THE Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were the first big business in America. Except for the invention of the telegraph, which gave their officials a means of almost instant communication—quite limited because of the cost per word—the railroads had to invent everything: how to recruit, how to sell stocks and bonds, how to lobby the politicians, how to compete, what to build and what to buy, how to order and store necessary items that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Only the government and armies had organized on such a scale. Where the railroads went, they created stopping points complete with water tanks, repair facilities, boarding terminals, unloading equipment, eating places, hotels. From these grew farms, villages, cities.
Omaha was the first to benefit. In 1865, it doubled in size to fifteen thousand inhabitants, and grew even more in 1866 and each year that followed. During the summer and fall of 1865, small mountains of materials piled up in Omaha. Five of the UP’s seven steamships had the exclusive task of hauling ties, iron wheels and rails, rolling stock, and machinery; the others brought more workers and additional supplies. When weather prevented the graders and trackers from working on their main job, they found employment in Omaha, where a great cluster of shops was located, one of which was capable of building nine flatcars at a time. There was employment for everyone willing to work, making bricks, or making UP buildings out of bricks, at the Burnettizers, on the flatcars, as teamsters, and more.
The flood of workers meant a severe housing shortage and a growing number of gamblers and prostitutes. The hotel rooms and dining rooms were crude. One UP employee characterized the town’s population as “the closest thing to the Foreign Legion you could find.” Jack Casement wrote his wife that there were no good boardinghouses in Omaha and that the hotel in which he was staying was “cram full and kept very poorly. The meals were nothing that a white man wanted.” He promised her that he was looking for a house to rent for the two of them.1
West of Omaha, settlement was growing, thanks most of all to the prospect of transportation, but also to a reassessment of the Great Plains. Previously, most Americans had accepted as fact that everything west of the Missouri River was the Great American Desert. But in 1866, the well-known Massachusetts editor Samuel Bowles brought out a book based on his 1865 trip entitled Across the Continent. The Plains, he said, were “not worthless, by any means.” Indeed, they were the nation’s pasture, capable of growing grass that fattened livestock. In time, he said, the railroad would carry eastward beef and leather, mutton and wool, and more. “Let us, then, not despise the Plains, but turn their capacities to best account.”2
Moses Thatcher, a Mormon crossing Nebraska in June 1866, noted in his diary that “the country is one vast green ocean.” And it was more than the national pasture. “There are some fine farms recently located here,” he wrote. “The small grain such as wheat, oats, barley & corn are looking finely.” A well-known travel writer, Bayard Taylor, saw the countryside a month later and called it the most beautiful he had ever seen. He wrote that “Mr. Horace Greeley’s ‘vanishing scale of civilization’ has been pushed much further west since his overland trip in 1859.” Taylor said Nebraska constituted the largest unbroken area of excellent farming land in the world.3
A correspondent from the Cincinnati Gazette commented, “The soil is very rich, and the mind falters in its attempt to estimate the future of such a valley, or its immense capacities.” He went on to say, “The grain fields of Europe are mere garden patches beside the green oceans which roll across the Great Plains.”4
IN January 1865, the three government commissioners came to examine the track already laid. Accompanied by Durant and other officials of the UP, plus the governor of Nebraska and others, on what the Omaha Weekly Herald called “one of the loveliest winter mornings that ever dawned on the word,” in cars pulled by the General Sherman, they rode to the end of track (at Fremont). The Herald reported that the return trip was made at an average speed of thirty-five miles per hour. The commissioners accepted on behalf of the government the first forty miles of track, and on the return to Omaha, they wired the secretary of the interior that they had found the road “in superior condition.” President Andrew Johnson accepted the report the same day, and on January 27 the government issued the bonds, each carrying 6 percent annual interest, payable twice a year.
According to the Herald, the commissioners were astonished at Durante “personal omnipresence in every department of the work, his vigilant and untiring watchfulness of all details, and the energy and effective push which he had imparted to the Colossal enterprise.”5 The Herald’s praise for Durant was wondrous to behold. In March, the newspaper called him “the Great Manager, who is to railroads what Napoleon was to war.”6
Perhaps, but Napoleon’s reputation rested on more than forty miles of track. Durant needed to prove the comparison apt. To do that, he first of all needed to establish a solid organization, one with forceful, trustworthy, and capable men to run the company in its many operations, men far better than the ones he had already hired. At the beginning of 1866, he set out to do that. To begin with, he let go his brother Frank, along with Herbert Hoxie and Joseph Henry. He pulled Samuel Reed off his surveying job and put him in charge of construction. Durant gave Reed, forty-seven years old at the time, the title of “superintendent of construction and operations.” Reed was a quiet, likable, methodical man who was a conscientious worker, skilled in his methods. He would supervise all grading, track laying, bridging, and tunneling—a tough, demanding position for which he was perfectly suited.
In February 1866, Durant put the Casement brothers in charge of track laying. John (“Jack”) Stephen Casement, thirty-seven years old, although only five feet four inches tall, had earned an impressive reputation as a track layer in Ohio. He had risen to brigadier general in the war as a division commander. Stocky, muscular, fearless, “General Jack” could handle anything, and if he couldn’t his brother could. Only five feet tall (“five feet nothing,” according to one wag), Dan Casement was also a veteran. According to a diary kept by one of his UP workers, Dan may have been short and stocky, but “once he lifted a 30 foot rail off the ground without any trouble. It weighed about 600 pounds.”7 Between them the brothers had formed the firm of J.S. & D.T. Casement, which Durant hired and put in charge of laying the track. It was an inspired choice.
Durant made other adjustments, but by far his best choice, the one that made the UP possible, was to stick to his determination to lure General Grenville Dodge away from the army. At the end of February 1866, having failed to get Dodge to sign on with the UP, Durant sent him a telegram suggesting that Dodge might want to take the field as a surveyor. Dodge declined, but in his telegram of reply (dated March 2) he did offer Durant some advice, based on what he had heard about the disorganization and demoralization in Omaha.
