was down to about five hundred workmen. On January 7, 1865, Strobridge placed an advertisement in the Sacramento Union: “Wanted, 5,000 laborers for constant and permanent work, also experienced foremen. Apply to J. H. Strobridge, Superintendent. On the work, near Auburn.”4
Many applied, few stayed. What the white men wanted was what they had come to California to get—riches. At around $3 per day, the CP was not offering them any riches, but they were broke. New silver strikes in Nevada promised riches. The prospective rich men needed a ride to get there and a stake to support them once there. A week’s work on the CP would suffice. So, of the almost two thousand laborers who signed up to work for Strobridge, fewer than a hundred were there after a week.5
Clement recalled that, among the laborers, “mining was more to their liking than the discipline of railroad work. They were indifferent, independent, and their labor high priced. Labor sufficient for the rapid construction of the Central Pacific was not then on the coast and the labor as it existed could not be depended upon—the first mining excitement meant a complete stampede of every man and a consequent abandonment of all work.”6
Crocker and Strobridge kept at it. By the spring of 1865, Bloomer Cut was graded and tracked.* On April 5, after two years of strife and litigation, the California Supreme Court handed down a favorable decision: it ordered the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pay to the CP $400,000 in stock bonds as a gift, instead of the $600,000 stock subscription authorized by the citizens of the city in 1863. Thereby, the city avoided being a stockholder, which meant it could not be held liable for debts (but also could not participate in the profits). The CP had paid $100,000 to win the suit, so it realized $300,000. It was the contention of the CP, quite unprovable, that, had the full $400,000 been available in 1864, the CP could have built its track well into Wyoming.
On May 13, 1865, the same day the train began carrying passengers and freight to Auburn, Huntington sent a telegram to Stanford: “I received yesterday twelve hundred and fifty-eight thousand dollars ($1,258,000) United States bonds for account of Central Pacific Railroad of California.”7That represented the government’s loan to the CP for work completed in 1864, from Sacramento to Newcastle. The company got bonds at $16,000 per mile for the first seven miles, where, according to geologist Whitney and President Lincoln, the Sierra Nevada began, and $48,000 per mile for the next twenty-four miles, to Newcastle. Unfortunately, the CP had already borrowed against the money. Still, it helped.
With the money and the progress, everything was looking up. That summer, Mark Hopkins wrote to Collis Huntington that business was constantly increasing (in the first ten months of 1865, the company would earn $313,404 from the mails, passengers, and freight, with an operating expense of $93,448). The workforce was up to twenty-five hundred and on the increase, despite the desertions for the mines. More iron, engines, and cars were needed as soon as possible. Hopkins thought the CP could build all the way to the Salt Lake and perhaps farther. Meanwhile, he expected it to get to Dutch Flat in 1866. And, he noted, “the public here, in Nevada and at the East begin to exhibit an impatient interest in the progress of the Pacific R.R., which we cannot afford to disregard.”8
THERE was small chance that the Big Four and their workers would disregard the sentiment. In fact, none. The CP was charging ahead. What it needed to keep up the momentum was workers. When the tracks reached Auburn, the railroad was entering the Sierra for real. By far the toughest terrain lay ahead, up to and then down from the summit. In the spring of 1865, the CP went at that problem. By June 10, the railhead was at Clipper Gap, a lumber settlement forty-three miles east of Sacramento and 1,751 feet above sea level. It was now into its assault on the Sierra Nevada. It began reaching toward Illinoistown.
THE CP had gotten that far by using its wits and common sense. In February, a month after Strobridge’s all-but-fruitless call for labor, Charlie Crocker had met with him and raised the question of hiring Chinese. He said some twenty of them had worked, and worked well, on the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road.
“Stro,” as he was known to his friends, was opposed. He said all the whites currently working for him would take off, and anyway what did the Chinese know about railroad construction?9 They couldn’t possibly do the work. They averaged 120 pounds in weight, and only a few were taller than four feet ten inches. “I will not boss Chinese!” he declared.
“They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they,” replied Crocker. Besides, “who said laborers have to be white to build railroads?”
Strobridge, still skeptical, agreed to hire fifty local (that is, living in Auburn) Chinese and try them out for a month under white supervisors.10
There were in California at that time some sixty thousand Chinese, nearly all adults and the great proportion of them males. They had come for the same reason as the whites, to make money, first of all in the gold-fields. But California law discriminated against them in every way possible, and the state did all it could to degrade them and deny them a decent livelihood. They were not allowed to work on the “Mother Lode.” To work the “tailing,” they had to pay a “miner’s tax,” a $4-per-head so-called permission tax, plus a $2 water tax. In addition, the Chinese had to pay a personal tax, a hospital tax, a $2 school tax, and a property tax. But they could not go to public school, they were denied citizenship, they could not vote, nor could they testify in court. Nevertheless, they paid more than $2 million in taxes. If Chinese dared to venture into a new mining area, the whites would set on them, beat them, rob them, sometimes kill them. Thus the saying, “Not a Chinaman’s chance.”
