Modern history


Transcontinental at Last

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was one of the few western railroads with transcontinental ambitions that did not have the word Pacific in its name. That certainly did not mean, however, that the railroad’s transcontinental plans were any less determined or that they stopped in the middle of New Mexico. By 1881, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was advancing on the Pacific Ocean by three different fronts.

Admittedly, William Barstow Strong and the Santa Fe received little more than a handshake from Collis P. Huntington and the Southern Pacific at Deming, but Strong and his board of directors seem to have sensed well in advance that might be the case. They undertook the construction south from Albuquerque in part to protect the Santa Fe’s southern flanks and to keep Jay Gould and/or Huntington from building north from El Paso.

The Santa Fe’s second Pacific front was via the Sonora Railway to Guaymas, Mexico. But even though the Santa Fe built its own New Mexico and Arizona Railroad from Benson, Arizona, south to join the Sonora Railway at the Mexican border at Nogales, this route, too, was dependent on the dictates of the Southern Pacific because of the 174-mile joint trackage agreement between Deming and Benson.

What the Santa Fe needed—and what Strong had been patiently acquiring by bits and pieces—was a transcontinental route between the Mississippi and the Pacific completely under its own control. A key component was to come from assorted railroad ventures that traced their roots back to the fervent expansionism of Thomas Hart Benton.

Even before the Pacific Railroad surveys of 1853, Senator Benton had long championed a railway between St. Louis and San Francisco. What might lie in between was, Benton once told Congress, “a matter of detail.” The most important thing to him was to set the termini of the route irrevocably in the two cities that hugged the 38th parallel. To that end, the Pacific Railroad Company of Missouri was incorporated in 1849, to build west from St. Louis.

It didn’t get very far, and the trials and tragedies of John C. Frémont and John Gunnison while filling in the “detail” along the 38th parallel soon had Missourians pondering the more southerly 35th parallel route instead. St. Louis would still be the eastern terminal, but a south-west branch of the Pacific Railroad Company was projected to cut diagonally across the state to Springfield, which had long touted itself the logical railroad gateway to the 35th parallel route.

Amidst the land grant giveaway in the aftermath of the Civil War, Springfield got its opportunity. Benton was dead by then, but Frémont acquired control of the south-west branch—renamed the Southwest Pacific Railroad—and used the line’s goal of Springfield to promote the new Atlantic and Pacific Railroad as the logical extension westward from there.1

With a lengthy list of incorporators that included J. Edgar Thomson and Thomas A. Scott, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company was formed by an act of Congress on July 27, 1866. It was to run generally west from Springfield to a point on the Canadian River, then to Albuquerque, the headwaters of the Little Colorado River, and on to the Colorado River, “at such point as may be selected by said company for crossing; thence by the most practicable and eligible route to the Pacific.”

There was no promise of the lucrative bond subsidies that had benefited the Union Pacific, but the Atlantic and Pacific land grant was generous—every alternate section to the extent of twenty alternate sections per mile on each side of the railroad line through the territories and ten alternate sections per mile on each side through any state. The Atlantic and Pacific was required to begin construction within two years, complete at least fifty miles per year, and finish its main line by July 4, 1878.

But there was one section in the enabling legislation that bespoke the hand of Collis P. Huntington. Despite authorizing the Atlantic and Pacific to proceed “by the most practicable and eligible route to the Pacific,” section 18 provided that Huntington’s Southern Pacific Railroad was “authorized to connect with the said Atlantic and Pacific Railroad … at such point, near the boundary line of the State of California, as they shall deem most suitable for a railroad line to San Francisco.”2

Whether this provision merely afforded the Southern Pacific the opportunity to connect with the Atlantic and Pacific at the Colorado River or prohibited the Atlantic and Pacific from building beyond it into California would soon be a matter of heated debate.

The mercurial Frémont was soon off to other ventures, but by June 1871, the Atlantic and Pacific had consolidated with the Southwest Pacific as planned. It completed its line across Missouri through Springfield to the state line and continued into Indian Territory and a junction with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (the Katy) at Vinita, Indian Territory.