“Let me impress upon you the importance of commencing the years work by placing at Omaha a chief in whom you have confidence,” he opened, “who in all things you will support and who you can hold responsible that your orders are carried out—and who all connected with the road will know they must obey.” He insisted that the heads of divisions would be “divided interested independent commands.” Dodge insisted that each of the chiefs of a division must be “jealous of his power and rights” and that everything be done to promote “harmony, energy, economy or celerity.”8
Late in April, Durant went to St. Joseph to meet with Dodge and offer him the post of chief engineer of the UP. The general refused to accept unless he received absolute control. He told Doc that his military experience had convinced him that a divided command would never work. As chief engineer he would “obey orders and insist on everyone under me doing the same.” Durant agreed.
On April 27, Dodge went to Omaha and wrote to General Sherman (in St. Louis) requesting a leave of absence so that he could go to work for the UP. In his reply, dated May 1, Sherman agreed, with these words: “I consent to your going to begin what, I trust, will be the real beginning of the great road.”9
It was indeed. Dodge went to work, beginning by cleaning the stables. He put Jacob House in charge of the headquarters in Omaha. He moved the unhappy Hoxie off his job in Chicago to become the transfer agent, operating out of Omaha. “I would rather be at Omaha under you than to be in the city with a much larger salary,” Hoxie told Dodge. He had been doing many tasks in the city, including freight, and added, “I am heartily sick of this living at hotels, without my wife, and both ends pushing me for freight. I can’t make the river higher.”10
With these and many other changes, Dodge put the working end of the UP on a military basis. Nearly all his chief subordinates had been in the Union Army, and with but a few exceptions his graders and track layers had been participants in the war. There were thousands of them, with more coming. Military discipline came naturally to them, for they were accustomed to giving or receiving and carrying out orders. Without that military organization, it is doubtful that the UP could have been built at all. The UP had farther to go than the CP, and hostile Indians to contend with, plus shortages and the nonexistence of timber, water, and other necessities.
Dodge said later that the changes in the railroad world had been caused by what had been learned during the Civil War. “The great principles then evolved have taught the American people that there was no problem in finance or relating to the development of the country so great that its people did not feel able to grasp and master it.”11 Dodge and his subordinates had learned in the army how to deal with problems.
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t all done at once. Durant retained the title of “vice-president and general manager,” which meant that Reed, Hoxie, and others still reported to him. Meanwhile, Dodge had to deal with Silas Seymour, whose title was “consulting engineer.” Seymour had no authority, but he answered only to Durant and was able to—and did—create a great deal of mischief.
The Indians out on the Great Plains posed their own threat. With the Civil War over and the UP building, settlers were moving out into what they regarded as their land. The Homestead Act, giving a quarter-section of land to each settler, was a magnet. Nebraska gained population so fast that in 1867 it became a state, much earlier than expected.
The Pawnee, living in eastern Nebraska, were “Hang around the Forts,” as the hostile Indians called them. Surveyor Bissell wrote that “the Pawnees were normally friendly,” but also that they “were more degraded in their habits and ways of living than almost any tribe.”12 They had made their peace with the white men, and many of their warriors had become soldiers in the white man’s army.
But west of Columbus, Nebraska, the Sioux and Cheyenne were predominant, and decidedly hostile. They despised the iron rail, which along with providing great benefits to the whites had an additional disadvantage for the Indians in that it split the Great Plains buffalo herd into two parts, because buffalo would not cross the tracks. The Indians wanted the iron rail, and the men who surveyed for it and the men who were building it and the farmers who were following it and the travelers who were sure to come on it, out of their country. And they had plenty of men, young and even old, who were ready to follow a war chief on a raid, against either the settlements or the surveyors or the graders or the road builders. Thus the UP needed protection from the army, but the army had nowhere near enough men or posts beyond the frontier to provide it.
This meant the UP’s workers would, in most cases, have to protect themselves. Dodge ordered it. He wanted every man armed. He wanted them all drilled too, if they needed it, but since they were veterans he decided they didn’t. They had to keep their rifles always within easy reach, however—life on the frontier.
It meant doom for the Indians’ way of life. No longer could they be free and independent, living off the buffalo herds. They could either follow the way of the Pawnee and live on reservations, cared for by the white man, or get killed. As General John Pope, who was replacing Dodge, observed, “The Indian, in truth, no longer has a country. He is reduced to starvation or to warring to the death. The Indian’s first demand is that the white man shall not drive off his game and dispossess him of his lands. How can we promise this unless we prohibit emigration and settlement? … The end is sure and dreadful to contemplate.”13
Dodge, by contrast, was in agreement with General Phil Sheridan. He had no sympathy for the plight of the Indians, and believed, “There were really no friendly Indians.” That was wrong—the Pawnee surely were—but it set the tone for the UP and, in truth, could hardly have been helped, considering the scope and events of the Sioux and Cheyenne actions.
The Indians were one problem; the weather was another. The Missouri River could not be navigated until late March or early April. Jack Casement had his crews ready by the first day of spring, more than three thousand of them, and the boarding cars nearly ready for them, but the river was too low for the cars to be sent to Omaha, and besides, the rails could not be shipped until the spring rise deepened the water. By mid-April, the supplies began pouring into Omaha, and the Casement brothers went to work, with Dodge’s full backing. Dodge had long argued, correctly, that nothing would give the UP more credibility than the laying of track with trains running on it. The Casement brothers built it. By June 4, the track layers had reached the hundred-mile post (although the bridge over the Loup River was only a temporary pile trestle), and by late July, the gangs had passed Grand Island (153 miles from Omaha) and were headed for Fort Kearney, two hundred miles from Omaha. The graders, meanwhile, were beginning to grade the third hundred miles. So far the Indians had left both groups alone.
In May, to anticipate their depredations, Sherman formed a new department, designating it the Department of the Platte. He put General Philip St. George Cooke in command, with headquarters in Omaha, and expressed the hope to Grant that President Johnson and the secretary of war would “befriend this railroad as far as the law allows.”14
THERE is nothing connected with the Union Pacific Railroad that is not wonderful,” wrote the correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette. “In one sense the road is as great an achievement as the war, and as grand a triumph.” Continuing the image, the reporter went on, “Go back twenty miles on the road, and look at the immense construction trains, loaded with ties and rails, and all things needed for the work. It is like the grand reserve of an army. Six miles back are other trains of like character. These are the second line.”