They were called “coolies,” a Hindu term meaning unskilled labor. The British picked it up and then passed it on to the Americans, who applied it to Chinese. The politicians cursed them, vied with one another about who hated the Chinese the most, declared them to be dregs, said they worried about the terrible habits the Chinese brought with them. One of the leaders in this ranting and raving was Governor Stanford. While campaigning, he had called the Chinese the “dregs of Asia” and “that degraded race.” In 1858, the California legislature banned any further importations. Still they came.
It got so bad that a young Californian appointed to collect the miner’s tax wrote in his diary, “Had a China fight. Knocked down some and drawed out our pistols on the rest…. Had a great time. Chinamen’s tails cut off. Down at the Little Yuba River shot a Chinaman. Had a hell of a time.” That same tax collector later was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to be ambassador to Japan.11
In the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, there are Chinese-English and English-Chinese phrase books from 1867. The English-speakers learned how to say in Chinese: “Can you get me a good boy? He wants $8.00 per month? He ought to be satisfied with $6.00. I think he is very stupid. Come at seven every morning. Go home at eight every night. Light the fire. Sweep the rooms. Wash the clothes. Wash the windows. Wash the floor. Sweep the stairs. Trim the lamps. I want to cut his wages.” Two phrases that never appear in the English-Chinese book are, “How are you?” and “Thank you.”
The Chinese could learn to say in English, to employers: “Yes, madam,” “You must not strike me,” and so forth. To authorities, “He does not intend to pay me my wages. He claimed my mine. He tries to extort money from me. He took it from me by violence. He assaulted me. The man struck the Chinese boy on the head. He came to his death by homicide. He was murdered by a thief. He was shot dead by his enemy. He was flogged publicly twice in the streets. He was frozen to death in the snow.”12
White men despised the Chinese even as they used them. They constantly compared the Chinese to another subordinate group, white women. The Chinese were small, with delicate hands and hairless faces and long, braided hair. One editor called them “half-made men,” which fit nicely with their two most common jobs, laundrymen and domestic servants. But the same editor referred to their “dreadful vitality.”13
After 1858, many Chinese had come to America in response to pamphlets put out by the several companies of Chinese merchants residing in San Francisco, advertising the high price of labor. The merchant companies took their pay from a percentage of a man’s earnings, plus a large bonus. They agreed to return a man to China free of charge; in the event of sickness he would be cared for; in case of death they would send the body home to be buried in the Celestial Empire. These contracts were faithfully fulfilled. Nonetheless, the ships rivaled the slave ships for gruesomeness.
In California the Chinese could find work as domestics: cooks, laundrymen, housekeepers, gardeners, errand boys, and so on. Like most previous immigrants, they sent back to China letters to their families, urging their wives, children, parents, brothers, and sisters to come. They landed in San Francisco, which had the largest number of Chinese and was known to them in their own language as “the big city—Tai Fau—first city.” Next came Sacramento, the “Yi Fau,” or the second city. Marysville was the third city.14
In 1868, Lippincott’s Magazine ran an article on “The Chinese in California.” “The purpose of every Chinaman in coming here is to amass such a sum—trifling in our eyes—in three or four years, as in China will give him support for life.” The Chinese “toiled without ceasing.” He never spent his money. No white man could ever surpass his industry. “He may have less muscle, but by his untiring persistence he accomplishes more work than the Caucasian.” There were no clumsy men among the Chinese, who “quickly got the ‘hang’ of whatever you set them at, and soon display a remarkable adroitness.” There was a “spirit of adventure” in them, which sent Chinese to Nevada, Idaho, and Montana for work. “Every Chinaman reads and writes, and in figures he is our superior.” To some extent they adopted the American costume—pants, boots, soft hats. But never coats. The pigtail “is sacred. Never can a Chinaman be persuaded that he can survive the loss of that emblem of dignity.” The article concluded with a plea for the federal government to do something to protect the Chinese—after all, it said, there was a Freedmen’s Bureau to protect the newly freed slave.15
AFTER a month’s labor, Strobridge admitted, albeit grudgingly, that the Chinese had performed superbly. They worked as teams, took almost no breaks, learned how to blast away rocks, stayed healthy and on the job. Engineer Montague praised them and declared in his 1865 report, “The experiment has proved eminently successful.”16
The CP began to hire them locally, offering $28 a month, then $30, then $31. Those were big wages even when the men had to pay for their own food. Crocker turned to a labor contractor in San Francisco, Koop-manschap, and had him look across the state for two thousand more “coolies,” and even to import them from China if necessary. Before the end of 1865, there were seven thousand Chinese at work on the line, with just under two thousand whites.17
Lee Chew was one of them. In 1903, he wrote an autobiographical sketch for Independent magazine. As a boy, he slept with the other boys in his village, thirty of them in one room. Girls had their own house, with a room that slept forty. Lee Chew worked on a ten-acre farm where his father grew potatoes, rice, beans, peas, yams, and fruits. He went to school to learn how “the great Emperors of China ruled with the wisdom of gods and gave to the whole world the light of high civilization and the culture of our literature, which is the admiration of all nations.”