Much as Tom Scott did to court San Diegans on behalf of the Texas and Pacific, a Missouri delegation traveled to San Francisco in 1872 to win friends and connections at the contemplated western end of the line. But Californians were of divided loyalties. Some favored Scott’s Texas and Pacific enterprise; others wanted a line totally under Californian control; and, of course, the Big Four muddied the waters by opposing any railroad that might someday compete with the recently finished Central Pacific or the expanding Southern Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic and Pacific leased the original Pacific Railroad of Missouri that had finally made it from St. Louis to Kansas City, albeit by floating a staggering debt. This orphan of Benton’s Pacific dreams would someday emerge as Jay Gould’s vaunted Missouri Pacific, but in the mid-1870s, it floundered, and it took the Atlantic and Pacific down with it.

The Atlantic and Pacific went into receivership on November 3, 1875, but its directors and major shareholders quickly devised what became the ultimate coup. They formed a new corporation that would bid at foreclosure for the Atlantic and Pacific’s franchise and land grant, while being free from the Atlantic and Pacific’s debts.

On September 8, 1876, the Atlantic and Pacific went on the auction block on the east steps of the courthouse in St. Louis. Two days earlier, the soon-to-be Missouri Pacific had sold for $3 million. But this time the insiders were in control. When the auctioneer dropped his gavel, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad—with its land grants potentially worth millions and millions of dollars—was sold for the paltry sum of $450,000 to the new corporation. “The new company is to be called the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway Company,” the Railroad Gazette reported wryly, “because, perhaps, it has no terminus in either city.”3

But the reality was that the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway now owned the Atlantic and Pacific franchise outright, and the parent company made plans to strike westward from its railhead at Vinita. When continuing uncertainty over its right-of-way and land grants across Indian reservations delayed that construction, the St. Louis and San Francisco bypassed Indian Territory and built westward into Kansas instead. Given its ultimate goal, the railroad replaced the old Atlantic and Pacific trademark of “the Vinita Route” with a new moniker. Henceforth, the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway would be known as “the Frisco Line.”

The Frisco’s immediate destination was Wichita, Kansas. While bypassed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe main line, Wichita had taken upon itself to build a 20-mile spur and ensure its future as a cattle town and commercial hub. Looking to become a rail center as well, Wichita encouraged the Frisco’s advance by floating a county bond issue. But by the time the Frisco laid tracks into town, the Santa Fe main line stretched westward to Albuquerque. One look at the map told the story.

If the Frisco continued westward and paralleled the Santa Fe across southern Kansas, there would be fierce competition between the two roads. Regardless of how the Frisco’s claims in Indian Territory were resolved, they were likely to be of dubious value. (Oil discoveries would change that, but not until much later.)

For its part, the Santa Fe was concerned about another competitor shadowing it across Kansas. It had long contended with just such competition from the Kansas Pacific north of its line. Rather than competing with each other across the plains, perhaps there was a way that the Frisco and the Santa Fe might work together and put their resources into finishing the 35th parallel route west from Albuquerque instead of knocking heads in Kansas.

It helped matters that the leaders of both railroads moved in the same circles of Boston capitalists. Thomas Nickerson and his protégé William Barstow Strong were already showing themselves to be patient plodders focused on long-term results. The reborn Atlantic and Pacific land grant was certainly of interest, but so too was another route by which to challenge Collis P. Huntington’s stranglehold on California.

Finally, both the Frisco and the Santa Fe were watching the increasingly large shadow that Jay Gould cast over all railroad ventures. Concerned about their own independence or Gould’s role in a competitor, the Frisco and the Santa Fe had additional reasons to be allies rather than foes.

The 1879 annual report of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe told the results: “Another negotiation which required nearly six months to complete, secures your Company an interest in the valuable franchise of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad which gives your road right of way across Arizona and California to the Pacific Coast. Your Company, jointly with the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway Company, will build a new road from Albuquerque along the thirty-fifth parallel, which in due time will form part of a transcontinental line.”4

Formally ratified on January 31, 1880, this Tripartite Agreement was in some respects more sweeping than the Treaty of Boston or even the agreements between Huntington and Gould in Texas. Its triple nature came from the fact that the Santa Fe and the Frisco formed a jointly owned subsidiary further preserving the fiction of the old Atlantic and Pacific. Its stock, directors, costs of construction, and profits were to be equally divided between the Santa Fe and the Frisco. This reborn Atlantic and Pacific Western Division was to build west from the Santa Fe line at Albuquerque, claiming as it went the original Atlantic and Pacific land grant.

To fund this 600-mile expansion between Albuquerque and the Colorado River, the Santa Fe and the Frisco each agreed to raise $5 million secured by a first mortgage of 6 percent thirty-year bonds to be guaranteed by both companies. All business to and from the Western Division was to pass over the Santa Fe from Albuquerque to Wichita—later changed to Halstead, Kansas, on the Santa Fe’s main line. From that point east, all St. Louis business went via the Frisco and all Chicago-bound business continued over the Santa Fe to Kansas City.