Going forward to the end of track, he wrote, “are the boarding cars and a construction train, which answer to the actual battle line.” The boarding cars were each eight feet long, some fitted with berths, others with dining halls, one a kitchen. The construction train carried forward all supplies—ties, rails, fishplates, sledgehammers, shovels, rope of various sizes and length, more than a thousand rifles, and much more.15 It was indeed comparable, in many ways, to an army moving across the landscape.
Samuel Reed, in Omaha, was responsible for keeping the army supplied. Before Dodge signed on, and even after, he cleared his decisions with Doc Durant in New York. His telegrams to Durant, sent once a day or more, are today in the UP Archives in Omaha, and they constitute a remarkable collection that speak directly to the question, How did the UP do it?
Here are some examples, all from 1866. Reed to Durant, February 5: “Can change line second Hundred miles will reduce bridges one half [in] timber…. Have ordered the change if you do not approve countermand.” February 15: “Shall I contract for one hundred thousand cottonwood thirty five dollars and plans for car shop.” February 19: “Shall we deliver ties on new line west of Loup fork sixty to eighty teams ready to commence hauling as soon as decided.” February 26: “Notified Harry Creighton to build telegraph line to end of road [but he] will not do it without order from New York.” March 1: “The new line will be better than the old one less bridging less grading and four to six miles nearer fuel and ties.” March 12: “Must have three spans Loup Fork Truss[.] Can make temporary bridges for balance[.] Single pile bents will not stand in channel[.] Piles drove east abutment & three east piers[.] West abutment & west pier half drove.” March 13: “McManus & Hornby propose to build engine house ten stall for twenty thousand [dollars] and car shop for thirty five thousand [dollars] shall I close. Can I contract Loup Fork masonry.” March 20: “Navigation open first boat just arrived.”16
The last telegram in the preceding sample marked a big moment for Reed and all who worked for the UP. Supplies could now get to Omaha by steamship. This allowed Durant to embark on a bold experiment. He had been told that barges were unsuitable in the shifting water of the river, but he nevertheless had two built and purchased a steamboat, the Elk Horn, to haul them. The boat and the barges made it to Omaha from St. Louis in less than ten days. Durant had opened a new era for shipping on the Missouri River.17
Reed to Durant, April 7: “I have contracted for 500 cubic yards of stone for foundations and small bridges at $4 per yard delivered on the line of the road. Also for 50,000 ties. Mr. Davis is sawing the timber for Loup Fork Truss bridge [the bridge was to be seventeen hundred feet long]. There is a little more than one third of the piles drove for the temporary bridge over Loup Fork. Grading contractors are commencing their work, [although] the frost is not out of the ground yet. We have just received two rafts of logs the first of the season. There is a good stage of water and I think we shall receive ties and timber rapidly via river from this time. Twelve hundred tons of iron rails have been received. We have more than one hundred thousand ties on the line of the road, inspected and paid for. I can contract for 50000 hard wood ties to be delivered twenty to twenty five miles west of the west end of the second hundred miles.” And so on.
Reed’s telegrams to Durant are remarkable, partly because of the detail Durant insisted on holding in his own hands, even after Dodge signed on, also for all the details Reed had to handle, and most of all for the scope of the enterprise. And by mid-April, Reed was reporting on the speed of the construction. On April 17, he took government commissioners over the completed track: “We left Omaha at 9:20 am and arrived at the 40 miles post at 10:40 then run slow over the road to end of track, 63½ miles from initial point. The Commissioners appear to be well pleased with the work and expressed themselves accordingly. I intend to have the track laid to the 65 mile stake before six o’clock tonight. We are laying ¾ of a mile each day. The boarding cars will be completed Saturday and sent to end of the track after that we can lay one mile per day.”
May 28: “Track laid to west end of station at Columbus [across the Loup River, at 86.5 miles from Omaha]. No track laid Saturday on account of storm.” May 31: “Eight thousand feet track laid today. Ninety-seven and quarter miles laid [from Omaha, counting sidings]. Columbus hard place men had big drunk two days lost.” Despite Reed’s disapproval, one should hope so for the sake of these young lions, Columbus being the first village they had come to since leaving Fremont, at the beginning of the season, that had beer or whiskey for sale.
IN August, a correspondent of the New York Times wrote that one of the new railroad towns, Kearney, was “small, but vigorous and promising.” He predicted that “she will be a rich and busy city someday” and commented on “these numerous towns which spring up so suddenly on the Plains. They remain in constant and fierce rivalry, each eagerly clutching at every straw of trade to keep itself afloat and to swim ahead of its neighbors.” He found that, with the track completed to Kearney less than a week ago, the first train came in from Omaha yesterday, “and tomorrow shall see the first eastward bound train! Yet already the road has been built two miles further on. This in one day!” He considered it “extraordinary” to see in how short a time “the smooth, grass-covered prairie, unworn by wagon-tracks and undented even by hoof-prints, has been converted into a grand iron highway.” Occasionally a dip in the surface had to be filled with a few shovels of dirt, “but beyond this, it needs only that the ties be laid, the rails spiked on them and the spaces filled in with earth.”
Summing up, the reporter said that what he was witnessing “is the genuine American genius—the genius of the West especially, which welcomes obstacles and looks on impossibilities as incentives to greater exertion.”18
There were thousands of the young lions, five hundred or more working on the grades, then a thousand, then three thousand by 1868, in order to keep well ahead of the track layers, who eventually numbered more than seven thousand. The men came to Omaha on their own, or in response to a UP advertisement that promised good pay, good food, lots of work, and a free ride. Many were Irish and so the whole gang was labeled, but in fact they came from all over Europe and the United States, including a few newly freed African Americans. Jack Casement had a former slave with him as a servant. His name was Jack Ellis and he had been with Casement during the last year of the Civil War. Some three hundred freed slaves worked on the UP all together.