In 1860 or thereabouts, the sixteen-year-old Lee Chew went to Hong Kong with five other boys and they got steerage passage on a steamer, where they almost starved. But in San Francisco they went to the Chinese quarter and he got a job with an American family as houseboy at $3 a week. Then he got a job with the railroad that lasted three years and he saved enough money to open his own laundry.
Many years later, when Theodore Roosevelt was president, Lee Chew gave it as his opinion that the Chinese in America “were persecuted not for their vices but for their virtues. No one would hire an Irishman, German, Englishman or Italian when he could get a Chinese, because our countrymen are so much more honest, industrious, steady, sober and painstaking.”18 A Chinaman who came back to Lee Chew’s village from the United States “took ground as large as four city blocks and made a paradise of it. He had gone away from our village as a poor boy. Now he returned with unlimited wealth, made in America.”
CHARLIE Crocker claimed it was impossible to tell Chinese apart (they were just like Indians, he said). Thus, fearing paying double wages, he devised a scheme of employing, working, and paying them wholesale.19
The CP organized the Chinese into gangs of twelve to twenty men, one of whom was an elected headman, another the cook. Crocker hired Sam Thayer, who spoke a number of Chinese dialects, to teach the men something of the English language. The headman collected all the wages, giving some to the cook to purchase provisions from the Chinese merchants. Other amounts went for clothing and opium. (The Chinese laborers used the drug on Sunday, their day off, to relax.) At the end of the month, each worker got his remaining $20 or more. Each gang had a white, usually Irish, boss, and the whites usually monopolized the skilled work, such as trestling, masonry, and actual rail-laying. The Chinese did the grading, made cuts and fills, blasted, felled trees, and, most arduous of all, drilled the holes and put in and lit the black powder while driving tunnels.
In May, Mark Hopkins wrote to Huntington, “We find a difficulty in getting laborers on the RR work. Prospecting generally takes off our men.” But sixteen hundred Chinese were then employed, and “without them it would be impossible to go on with the work.”20 Crocker’s brother E.B. wrote that spring to Representative Cornelius Cole, “I can assure you the Chinese are moving the earth and rock rapidly. They prove nearly equal to white men in the amount of labor they perform, and are far more reliable. No danger of strikes among them … I tell you Cole we are in dead earnest about this R.R. and you take 6 or 8 men in real earnest, and if they have any brains and industry they will accomplish something.”21
IT had been Judah’s original plan to bridge the deeper ravines and gaps between Newcastle (below Auburn) and Illinoistown with timber structures, but with the Chinese there to fill and push the carts, wherever possible earthen embankments (“fills”) were used. In a five-mile stretch from Auburn to Newcastle, the only wooden structures were the Newcastle trestle (86 feet high and 528 feet long), a trestle near Auburn at 30 feet high and 416 feet long, and a few others.
But even the Chinese didn’t solve every problem. The embankments were often impractical. Soil covering the ridge was only a foot or so deep, so scraping up enough dirt to make heaps fifty to a hundred feet high and several hundred feet long was impossible. Therefore, the engineers decided, early in 1865, to build trestles. When the railroad was finished, earth could be hauled in by train and the trestles replaced by fills.
In historian Wesley Griswold’s phrase, the trestles stood like “transfixed centipedes, straddling the gaps in the ridge with their massive multiple pairs of legs from immense pines, planted at 16-foot intervals, their feet braced in masonry.”22 The trestles, whose support timbers were called “bents” by the engineers, came originally from hundreds of thousands of feet of lumber cut in coastal forests of the Northwest, brought to the site by schooner and flatcar.