The two roads further agreed that the Frisco or its St. Louis, Wichita and Western subsidiary would not build west from Wichita and that neither party would build new competing lines except by mutual consent and with joint ownership and cost.

Thomas Nickerson became president of the Atlantic and Pacific Western Division, while former Union general Edward F. Winslow became vice president to look after the Frisco’s interests. It seemed a neat solution to everyone, although Wichita and surrounding Sedgwick County, having enticed the Frisco with a bond issue, now complained, “As a county we agreed to pay our money for the benefits to be derived from a direct competition and not for an extra track of a monopoly.” Out of the ashes of previous 35th parallel failures, that is exactly what the Santa Fe was suddenly in the position to achieve.5

Not everyone, however, was keen on the idea of the Santa Fe building along the 35th parallel. Shortly after the initial battles at Raton Pass and the Royal Gorge, William Barstow Strong dispatched the steady A. A. Robinson west from Albuquerque to take a look. Robinson was not walking into the unknown but rather following the footsteps of Lieutenant Amiel Whipple’s 1853 efforts and William Jackson Palmer’s 1867 survey on behalf of the Kansas Pacific. But he wasn’t impressed.

Robinson argued against the 35th parallel route west from Albuquerque because he believed that the depths of the Grand Canyon to the north precluded any trade or connecting lines in that direction. (Clearly, Robinson was not thinking about the tourist trade.) He urged instead that all efforts be directed to driving south down the Rio Grande to the 32nd parallel. But by the time the Santa Fe reached Deming, Huntington and the Southern Pacific had preempted that route.

Meanwhile, the Santa Fe surveyors who were momentarily cheered in Tucson in the summer of 1879 reported back that the territory between Albuquerque and Tucson was “hopeless” both for a suitable direct line and local traffic. That left Nickerson and Strong with Lieutenant Whipple’s preferred route along the 35th parallel. The fact that they seized on that route early in the game—regardless of Robinson’s negative report—and made the deal with the Frisco is evidence that they were looking at the big picture of railroading in the American Southwest. Rather than taking the 35th parallel as a last resort, securing it early left Nickerson and Strong looking like rather shrewd railroaders after Huntington and Gould combined against them in the south.6

On paper, the railroad to be built west from Albuquerque would be known as the Atlantic and Pacific Western Division, but the men involved with its construction and later operation were definitely part of the greater Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe organization. Barely was the ink dry on the Tripartite Agreement than A. A. Robinson—his doubts about the route put aside but not dismissed—sent survey crews west from Albuquerque in the summer of 1880 to pound stakes along a final alignment between there and the Colorado River.

George S. Van Law, a veteran of the Santa Fe’s Raton and Royal Gorge battles, was in the lead party. It quickly became clear to him these preparations were “for the construction of a first class transcontinental railroad to do big business.” Robinson’s work specifications were very strict and called for light gradients and easy curves that in many cases “eased off at both ends.”

But as Van Law and his party progressed west across northern Arizona, it also became clear that there was not much local business. Supposedly, they were following a semblance of an old trail, but Van Law found it a road “in name only.” He never saw a man or wagon on it in an entire summer of work that at times was quite demanding. When the supply wagons were close, life was good, but when they failed to keep up with the advance or arrive at an agreed-upon rendezvous, hunger became a familiar companion. Breakfast one morning for Van Law’s crew of nine consisted of two cans of tomatoes and one can of peaches. It was, he acknowledged, “a lot better than starving.”

A few days later, after walking miles to start their work and running line for a half day, their lunch was only sugar and some bacon almost green with age and heat. But typical of the men who pushed these lines west, Van Law confessed, “we were a tough lot and nobody got sick.”7

The Santa Fe was in a hurry, and construction crews quickly followed Van Law’s markers west from near Albuquerque. The chosen junction point was Isleta, some 12 miles south of town, where the Santa Fe line down the Rio Grande crossed the river from east to west. The dust from the construction of that bridge and the Santa Fe’s march toward Deming had settled only a few weeks. One would have been hard pressed to say which route was the main line. At the very least, the Santa Fe’s frenzied construction on two fronts at once bespoke Nickerson’s and Strong’s transcontinental plans.