What the workingmen had most in common was their age, most of them teenagers or just into their twenties, and their status as veterans. One diarist noted, “Nearly everybody wearing a long blue overcoat with brass buttons, the regular U.S. soldier uniform left over from the Civil War, with one or two revolvers strapped to their sides.”19 Others wore gray coats. This is perfectly clear in group photographs taken in 1867-69. “It was the best organized, best equipped, and best disciplined work force I have ever seen,” Dodge wrote of these men. “I used it several times as a fighting force and it took no longer to put it into fighting line than it did to form it for daily work.”20
Their food was served on long tables in a dining car. They sat on benches, as at a picnic table. The meals consisted of coffee, potatoes, and boiled meat (usually beef; Jack Casement kept a herd of five hundred cattle marching along with the advance of the rails). It took about nine bushels of potatoes per meal to feed the men on a dining car. Good butter was kept at hand, when possible, and occasionally even ice water. Sometimes there was variety: a diarist wrote that at one dinnertime “a Negro mammy appeared with a huge basket full of fried chicken, bread and butter, doughnuts, bottles of milk and other food. We bought her out at once, basket and all.”21
The men got their board and room at a cost of $5 per week. The “room” consisted of a space in one of the flatcars, or on top of it after the summer heat began. The cars were eighty-five feet long, ten feet wide, and eight feet high. They contained seventy-eight bunks, three tiers high and capable of sleeping two hundred men. The graders’ beds were in dugouts half beneath the ground, perhaps roofed with sheet iron—the same kind of hut used in the Wilderness and at Vicksburg. The men bathed only when they were near enough to the Platte to make it possible, and that wasn’t often. They almost never washed their pants, shirts, and jackets. About a quarter of them had mustaches, another quarter had beards, a quarter had full facial hair, and the rest were clean shaven (at least when the photographer showed up). The hair on their heads was generally long, down to the shoulders. About half seem to have smoked, mainly pipes.
They were paid from $2.50 to $4.00 per day, depending on what they did. Only one in four was a track layer. Some put in the ties or filled around them or handled the rails or spiked them down or attached the fishplates to them. Others were graders, teamsters, herdsmen, cooks, bakers, blacksmiths, bridge builders, carpenters, masons, and clerks or telegraph operators. Most had to be taught their jobs, but they were quick learners, and the work was so specialized they seldom if ever made a mistake.
How hard they worked is an astonishment to us in the twenty-first century. Except for some of the cooks and bakers, there was not a fat man among them. Their hands were tough enough for any job—one never sees gloves in the photographs—which included pickax handling, shoveling, wielding sledgehammers, picking up iron rails, and using other equipment that required hands like iron. Their waists were generally thin, but oh those shoulders! Those arms! Those legs! They were men who could move things, hammer things in, swing things, whatever was required, in rain or snow or high winds or burning sun and scorching temperature, all day, every day. Nebraska can be hotter than hell, colder than the South Pole. They kept on working. They didn’t whine, they didn’t complain, they didn’t quit, they just kept working.
They had taken on a job that is accurately described as backbreaking. It was in addition a job that experts said could not be done in the time allotted (ten years), if ever. But they were building a railroad that would tie the country together, a railroad that almost every American wanted built as fast as possible, a railroad that required much of the skill and ingenuity and organizational ability and manufacturing capacity and stick-to-it determination of all Americans, a railroad that every American—most of all those men who were working on it at the cutting edge—was damned proud of.
A day’s routine was something like this: In the morning the men were up at first light. After their toilet they went to wash faces and hands in a tin basin, had a hearty breakfast, and went to the job, whether plowing, shoveling, placing ties or rails, spiking them in, or putting on the fishplates at the junction of two rails. At noon, “Time” was called and they had an hour for a heavy dinner that included pitchers of steaming coffee, pans of soup, platters heaped with fried meat, roast meat, potatoes, condensed milk diluted with water, sometimes canned fruit and pies or cakes. There was little conversation: the men were there to eat, and they made a business of it.
Afterward, they sat around their bunks smoking, sewing on buttons, or taking a little nap. Then back to work, with the bosses cursing and excoriating to overcome the noontime lassitude. “Time” was called again an hour before supper, to allow some rest. The evening meal was more leisurely. Then to the bunkhouses, for card games, a smoke, lots of talk (“railroad talk” was said to consist entirely of “whiskey and women and higher wages and shorter hours”), perhaps a song, such as “Poor Paddy he works on the railroad” or “The great Pacific railway for California hail.” Then to bed, the whole to be repeated the next day and the next and the next.
During the spring of 1866, Jack Casement offered each man a pound of fresh tobacco for every day he laid a mile or more of track. Bissell, who was there, noted, “This was done.” Dan Casement went out in the early summer to offer time-and-a-half pay to ensure that the UP reached the hundredth meridian before any other line. He also offered double wages for two-mile workdays. Henry Morton Stanley, the reporter who found Livingston in Africa and who was reporting for two American papers, was impressed by the results: the workers, he said, “display an astonishing amount of enthusiasm” for their jobs.22
THE snakily undulating double row of glistening rails stretched on to the west. Side tracks were filled with supply trains bearing hundreds of tons of iron and thousands of ties, fishplates, and more. The end of track, the last terminal base, was brimming with riotous life. There the Casement brothers had a huge takedown and then put-up-again warehouse. There were the boarding cars, the dining cars, the combined kitchen, stores, and office car. There were dusty lines of wagons bearing ties, hay, rails. A construction train would run up, men quickly unloaded its material, and the train started back, to bring on another load.
The wagons, drawn by horses, plied between the track layers and their supplies. Here was where all the work paid off. One wagon took about forty rails, along with the proper proportion of spikes and chairs, along the rails already laid. The horse started off at a full gallop for the end of track, running between the rails. A couple of feet from the end of the rails already down, metal checks were placed under the wheels, stopping the wagon at once. On each side of the wagon there were rollers to facilitate running off the iron rails. Parties of five men stood on either side. Two men seized the end of a rail with their tongs and started forward with it, while the other men took hold with their tongs until it was clear of the car. They all came forward at a run. The chairs had, meantime, been set under the last rails placed. At the command “Down!” they dropped the rail in its place.