But after Newcastle was reached, CP lumbermen started hacking away at huge trees closer at hand, giant red firs and others. The bridges that were built out of sturdy timber and laced together and steadied by rows of horizontal beams looked like many-legged structures. Their spindly appearance scared hell out of the passengers, who gazed down as much as a hundred feet (at Deep Gulch, for example). Still the bridges managed to stand the weight of a locomotive and cars. “The boom of the powder blast is continually heard,” the Auburn Stars and Stripes reported. “Frowning embankments rise as if by magic. High trestle bridges spring up in a week.”23
HUNTINGTON had meanwhile filed a work-route map with the secretary of the interior covering the entire area from the California-Nevada border to the Great Salt Lake. He simply ignored the clause in the Pacific Railroad Bill that limited the CP to 150 miles east of the border. With that map, Huntington got the race between the UP and the CP started.24
On June 10, the rails reached Clipper Gap, about halfway between Auburn and Illinoistown. Toward the end of that summer, the railhead became Illinoistown, fifty-four miles from Sacramento. The elevation was 2,242 feet. From there to the summit was about fifty miles. The grade climbed almost forty-eight hundred feet, to 7,042. The grade went up the dividing ridge between the North Fork of the American River, which lay to the south, and Bear River, which was to the north.
This was the toughest. The hardest. The most expensive. The fifty miles that would be the most time-consuming. It took a full year to reach Dutch Flat from Illinoistown, sixty-seven miles from Sacramento. After that the difficulties increased, including more blasting, cutting, and filling, another precipitous gorge to be bridged, massive pinewood stands to be cleared, numerous tight curves to be plotted.
The engineers contemplated drilling fifteen tunnels through the granite—five on the west slope, one at the summit, and nine on the east. The longest, at 1,659 feet or 553 yards (or 113 yards beyond a quarter-mile), twenty-six feet wide and twenty feet high, would bore through the summit itself (No. 6). More than five hundred kegs of black powder would be consumed each day. Hundreds of gullies and ravines had to be filled, and at least eight long trestles built, with spans from thirty-eight to sixty feet high and from 350 to 500 feet long. Huntington had thirty vessels at sea simultaneously, bringing supplies and locomotives to California.
The task facing the CP was not only improbable, it was unique in engineering annals. The grading alone would exceed $100,000 per mile. Tens of thousands of tons of granite would have to be chipped and blasted from the mountains. Smaller chunks of it could be used for ballast on the track; big pieces could be sold to construction firms in California.
Strobridge divided his work crews into five parts. The largest, some five thousand men and six hundred teams of horses, were sent ahead of Illinoistown to work on Cape Horn. Another thousand men were detailed to clearing the right-of-way. Smaller teams of three to four hundred men each were put to work boring entrances for the first three tunnels.
One of the most feared stretches ran three miles along the precipitous gorge of the North Fork of the American River, nicknamed “Cape Horn.” The slope was at an angle of seventy-five degrees, and the river was twelve hundred to twenty-two hundred feet below the line of the railroad. There were no trails, not even a goat path. The grade would not be bored through a tunnel but, rather, built on the side of the mountain, which required blasting and rock cuts on the sheer cliffs. The mountain needed to be sculpted, because the roadbed would be curved around the mountain. The curves that hugged the monolith were either up grade or, sometimes, down. Men had to be lowered in a bos’n’s chair from above to place the black powder, fix and light the fuses, and yell to a man above to haul them up. With regard to Cape Horn and the tunnels, Van Nostrand’s Engineering Magazine said in 1870, “Good engineers considered the undertaking preposterous.”25
One day in the summer of 1865, a Chinese foreman went to Strobridge, nodded, and waited for permission to speak. When it was granted, he said that men of China were skilled at work like this. Their ancestors had built fortresses in the Yangtze gorges. Would he permit Chinese crews to work on Cape Horn? If so, could reeds be sent up from San Francisco to weave into baskets?
Strobridge would try anything. The reeds came on. At night the Chinese wove baskets similar to the ones their ancestors had used. The baskets were round, waist-high, four eyelets at the top, painted with symbols. Ropes ran from the eyelets to a central cable. The Chinese went to work—they needed little or no instruction in handling black powder, which was a Chinese invention—with a hauling crew at the precipice top.