Certainly Robinson understood what was at stake. Not wanting a repeat of the conflict at Raton Pass, he sent a work crew 180 miles west of Albuquerque to seize and hold the staked right-of-way through Querino Canyon. Just west of the Arizona–New Mexico border, this 2-mile-long sandstone gap was wide enough for only a single set of tracks.

Robinson’s caution was well founded, particularly after Charley Crocker himself showed up on Santa Fe turf in Albuquerque “on railroad business.” Figuring that Crocker and Huntington were quite capable of being even more aggressive than General Palmer had been at Raton and the Royal Gorge, Robinson next directed that ties and rails be hauled by wagon to Querino Canyon well in advance of the railhead. Two and one-half miles of track were laid in the canyon during the summer of 1880 to hold the right-of-way. This section stood as a rather forlorn outpost while the end of track advanced toward it over the next year. 8

When the first 50 miles of track were completed west of Isleta, the Santa Fe–Frisco–owned Atlantic and Pacific Western Division applied for the land grants due under the original 1866 Atlantic and Pacific charter. The legislation had mandated that the line be completed within ten years. Now, two years past that deadline, there was growing sentiment in Congress against land grants from the public domain.

But U.S. Attorney General Charles Devens, an appointee of President Hayes, ruled that the original act, while requiring completion in ten years, did not specifically provide for a forfeiture of the railroad’s rights to such lands. They could be earned, Devens decided, by construction any time unless Congress wanted to intervene, take possession of the road, and complete it as a federal project, which clearly it did not. So the Western Division received its first patents for land along the route.

By February 1881, 100 miles of track had been laid west from Isleta, and 80 were in operation. Crews kept on through the cold of the high-desert winter and reached Fort Wingate, now Gallup, New Mexico. Lewis Kingman, who located the line, was in charge of construction.

Most of Kingman’s crews were Irish. Tracklayers and graders were paid $2.25 per day, and spikers and iron layers earned $2.50 per day—the latter equivalent to about $54 in 2008 dollars. Kingman also hired local Apaches and Navajos and later Mojaves from California as shovelers and day laborers.

Many of the Irish workers had built the Santa Fe or other roads across the plains, just as many of the Chinese working for Huntington in southern Arizona had labored through the Sierras. The simple economics of reaching the respective railheads dictated the labor pool—the Irish from the East and the Chinese from the West. Ethnic background meant little when it came to hoisting a fifty-two-pound rail, but that did not mean that there was no racism. “The directors of the 35th Parallel R.R.,” a local Arizona newspaper declared, “certainly deserve much credit for employing none but white labor in building their great transcontinental railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

By April, the orphan track in Querino Canyon had been joined to the main line, and crews were building west across northern Arizona at the rate of a mile a day. “The whole country north of Prescott along the 35th parallel road,” the Weekly Arizona Minerreported, “is alive with advance workmen, who are preparing the road bed of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, which is coming along from the East at break-neck rate.…”9

But up ahead, the flat tablelands of the Colorado Plateau held one of its many surprises. Twenty-six miles west of Winslow, the serpentine meanders of Cañon Diablo cut deep into the landscape. Its white and yellow limestone walls dropped 250 feet in blocky terraces to the intermittent stream coursing along its bottom. It was more than 500 feet across the chasm.

Stumbling upon the canyon in 1853, Lieutenant Whipple confessed his surprise and termed a descent to the “thread-like rill of water” far below to be “impossible.” But he did conclude that “for a railroad it could be bridged and the banks would furnish plenty of stone for the purpose.” Whipple and many other Arizona travelers bypassed the canyon by circling to the north, but the Atlantic and Pacific would take Whipple’s advice and bridge it directly.

The rails of the Atlantic and Pacific reached the rim at Cañon Diablo on December 19, 1881. Having long anticipated this obstacle, the railroad had a rough and rowdy construction camp named Cañon Diablo going full blast near the east rim. Variously described as meaner than Tombstone and deadlier than Dodge City, the motley collection of windswept tents and rough buildings was home to 240 men working the bridge site and a bevy of prostitutes, gamblers, and barkeeps working the men.

John M. Price and Co. had the primary construction contract for the bridge crossing, and its first task was to blast and excavate platforms in the canyon walls and along the streambed to hold masonry pedestals for the support towers. In addition, one large stone abutment was constructed on each rim.