Every thirty seconds there came that brave “Down,” “Down,” from either side of the track. The chief spiker was ready; the gauger stooped and measured; the sledges rang. Two rails every thirty seconds, one on each side. Four rails to a minute. These were the pendulum beats.23
As the rails went down, they were gauged by a measuring rod exactly four feet eight and a half inches, as Lincoln had designated in 1863. Ere the rail’s clang in falling had ceased to reverberate, the wagon moved forward on the new track and another pair of rails was drawn out. When the wagon was empty, it was tipped over on the side of the track to allow the next loaded wagon to pass it. Then it was tipped back again and sent down the track for another load, the horse straining at a full gallop.
The lead horse, always, was Blind Tom, a noble, venerable, full-blooded horse who pulled the front wagon. His name came from his condition—he couldn’t see. The workers pronounced him “perfect” in his role. No one claimed less sagacity for Blind Tom than that for any of the humans around him. When his wagon slipped and got stuck in a gap between the joints, he tugged with herculean force to drag it through. He became something of a celebrity from being mentioned in so many newspaper accounts of the construction.
Behind the wagon there was a man dropping spikes, while another settled the ties well under the ends of the rails. There was no ballast for the ties other than sand, which was added later. For now, they were simply put on the grade. The attitude was, as with the cottonwood ties, that it could be fixed later, when trains would be going down grade from the mountains where the material—gravel or hardwood ties—could be sent, to where it could replace the sand or cottonwood. It would be much cheaper, and would get the road built all the faster.
There were thirty men driving in the spikes, on the outside and on the inside, with three strokes of the sledgehammer per spike, ten spikes to a rail, four hundred rails to a mile, eighteen hundred miles to San Francisco.* Twenty-one million times those sledgehammers had to be swung. This was the beginning of what would be called assembly-line work. The pace was as rapid as a man could walk. Such a pace was attained because each man had a certain thing to do, and that only. He was accustomed to doing it and had not to wait on the action of anyone else.
In 1866, there were some one thousand men working at or near the end of track, out of a total force of eight thousand. There were four locomotives with ten cars each running between the track head and the last siding. It took forty cars to bring on the rails, ties, bridging, fastening, fuel, and supplies for the men and animals. Everything had to be transported from the Missouri River.
Ahead of the four construction trains came a locomotive pulling a general-repair car that held a blacksmith shop, cables, rope, winches, barrels, boxes, switch stands, iron rods, and more. Then the feed store and saddler’s shop, then a carpenter shop, then a sleeping car or two, then a sitting and dining room for foremen, then a long dining room, then a car that contained a kitchen in front and a counting room and telegraph office in the rear, then a store car, then six cars that were all sleepers.
Two locomotives powered the work train. The crew included two foremen, two engineers, two conductors, a financial manager, a storekeeper, a physician, a civil engineer and seven assistants, a draftsman, a telegrapher, the chief steward and sixteen assistants, and the workers. The physician had broken bones and mashed fingers to repair, and sometimes Indian arrows to extract.24
All the cars were hauling material. There were tie layers, who needed seventy-five teams of horses and wagons to haul the ties forward along the side of the track. Then the track layers, the gaugers, the spikers. Keeping up with everything were the herd of cattle, along with a butcher and helper to kill daily for consumption, and herders to care for the cat-tie. There was a baker and helper to bake the bread, and more.
It was the very embodiment of system. Henry Morton Stanley was in Nebraska to write about the Indian uprisings and massacres for a St. Louis and a New York newspaper. After a breakfast with Casement, Stanley watched the men laying track. He noted: “All this work is executed with great rapidity and with mechanical regularity. Captain D. B. Clayton, superintendent of laying the track, showed your reporter a specimen of what could be done. He gave his men the order, and in the space of exactly five minutes, as timed by the watch, they laid down the rails and spiked them, for the distance of seven hundred feet. There were fifty rails laid down, one on each side of the track. At that rate sixteen miles and a half of track could be laid down in one day.”25
THEIR slang was expressive. An engineer was a “hogger.” The fireman was the “tallow-pot.” When the engineer wanted the brakes set, he whistled a signal called the “whistle down brakes.” Setting the handbrakes was a “tie-down.” A drifting railroad worker was a “boomer.” A “bumper” was a retaining post at the end of a spur track. A “car toad” was a car repairer. “Cushions” were passenger coaches, of which the workers saw few to none. To “dance the carpet” was to appear before an official for discipline. A “fly light” was a man at work who had missed a meal. A “drone cage” was a private car, also seldom seen by the workers. A man asleep on the job was a “hay.” And so on. A phrase universally known was “gandy dancer,” for a track laborer.
It took an immense force to support the end of track, just as it took an immense force to support the front line in a battle. Twenty miles back of the end of track stood construction trains, loaded with ties and rails and all other things needed for the work. It was like the grand reserve of an army. Ten to twelve miles ahead of it were other trains of like character—the second line.26 One reporter wrote, “Sherman, with his victorious legions, sweeping from Atlanta to Savanah, was a spectacle less glorious than this army of men, marching on foot from Omaha to Sacramento.”27
On May 11, as the Casement-led force was getting under way, the Omaha Weekly Herald put it exactly. “The question of time is of such moment that minutes and seconds even are estimated when interruptions occur in the work of track-laying. The great machine must move in every part; every wheel must be in constant motion; so many rails must be put down and so much done every minute of every working hour of every working day, or loss accrues.”28 No minutes, or even seconds, were wasted on the UP. On August 2, the Omaha Weekly Herald reported that the previous day the government commissioners had accepted thirty-five miles of the track after being “surprised almost beyond measure at the rapidity with which the work is being pushed forward—thirty-eight miles having been built in twenty-eight days and in one instance 2 miles in one day.”