Hundreds of barrels of black powder were ignited daily to form a ledge on which a roadbed could be laid. Some of the men were lost in accidents, but we don’t know how many: the CP did not keep a record of Chinese casualties.26
The Chinese workingmen, hanging in their baskets, had to bore the holes with their small hand-drills, then tamp in the explosives, set and light the fuse, and holler to be pulled out of the way. They used a huge amount of powder that was shipped to them from Sacramento. Crocker had a “spark-proof” car built to transport it, with iron sides, a door lined with India rubber, and a tin roof which could not catch fire from sparks and could be blown off in the event of an explosion. The CP made it in the railroad’s workshops at E and Sixth Streets in Sacramento. This car alone was allowed to haul explosives to the work sites, and it never had an accident.27
The Chinese made the roadbed and laid the track around Cape Horn. Though this took until the spring of 1866, it was not as time-consuming or difficult as had been feared. Still, it remains one of the best known of all the labors on the Central Pacific, mainly because, unlike the work in the tunnel, it makes for a spectacular diorama. As well it should. Hanging from those baskets, drilling holes in the cliff, placing the fuses, and getting hauled up was a spectacular piece of work. The white laborers couldn’t do it. The Chinese could, if not as a matter of course, then quickly and—at least they made it look this way—easily. Young Lewis Clement did the surveying and then took charge of overseeing the railroad engineering at Cape Horn.
What Clement planned and the Chinese made became one of the grandest sights to be seen along the entire Central Pacific line. Trains would halt there so tourists could get out of their cars to gasp and gape at the gorge and the grade.28
DANGEROUS as the Cape Horn work was, clearing the roadbed was worse. The Chinese who did it had the task of making an avenue a hundred feet wide on either side of the roadbed, mainly to provide room for the graders and to prevent tall trees from crashing down on the track. At least twenty-five feet on each side of the grade had to be cleared and leveled. Not only trees and stumps, but rocks, other obstructions, and vegetation of all types had to be removed. Past Illinoistown, the growth included some of the world’s largest trees, hundreds of feet high.
One three-hundred-man gang spent a full ten workdays clearing a single mile of right-of-way. The trees were shipped to sawmills to be fashioned into ties and trestling. Then the stumps had to be blasted from the soil. Ten barrels of black powder were needed to free each one. In any one week, the crews used as much explosives as did Generals Lee and McClellan at Antietam. Every time the powder charge was exploded, chunks of rock and tree flew through the air. They were like missiles fired by nature at the army invading it.29 (In World War II, the GIs in their foxholes got wounded more often by splinters flying through the air during a German barrage than by the shrapnel itself.) When a congressional investigator expressed incredulity at the amount of black powder used for any one stump, Clement told him, “These are not Yankee forests, but forests with trees four, six, and eight feet in diameter.” They were often 150 feet tall.30
THE first two groups, other than CP workers, to get a glimpse of what was being accomplished were George Gray and his assistants, and Schuyler Colfax accompanied by three journalists and some others.
Gray went because he had been invited by the Big Four to make an inspection of the completed line and the grading beyond the end of track. He had a reputation as one of the best railroad engineers in the country, and had previously been the first chief engineer of the New York Central Railroad. A favorable review by him would have a big effect on the potential bond- and stockholders; an unfavorable one was too painful to contemplate.
Gray, with a wagon load of instruments and a team of assistants, set to his inspection in late June. He was impressed and more. He found the CP’s line to be of “first quality throughout,” from the seating of its bridges and the quality of its brickwork to the spacing of its ties and the construction of its depots, and had no reservations whatsoever. He sent his report to the President, the secretary of the interior, the CP headquarters, the Railroad Record and other publications.
The CP was so delighted that, in late July 1865, it published Gray’s report as a pamphlet. Among other things, he wrote: “From the examination I have made, having traveled the distance on horseback or on foot, I feel confident that the railroad can be constructed over the Sierra Nevada … within two years…. It is quite a remarkable feature of your route that so elevated a mountain range can be surmounted with such comparatively light grades and curves.” In short order, the CP made Gray its consulting engineer.31
The other party, led by Schuyler Colfax, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a future vice-president of the United States, left Omaha in July for a tour to the Pacific, Colfax went to the end of track of the UP, which was less than halfway to the Elkhorn River, then took stages to Denver. His party included Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican; William Bross, editor of the Chicago Tribune and lieutenant governor of Illinois; and Albert D. Richardson, one of the most distinguished correspondents of the Civil War, from the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley’s newspaper. From Denver the party went on a posh new Concord coach loaned by its owner, Ben Holladay, himself. It reached California in late summer.
Stanford invited the Speaker and his party to travel with him to the CP’s end of track, then at mile 50 (just short of Illinoistown). Off they went, with plenty of wines, brandies, and good food. Stops were made to inspect tracks, trestling, and culverts, and to view the Chinese workers. Stanford made a grand gesture when the train got to the end of track: he renamed Illinoistown as “Colfax.”