The Central Bridge Works of Buffalo, New York, prefabricated the bridge itself at a reported cost of $250,000. It was shipped to the site in pieces in some twenty railcars. Eleven separate spans—two of 100 feet in length, two of 30 feet, and seven of 40 feet—were fastened together and supported by ten sets of tower legs and the abutments on the rims. When completed, the narrow, spindly structure was 222 feet above the canyon floor and 560 feet long.

But as the final sections were put into place, they proved to be several feet short. Somehow, someone had measured incorrectly, or the excavation for the abutments on the rims had inadvertently widened the distance. Modifications were hurriedly made.

Meanwhile, grading crews leapfrogged ahead to work on the roadbed to the west. Finally, on July 1, 1882, the first train inched across the narrow structure under operating rules that required a maximum speed of four miles an hour, and the Cañon Diablo bridge was officially certified. At the time, it was easily the most impressive bridge structure on the combined Santa Fe–Atlantic and Pacific line between Kansas City and the Colorado River.10

During the construction pause at Cañon Diablo, the railhead halted at Winslow. A January 1882 visitor remarked, “the town at present consists of a row of tents about one-fourth of a mile in extent.” But that was to change quickly because Winslow was slated to become a division point on the line. Service buildings, yards, and a roundhouse were built in short order.

Of the major towns along the Atlantic and Pacific route through Arizona, all except Flagstaff and Williams were named for men somehow associated with the railroad. Edward Winslow was president of the Frisco and vice president of the Atlantic and Pacific; Lewis Kingman and H. R. Holbrook were surveyors and construction engineers (the town of Holbrook was originally called Horsehead Crossing); and Joseph Seligman was a prominent Frisco stockholder and financier.

The construction snafu at Cañon Diablo had also given Price and Co. time to complete a second major bridge just 5 miles to the west at Cañon Padre. Not quite as spectacular as the structure at Cañon Diablo, the bridge at Cañon Padre was only 230 feet long. Its measurements had been precise, and once track was laid across Cañon Diablo, tracklayers spiked their way across without a pause.

Up ahead at the base of the San Francisco Peaks was the booming lumber town of Flagstaff, already boasting one hundred houses. Across the dry mesas of northern Arizona, the San Francisco Peaks were a welcome oasis of green and a ready source of ponderosa pine for ties and lumber. The first train steamed into Flagstaff on August 1, 1882.11

All this construction was satisfying to the directors of the Atlantic and Pacific’s parent organizations. As expected, local traffic along the expanding 35th parallel route was still weak, but westward lay the gateway to California. Expansion westward had become the mantra of William Barstow Strong, who became president of the Santa Fe in 1881, just as assuredly as it had been J. Edgar Thomson’s charge on the Pennsylvania three decades earlier.

Strong recognized that “in the United States … the power of a Railroad to protect and increase its business depends upon its length, and the extent of the territory it can touch.” Pausing at the Colorado River while westbound was really no more of an option for the Atlantic and Pacific than halting at the Colorado while eastbound had been for Huntington and the Southern Pacific several years earlier.

So, quite logically, Strong championed continued expansion westward into California. At their December 1881 Atlantic and Pacific board of directors meeting, the representatives of the Santa Fe and the Frisco jointly agreed to raise an additional $16.5 million. A small portion was to be used to extend the Vinita branch through Indian Territory, but the lion’s share was to finance construction from the Colorado River crossing at Needles all the way to San Francisco.

A solicitation circular was distributed to this effect and met with initial success. Then, in February 1882, Strong and the Santa Fe were unexpectedly notified by their equal partner in the venture that the Frisco was not going to raise its one-half share. “Owing to changes going on in the ownership of the stock of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad Company,” it was suspending all sales of the new issue of securities. It didn’t take long to smell a rat. In fact, this time, from the Santa Fe’s perspective, there were two rats, and they were acting in concert.12

Fresh from their agreement in West Texas, Collis P. Huntington and Jay Gould had decided that being allies wasn’t so bad. The two titans momentarily found great commonality of purpose in joining forces to oppose the extension of the Santa Fe via the Atlantic and Pacific. Not only would the Santa Fe’s 35th parallel line strike directly to Huntington’s California border but also its eastern transcontinental traffic and the proposed Vinita expansion were threats to Gould’s Texas and Pacific and his budding Missouri Pacific system.