On their ride, the commissioners uttered expressions of wonder “at the extent and amazing fertility of this Valley of the Platte.” One called it “the finest Valley in the world.” Their train, meanwhile, sped forward at a speed of thirty-five miles per hour, “not spilling a drop of water from the well-filled goblets, so smooth is the track.” The commissioners arrived at the end of track toward the end of the day, when the men were seated in the dining car having their meal. Together with the kitchen and sleeping cars, and the construction supplies and cars, the total constituted “almost a city in itself.” On the return trip to Omaha, the train made the last thirty-two miles in thirty-seven minutes.29
At this time Dodge and Reed made a trip over the road, then continued on to see how the graders were doing. Their biggest worry was crossing the North Platte at the Nebraska city (now named North Platte) at the junction of the North and South Platte Rivers. Reed sent a telegraph to Durant on August 4: “General Dodge was with me at crossing of North Platte and decides that pile bridges will be suitable for crossing that stream. Can reach there before January with track. Shall I close contract or wait until I can send you plan.” Why he had to have Durant’s approval for something Dodge had already decided on doing isn’t clear.
On September 17, Reed wired that he had on hand two hundred thousand ties, which had reduced the price to 60 cents per tie. “If the grading can be done and iron delivered we can lay the track to Julesburgh before spring. Did you send spikes? Fish joints? Or is all the iron to be laid with chairs! The above has been written on the supposition that the men employed on the work are not molested by the Indians. We lost 98 mules 50 miles west of end of track. The men are very timid and on the first appearance of Indians would all leave the work. Sherman promised protection if there were troops in the country to be spared.”30
At the end of August, the commissioners wired President Johnson that they had inspected an additional forty-five miles of the UP and accepted them. Their telegram concluded, “The cars now run two hundred and five miles west of Omaha; or fifteen miles beyond Kearney.”31
THE men were really hopping for the Casement brothers. On September 21, the Omaha Weekly Herald was able to announce that the UP had printed a timetable. It was now running twice a day from Omaha to Kearney, a distance of two hundred miles. The passenger train, with first-class coaches and newly completed freight cars, left Omaha at 1 P.M. and 7 P.M. and arrived at Kearney at 5:10 A.M. and 11:10 A.M. Turned around, the trains got back to Omaha at 2 P.M. and 8 P.M. At Kearney, coaches met the train and moved passengers and freight to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and California.32 The Rocky Mountain News had reported a few months earlier that all horse-drawn coaches had been withdrawn from Omaha.33
General Sherman went for the ride. He was impressed beyond measure. He wrote to Grant that he hoped the line would be complete to Julesburg, Colorado, by April 1867. “This will be a great achievement,” he ventured, “but perfectly possible when we see what has been done.” He confessed that he was puzzled about what to do with Fort Kearney: because of the railroad, it was of no further military use.34
Sherman’s puzzlement illustrated one of the main purposes of building the UP. The army was spending millions of dollars in building forts on the Plains and across the Rocky Mountains, and in getting the soldiers to them and supplying them. But it was critical that it be able to do so, because, with the end of the war and the rapidly increased immigration to the United States, families were moving out onto the Plains at a fast pace. The hostility of the Plains Indians required the army to get out there to protect the immigrants. But stationing companies and even regiments at frontier posts did little good, since the troops could never mount up and go out to catch marauding Indians in time—the Indians would have long since departed the scene of their outrage. With the railroad, and its ability to move troops faster and safer from one place to another, the army needed fewer men and fewer forts, which made it much cheaper to maintain. Thus did the government get an immediate payoff from its investment in the UP. Sherman had anticipated this, which was one of the reasons he and Grant were great friends of the railroad.
Early in 1866, Sherman wrote to the editor of the Omaha Weekly Herald. “You know how outspoken I have been in the matter of befriending the Great Pacific Railroad,” he opened, “as also on all subjects calculated to develop the vast natural resources of the Northwest.” Then he pointed out, “You can hardly create a more lively interest than already prevails in the whole civilized world on the subject of a Pacific Railroad.”35
How right the general was can be seen in the coverage given the railroads, from newspapers in Sacramento, San Francisco, Omaha, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake, New York, and elsewhere. The public was fascinated by the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In part this was due to the magnitude of the undertaking, in part to its usefulness, not only to the military and the settlers but to all Americans. Everywhere people agreed that the coming of the railroad meant a new day was at hand.
Another factor: the Civil War was over, and the great corps of reporters and editors that had come of age during the conflict suddenly had little of national significance to write about, except for national politics. This meant that sophisticated reporters and editors, who were savvy about what people wanted to read, were at loose ends. Many of them decided that the railroad was the news to cover. As each month went by, more and more of them started doing so. In a short time it became the big story.
AS of October 6, 1866, the end of track had reached the hundredth meridian, 247 miles west of Omaha. Doc Durant decided that this was the big story of 1866. He invited scads of people for his grand excursion, to ride west on the “sumptuous Directors’ car” which he had purchased from the Pullman Palace Sleeping Car Company, built to his exacting and extravagant specifications. There were other Pullman cars in the train, called by one newspaper “the most sumptuous and resplendent, not only in America but all over the world.” Then there was the “Lincoln Car,” which had been built for President Lincoln but used only for his funeral, which Durant had purchased with the UP’s money, along with five coaches and a freight train bearing food, liquor, tents, and other articles.
The guests included Senators Benjamin Wade, J. W. Patterson, J. M. Thayer, E W. Tipton, and John Sherman, twelve representatives, and others, along with Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, Mr. and Mrs. George Francis Train, Mr. and Mrs. Silas Seymour, George Pull-man, John Duff, and many others. Reporters from every daily in the United States were invited, and many came.
In Omaha they got to see a part of what the UP had constructed, including a roundhouse capable of sheltering twenty locomotives at once (there were already twenty-three locomotives on the line; one hundred were expected in 1867), a blacksmith shop with twelve forges, a two-story machine shop, extensive car shops turning out nine cars per week, and more.