The reporters were enthusiastic, especially Richardson. He wrote of the Chinese, “They were a great army laying siege to Nature in her strongest citadel. The rugged mountains looked like stupendous ant-hills. They swarmed with Celestials,* shoveling, wheeling, carting, drilling and blasting rocks and earth, while their dull, moony eyes stared out from under immense basket-hats, like umbrellas.”32
From Colfax, the party moved up the line of the graders by horseback. They rounded the spectacular point of Cape Horn. At Gold Run, sixty-three miles east of Sacramento, the Speaker and reporters got into a six-horse coach and set out for the summit, still forty or so miles away. Richardson saw “an endless sweep of dense forest and grand mountains, among graceful tamaracks, gigantic pines and pyramidal firs.” At the summit, reached shortly after sunset, “the wild, gloomy grandeur is far more impressive than by day. It is boundless mountain piled on mountain—unbroken granite, bare, verdure less, cold and gray.”
After a night at Donner Lake, the travelers climbed up to the summit to talk with the surveyors. That night, they stayed together in a guest house. Richardson wrote about the company officials who were working on the details of the route over the summit: “The candles lighted up a curious picture. The carpet was covered with maps, profiles and diagrams, held down at the edges by candlesticks. On their knees were president, directors and surveyors, creeping from one map to another, and earnestly discussing the plans of their magnificent enterprise. Outside the night wind moaned and shrieked, as if the Mountain Spirit resented this invasion of his ancient domain.”33
THAt fall of 1865, the CP went to work on the tunnels. Six of the thirteen that it would have to blast out before getting to the east slope were clustered in a stretch of two miles at the top of the long climb to the summit. The biggest, No. 6, right at the summit and within a few hundred feet of Donner Pass, was, as noted, 1,659 feet long and as much as 124 feet beneath the surface. The facings—where the blasting began—were 150 feet from the summit.
Clement planned it. In mid-October, when the end of track and supply base were at Colfax, Chief Engineer Montague started the Chinese working in shifts—eight hours per day, three shifts through the twenty-four hours—at each end of the formidable summit. There was only room for gangs of three men. One would hold the rock drill against the granite, while the other two would swing eighteen-pound sledgehammers to hit the back end of the drill.
Of all the backbreaking labor that went into the building of the CP and the UP, of all the dangers inherent in the work, this was the worst. The drills lost their edge to the granite and had to be replaced frequently. The CP soon learned to order its drills in hundred-ton lots. The man holding the drill had to be steady or he would get hit by the sledgehammer. The man swinging the hammer had to have muscles like steel. When a hole was at last big enough for the black powder, the crew would fill it, set a fuse, yell as loud as they could while running out of the range of the blast, and hope. Sometimes the fuse worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Often the workers had put in too much powder and most of it blew toward them—harmlessly as far as the granite was concerned, but at great danger to the Chinamen. Clement’s assistant, Henry Root, explained that “more powder was used by the rock foreman than was economical,” for the simple reason that the workers were told that time, not money, was of the essence. At Summit Tunnel alone, three hundred kegs of blasting powder a day went up, costing $53,000 to $67,000 per month.34
Progress was incredibly slow. With men working round the clock, between six and twelve inches per twenty-four hours was normal.35 Crocker gave orders to establish permanent work camps on each side of the summit, to facilitate the round-the-clock drilling, blasting, scraping, shoveling, and hauling by the Chinese. He figured there was no night or day within a tunnel. The men worked in groups of twenty or so, because only a handful could work at any one time.36
BY the middle of the summer of 1865, cargoes of Chinese laborers signed up by Koopmanschap had begun arriving in San Francisco.* They were shipped forward by riverboat to Sacramento, then to the end of track by train, then by foot to work on the grading. Strobridge’s workforce soon doubled and continued to grow. The CP had to learn how to put them to useful work, no difficult problem, and to house and feed them, which required some imagination, principally from the Chinese.
The CP used tents for housing as long as the weather remained warm. The Chinese men, more than half teen-aged and from farm families, were accustomed to spending their days outdoors and sharing crowded quarters at night. One visitor to the CP construction sites wrote, “In a little tent, ten by twelve feet, a half dozen or more Chinamen find abundant accommodations for eating and sleeping.” Tents went up at the facings of each tunnel and at or near the site of grading, putting in sidings, or other work. As noted, the Chinese were divided into gangs of twelve to twenty men, each with a headman and a cook.
They ate healthy, well-cooked, and tasty food, unlike the white workers. The CP provided the Americans with boiled beef and potatoes, beans, bread and butter, and coffee. If they wanted to spend their own money, the company kept stores that offered dried fish and salted codfish, peaches, cherries, raisins, apples, tomatoes, eggs, beets, turnips, pickles, and more.37 The Chinese paid for all their food. They demanded and got an astonishing variety—oysters, cuttlefish, finned fish, abalone meat, Oriental fruits, and scores of vegetables, including bamboo sprouts, seaweed, and mushrooms. Each of these foods came dried, purchased from one of the Chinese merchants in San Francisco. Further, the Chinese ate rice, salted cabbage, vermicelli, bacon, and sweet crackers. Very occasionally they had fresh meat, pork being a prime favorite, along with chicken.38
The food helped keep the Chinamen healthy. The water they drank was even more important. The Americans drank from the streams and lakes, and many of them got diarrhea, dysentery, and other illnesses. The Chinese drank only tepid tea. The water had been boiled first and was brought to them by youngsters who carried two pails on a sturdy pole across their shoulders.
Augustus Ward Loomis, a Christian minister who came to observe them, noted that the Chinese set an example for their white co-workers in diligence, steadiness, and clean living. In an article for the Overland Monthly he wrote, “They are ready to begin work the moment they hear the signal, and labor steadily and honestly until admonished that the working hours are ended.” Loomis approved of their habits: “Not having acquired a taste for whiskey, they have few fights, and no ‘blue Mondays.’”39 They did smoke opium on Sundays, their day off, but they did not “stupefy themselves with it. You do not see them intoxicated, rolling in the gutters like swine.”
They took daily sponge baths in warm water, washed their clothes, and otherwise kept themselves clean and healthy. According to contemporary B. S. Brooks, who wrote a pamphlet about the Chinese, the white worker “has a sort of hydrophobia which induces him to avoid the contact of water.” In contrast, “the Chinaman is accustomed to daily ablutions of his entire person.”40
The Chinese were ideal workers. Cheap. Did as they were told. Made a quick study and after something was shown or explained to them did it skillfully. Few if any strikes. The same for complaints. They did what no one else was willing or able to do.
THERE was other good news beyond the Chinese willingness to work and their capability at it. When winter set in at the Summit Tunnel facings, Montague had put them to other work. He continued to get reports from survey teams he had sent as far east as the Truckee River and on into Nevada. From those reports he learned that the location engineers could shave several miles off Judah’s original line and, even better, eliminate two tunnels and perhaps a third.
Grading above Colfax and tunneling at the summit meant that the CP was into the battle with the Sierra Nevada in earnest. Stanford wrote to President Andrew Johnson, “The grading between Newcastle and Colfax was very difficult and expensive, increasing as the line was pushed up the mountain slope. The cuttings have been deeper, the embankments higher, and more rock work encountered, as the line has progressed eastward…. We have encountered and are now laboring upon the most difficult and expensive portion of the line entrusted to us. This, too, at the very commencement of our efforts.”41
In general, the men of the CP, including the Chinese, worked like the Irish and other white men working for the UP. The surveyors went first, followed by the engineers, who laid out the exact line. Then came the bridge gangs, so that when the gradings got to the bridge site they could continue. Then there were the men who dug the cuts or who dug and dumped the dirt to make the fills. Next came the track layers with their rails, spikes, fishplates, distance markers, sledgehammers, and ballast. After them the carpenters, who built the roundhouses, depots, and other buildings.
Unlike the UP, the CP was not concisely organized as a military force. Of course, in California it had no Indians to contend with, for they had nearly all been wiped out. But the military manner of organizing complex outfits fit the CP as much as it did the UP—squads, platoons, companies, battalions, regiments, divisions, with separate commanders and staffs for logistics, planning, intelligence, finance, personnel, and more.
The bosses on the spot, where the construction was going on, were Charles Crocker and James Strobridge. Crocker was described by his assistant chief engineer, Lewis Clement: “He was a business man in the full sense of the word—prompt, methodical, fearless and confident. He was decided and firm; yet not obstinate. When he was satisfied that he was in the wrong, he was always ready to concede it and apologize.” He kept his word, Clement said. But “he was very quick to act, and sometimes acted too quickly—he acted and then considered it afterwards.” He was the manager of construction, which was a job “no ordinary man could have done.” He wasn’t imposing, despite his bulk: he was less than six feet tall, with a fair complexion, and beardless. “I don’t suppose,” Clement said, “that there was a mile of road constructed that he didn’t go over the ground, either on horse-back or with a wagon; he always wanted to see what had been done and what was being done.” He was out in every kind of weather, “and it made no difference whether it was an American horse or a bucking Spanish pony.” Clement admitted that Crocker “was a large eater and a man of very strong prejudices.”42
When the job was completed, Crocker was the only one of the Big Four—indeed, the only Californian—who thought to praise and thank the Chinese for what they had done. The Chinese, meanwhile, were called “Crocker’s pets,” and he was known to them as “Mistuh Clockee.”