The first night was spent at Columbus, where some went to see Casement’s men laying track on a siding while others visited a prairie-dog colony or went hunting for buffalo and antelope. In the evening, Dodge had a huge bonfire lit in the center of a great circle of tents. A grand feast of game was accompanied by champagne (the breakfast and lunch on the dining cars had been meals to write home about too). A party of Pawnees, recruited by the same Dodge who had expressed his belief that there were no friendly Indians, gave the party a scare that night when they raced through the camp, wearing war paint. After Dodge had reassured the shrieking ladies and the timid gentlemen that these were friendly Pawnees, the crowd gathered to watch a few war dances and a mock battle complete with fake scalping. It all lasted until 2 A.M.
While on this trip, Dodge was elected to Congress by the people of Council Bluffs and its district. Later he figured himself to be the only man “elected to Congress who forgot the day of election.” He never campaigned for the office and hardly ever went to Washington to serve.
At 132 miles west of Omaha was the last farm to be found until Salt Lake City. At the one hundredth meridian, the train turned around and started back toward Omaha. Durant was ecstatic and resolved to have excursions whenever the UP had something to celebrate. Dodge, at first wary, began to get into the spirit of the thing as he slowly realized how much good it was doing for the company. On the last night, he treated the guests to the spectacle of a staged prairie fire set at a safe distance. He also conducted what amounted to a continuous press conference. He answered all reporters’ questions. He later confessed that he had sprinkled his remarks with “a great deal of romance” of the sort reporters dote on. Despite the cost, which was huge, he decided that, “from a sight-seeing point of view, it may be considered as very successful.”36
As Maury Klein puts it, “The selling of the West had begun in earnest,” even though, at what is today Cozad, Nebraska, the tourists were not very far west. But as Klein says, “Even at this early stage the market value of self-parody had been discovered.”37
SHORTLY after the excursion, the UP announced that it would convert one of its construction trains to a passenger car so that the line could run out to Lone Tree Station, forty-one miles west of Columbus. Soon after that, the line ran daily service to Grand Island. By late August, it was “Open to Kearney,” near the military post of Fort Kearney. The service was sometimes irregular and the passage sometimes problematical, but it was a start.
The fuel was cottonwood poles, which were green. The firemen insisted they sprouted when placed in the firebox. Still, they generated enough steam to haul a small train of cars across the countryside at twenty miles per hour. In historian Robert Athearn’s words, “It was such an improvement over travel by jolting, wearying prairie schooners that to the postwar traveler it must have seemed he was moving through another world, in another age.”38
Exaggeration is endemic to railroad historians. Athearn later quotes a young Danish girl whose father, in 1867, paid the UP $10 each to carry his family to North Platte. They sat on benches without backs and were jolted by the movement of a springless car over new track. It was a tiring experience, she wrote, one that she remembered years later as quite unpleasant.39
DODGE spent far more time working than entertaining. He arranged for military escorts when and where he could, dealt with the government commissioners who came west to examine the track laid by the UP, ordered supplies of all kinds, and handled land matters for the company. He was in ultimate charge of the bridge building. It was Dodge who decided, as Reed telegraphed Durant, that the North Platte was tame enough for a twenty-three-hundred-foot-long trestle built on cedar piles. He was in charge of the Loup Fork Bridge, completed in 1866, fifteen hundred feet long.
Dodge was also in command of the company’s land and mineral interests. He arranged for the first lands received from the government along the completed road. He founded twelve depots and made a town around each one of them, where he had lots recorded and the best ones taken up by the company. At such critical points as Kearney and North Platte, he reserved a large acreage for railroad shops, sidings, and other needs. His working theory was that it was best to “take all the property needed or that ever would be needed while the land was vacant.” He sold lots to settlers at anywhere from $25 to $250, one-third in cash and the balance over the next two years. The purchaser had to plant shade trees. In addition, Dodge kept a sharp lookout for coal, iron, and other minerals.40 He had Jacob H. House doing a hydrographic survey of the Missouri River to find the best place for a railroad bridge. If in the process Nebraska didn’t become an appendage of the UP, it was close.
Also in 1866, Dodge sent out his surveyors to find the best route over the Black Hills, through Wyoming, to Salt Lake, and beyond, to the California state line. In a May 1866 letter to surveyor James A. Evans (with more or less similar copies to the other surveyors), Dodge said, “You know that a railroad can be built where a mule or man can hardly travel.” He told Evans what to survey—how to get over the Black Hills, for the company was “anxious to determine beyond a doubt where we shall pass them.” To that end he wanted all lines examined, not excluding the one Dodge had found out of Cheyenne. Dodge said he wanted Evans to write him “as often as possible.” Further, he wanted from Evans a report on “the geology, mineralogy, and the mineral and agricultural resources of the country.” He concluded, “Time is everything with us. Use economy in all expenses.”41
To Dodge’s delight, Evans pronounced the line headed west out of Cheyenne as the best. To the south, the route west from Denver was impossible, just as Dodge had thought. To go north on the North Platte to the Laramie River was also impossible. Evans “pushed through, taking three weeks to run 25 miles—a narrow, wild, precipitous gorge, and never before passed by man,” according to Dodge. It was therefore “impracticable.” So were the other three routes Evans ran, except for the Lone Tree line Dodge had discovered. It was shorter, had gentler grades, less curvature, no canyons, was relatively free of snowfall, and required fewer bridges.
Indeed, the surveys westward from North Platte, Nebraska, all the way to the probable meeting with the CP pleased Dodge no end. As he put it in his 1866 report, “The surveys this year have connected our lines, settled the location over the Rocky Mountains and from that point westward. We have demonstrated that a line can be built from the Missouri river to the California state line without meeting any mountain barriers, impassable snows, or great deserts that it is not practicable to overcome; that we have a line for directness, distance, alignment, grades and work, that is not equaled by any other road of the same length in the world. That we have, in fact, the best general route across the continent.”