Strobridge had lost an eye to a black-powder explosion in Bloomer Cut, but the Chinese respected him without hesitation or stint. Those who had learned English called “Stro” the “One-Eyed Bossy Man.” He could see as well with one eye as most men could with two, and when, as happened occasionally, there was trouble among the Chinese workers, Strobridge could pick out the ringleaders with a glance. He confronted them, usually with an ax handle, and they gave way and he prevailed.43 One white foreman would sometimes spur on his Chinese work gang by clapping a hand over his right eye and striding about as Strobridge did, implying that Stro was about to appear. “Men generally earn their money when they work for me,” Strobridge said.
Strobridge appreciated what the Chinese did. After a few months with them, he said, “They learn quickly, do not fight, have no strikes that amount to anything, and are very cleanly in their habits. They will gamble and do quarrel among themselves most noisily—but harmlessly.” And Montague reported at the end of 1865, “The Chinese are faithful and industrious and under proper supervision soon become skillful in the performance of their duty. Many of them are becoming expert in drilling, blasting, and other departments of rock work.”
Leland Stanford, the governor of California who had won many voters by denouncing the Chinese immigrants, wrote to President Andrew Johnson, “As a class they are quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical.” And he asserted, “Without the Chinese it would have been impossible to complete the western portion of this great National highway.”44
And what did the Chinese think of their employers? For sure they wanted the jobs. Most if not all of them saved money while working for the CP, and those who went back to China with their savings used the money to live well. Others went to work for the multitude of railroads building new lines west of the Rocky Mountains after the CP was constructed. Many settled in California, where they raised families and became an important part of the population Still, there is no solid answer to the question. For the most part, we just don’t know.
There are indications, of course, including how many went to work with the CP and stayed with it. The CP’s successor, the Southern Pacific, kept the workers on a regular pension. In 1915, the newsletter of the Southern Pacific carried a letter from a former worker then living in China, thanking the railroad for sending his pension check each month. Another indication came in November 1917. A half-year earlier, the United States had declared war on Germany. A Liberty Loan was sponsored by the government to raise money to fight the war. A group of about twenty San Francisco Chinese, who were the last of the original crew that helped build the CP, enrolled and purchased the bonds.45
BY the end of 1865, Crocker still needed money. The bill for the blasting powder alone was killing him, even though it was less expensive now that the war had ended and Crocker was able to obtain a great amount of government surplus. But the Big Four had borrowed all they could, or so it appeared. Then, on November 29, the government inspectors examined the track from mile 31 to mile 54, from Newcastle to Colfax, and pronounced it satisfactory. At $48,000 per mile, the government had to issue $1,104,000 in bonds to the CP to sell. That helped, considerably, but as always the CP had long since borrowed on that money, and anyway it was far short of what was needed.
Crocker, as head of the construction company, was being paid by the CP in cash, in bonds, and in stock, at the rate of $2 worth of stock for every $1 owed him. The actual value of the stock was about 10 cents per share. He had borrowed, or so he later said, “all the money available, much of it from my personal friends. I owed William E. Dodge & company three and a quarter million dollars.” That wasn’t quite true: the company, not Crocker, had borrowed the money. The other Big Four, plus E. B. Crocker, were silent partners in the construction company.46
Crocker’s associates rallied to his side. They agreed to help pay his bills; although they were not legally his partners in Crocker & Company, they would stand or fall together. “Go on!” Stanford assured him. “We will stand by you.”47
By the end of 1865, the CP had fifty-four miles of working track, to Colfax. Less than twenty miles had been spiked that year. But those few miles had cost an astounding $6 million. Only $3,363,300 in stock had been subscribed (not all paid for), and only one block of government bonds had been received. Earnings were up, with net profits at $280,000, which was the best news. Most of the earnings came from freight. The company anticipated 1866 revenues of nearly $500,000 from freight and just over $200,000 from passengers, plus income from the sale of timber. But whatever the anticipations, the sober truth was that the Western branch of the transcontinental railroad had scarcely penetrated the Sierra Nevada.
* The steep sides of this rocky cut stand today just as the builders left them. The cementlike rock that dulled drills and broke picks and resisted blasting powder shows no signs of disintegration. The line now runs through two tunnels to the north.
* The white men called the Chinese the “Celestials” because they came from the Celestial Kingdom.
* It is not true, however, despite persistent myth in California, that most Chinese came to the United States to work for the CP. In fact, in 1866 and 1867 more Chinese left the state than entered.