There were mountain ranges, to be sure, but Dodge said the UP could overcome the Black Hills, Medicine Bow, and the Wasatch Range “without extraordinary expenses, with comparatively light grades, with but a few miles of maximum grades, and with an alignment that is extraordinary.” In those mountains there was “plenty of timber—cedar, mountain pine, and hemlock—rock in cuts, and the whole country is underlaid with valuable mines of silver, iron, copper, and gold.” Between the Black Hills and the Wasatch Range, “coal begins to crop out, and it extends west to Salt Lake, along with sandstone and limestone.” Dodge did admit that on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains it was “desolate, dreary, not susceptible of cultivation or grazing. The country has no inviting qualities.” Still, there was produce for road building “and labor to build this portion of the road exists there to-day [by which he meant Mormons from Salt Lake City] without importing a single man or mechanic.”
Dodge’s 1866 report constituted the first clear description of the country from the western part of Nebraska all the way through to the Sierra Nevada, along with the first description of the best route for a railroad over that country. He was quick to praise his surveyors for all that they did, nor did he neglect to add that they had “all the time been in a hostile Indian country, unceasingly dependent upon military escorts, every mile having been located under guard, the party perpetually apprehensive of attack. The engineers performed their work much better than could have been expected.”42
What pathbreaking work the surveyors were doing was illustrated by the information they got. One of them, L. L. Hills, talked to the “oldest inhabitant” on the Platte River. “Oldest” is relative here, for he could not have been there more than a couple of years. Anyway, the old-timer said the Platte “never flooded over at the Loup Fork.” Hills’s own observations were more accurate: “I have no doubt that this valley will make one of the finest stock-raising countries in the world.”43
While Dodge worked on his report, the graders and track layers and other workers were busy. Reed wired Durant on November 13 that he had iron to lay track as far as North Platte, but the next day he had to tell the Doctor that there had been a “severe snow storm at end of track.” When the Casements were shut down by weather—the ground froze—Jack stayed in North Platte, building a blacksmith shop, icehouse, slaughterhouse, wash house, and stock pens.
Meanwhile, Reed was out front with the graders. On November 29, he wired Durant that he hoped to keep the grading going through December. “The grading on the 4th hundred is not as well advanced as it should be,” he admitted. Then he explained, “The Indian scare and severe storms has drove most of the men off of the line, [but] I have used every effort to get as much grading done as possible.” Meanwhile, “the Truss bridge over Loup Fork, is completed.”44
BACK in New York, at 20 Nassau Street, the Union Pacific Railroad Company needed money. The government bonds it had received for completed sections could be sold—nothing could be easier, since the government stood behind the twice-yearly interest payments at 6 percent—but despite the fulsome favorable publicity Durant’s excursion to the hundredth meridian had brought forward, the UP bonds had no market value and could be used only for loans at ruinous rates of interest. The stock was so worthless it could be sold only “to people who would take a risk as they would at a faro-bank.”
Oakes Ames solicited subscriptions for Crédit Mobilier stock from his fellow congressmen. Two representatives bought five hundred shares each, and Senator James Grimes of Iowa took 250. But many others refused, not because of any question of ethics but because they did not consider it a good investment. Except for two, the businessmen Ames approached to buy shares also turned him down. The Ames brothers and their Boston friends now owned more than half of Crédit Mobilier’s twenty-five thousand shares (Oakes and Oliver Ames had 16 percent of the total, with 4,025 shares). Durant was the largest individual holder, with 6,041 shares, and was president of the company.
In late November, the UP directors met in New York. Their first order of business was to adopt the line Dodge had proposed in his report, which they did. No wonder, for the line from Cheyenne began at the point where the government loan jumped from $16,000 per mile to $48,000, but, as Dodge’s description made clear, it would not cost the company anywhere near that much to build. That it was also the best and shortest route made the choice easier.
At that same meeting, the directors had to deal with the position of president of the UP. General John Dix had been appointed minister to France, but he did not resign as head of the UP; instead, he took a leave of absence. The board was no longer willing to allow Durant to run things to suit himself and decided to elect a temporary president. Durant wanted the office, but to his dismay he received only one vote, against thirteen for Oliver Ames. The board then adopted a resolution denying the authority of any individual to act for the board, a blunt message to Durant: the UP was no longer his to run as he saw fit.
Doc wanted to fight but was in no condition to do so. He was exhausted, as might be expected after the year he had put in. His friend George Francis Train told him to see a specialist, warning, “Do it or you will have a stroke. You can’t strike the Almighty in the face as you do without getting a lick back.”
Oliver Ames and his friends, meanwhile, insisted that the UP change its ways. Like the men working for it in the field, it had to be reorganized. Durant’s careless way with records had to go. They insisted that proper books be kept and made available to the entire board. The office staff had to be refashioned. There had to be an audit.45
Dodge concluded his 1866 report with praise for his surveyors and also for their assistants. He said the latter were “young men, as a general thing, and far above the average, many of them of fine education, and who not only perform the duty well, but intelligently.”
The road itself, Dodge said, was by the end of November 1866 “built and running 305 miles, commencing at the Missouri river and extending 10 miles west of the North Platte river.” During the period between April 1 and December 1, some 254 miles of track had been laid, “more road than was ever before built in the same length of time. It challenges the attention of the world.” In its grades, alignments, superstructure, stations, water tanks, turnouts, and equipment, “the road is a first-class American road.”46
That last phrase was at best a forgivable exaggeration. The road needed lots of work—new ties, stronger rails, gravel to ballast the rails, new bridges, fewer curves, and more—but none of that mattered at the time. All that mattered was getting the thing built, getting locomotives hauling cars from New York or Chicago all the way to San Francisco over a continuous track. In 1866, the UP had made a big stride forward to that goal. It had laid over three hundred miles of track, figured out the route for the run to the Salt Lake and beyond to California, learned through experience how to manage its affairs, how to survey, how to make grade, how to lay track, how to build towns and cities, depots and shops. Whatever the worries of the board on the East Coast—and for sure there were many—out at the working end the UP had laid more than seven times as much track in 1866 as it had in 1865. It was on its way.
* Ten spikes to the rail provided only enough stability for moving the construction cars ahead with more materials. Following gangs had to put in the proper complement of ties, or about 2,250 per mile. Then spikes were driven for all ties, averaging between nine and ten thousand per mile.