From the New York banking firm of J. and W. Seligman and Company, of which Gould had been a client since the late 1860s, Huntington and Gould jointly bought a controlling interest in the stock of the Frisco. Apparently Huntington had taken to heart the advice his father is supposed to have given him: “Do not be afraid to do business with a rascal, only watch him; but avoid a fool …”

Controlling the Frisco, Huntington and Gould now owned half interest in the Atlantic and Pacific as well. The irony was that Joseph Seligman of Seligman and Company had championed the Santa Fe–Frisco alliance and expansion, but his recent death had given his brothers the opportunity to dispose of what they felt was an overly large investment in the 35th parallel route. Frisco president Edward Winslow balked at the sale, but the surviving Seligmans made it, at least in part because of past loyalties “to Gould as a client.”13

This deft maneuver left Strong and his Santa Fe directors decidedly embarrassed. They had gone to great pains to promote the Atlantic and Pacific’s construction and tout their strategic alliance with the Frisco. Suddenly, Santa Fe shareholders found themselves equal partners with Huntington and Gould in the Atlantic and Pacific, but partners with very different agendas.

When the Atlantic and Pacific’s board of directors next convened, the newcomers—Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Jay Gould, and Gould’s close associate, Russell Sage—sat down across the table from William Barstow Strong and the Santa Fe directors. The former group wanted to halt the Atlantic and Pacific at the Colorado River; the latter, to continue on to San Francisco as planned.

In public, Strong tried to put the best possible face on the new relationship. The Santa Fe president was quoted in the New York Times as saying that relations with Gould would be harmonious and that the new blood at the Frisco might even prove a positive advantage to his road. Offhandedly, Strong professed it “a matter of indifference to the Atchison who controls the San Francisco Road.”

A week later, Strong received a letter written personally by Jay Gould that left no doubt about who controlled the Frisco, as well as the immediate fate of the Atlantic and Pacific. “Mr. Huntington today informs me that he has decided to extend the Southern Pacific from Mohave to the Colorado River to connect with the Atlantic and Pacific,” Gould wrote.

Gould claimed that “under other circumstances, I might think it desirable to extend the A & P to Mohave or even to San Francisco,” but he saw no reason to “antagonize” the Southern Pacific when it was in “our interest to tie them up to our new line in the way suggested.”

“My interests lie in working in harmony with both the Southern and the Atchison Companies,” Gould told Strong, “and I think before any further steps are taken in issuing securities we should have a meeting and come to an equitable harmonious adjustment.…” Then Gould penned a much shorter note to Huntington: “Enclosed I hand you copy of letter written to Wm. Strong as per our conversation today.” The rats were indeed working together.14

Strong’s written response was equally cordial and, perhaps, equally disingenuous. “Your desire to secure harmony is appreciated,” Strong replied to Gould, adding “that from the day you took charge of the Union Pacific Railroad to the present, whenever and wherever your interests and the interests of this Company have come in conflict, all differences have been arranged with a spirit of fairness.”

Strong went on to delay the Huntington-Gould victory by pleading that he was “without official notice from the St. L. & S.F. that any change in the original plan is desired” and that he would refer Gould’s letter to his board. But the outcome was as certain as the bold scrawl of Gould’s handwriting.15

One New York financial paper—quite possibly encouraged in its perspective by the Santa Fe’s investors—later went so far as to praise the Boston crowd’s “sagacity and good sense” in not pursuing its own purchase of the Frisco before Gould and Huntington had done so.

While an independent line to the Pacific was “a pleasing idea,” the Commercial and Financial Chronicle mused, it was far better “to discriminate and draw the line between ventures of a dubious or not very promising character and those offering a fair measure of success, that, is the true test …”16

But the ultimate test, as Strong well knew, was in reaching the Pacific. Strong and his Santa Fe directors, however, were quite willing to be patient in achieving that goal. They might have gotten into a cutthroat battle with Huntington and Gould that likely would have left the Santa Fe exhausted and still without a Pacific outlet. Instead Strong took a chapter from the Huntington-Gould agreement at Sierra Blanca. Why fight one’s competitors if you could work with them to your own advantage?

When at the first opportunity Huntington formally proposed to the newly comprised Atlantic and Pacific board of directors that the Southern Pacific would meet the Atlantic and Pacific at Needles, Strong accepted the proposition without argument.

He concluded an agreement with Huntington and Gould that earmarked 25 percent of the Southern Pacific’s gross revenues on through business over the Atlantic and Pacific to the payment of the interest on the latter’s bonds, effectively helping to pay for the construction of the line. The two roads further agreed to expedite their construction and meet at Needles as soon as possible—the Southern Pacific extending a line eastward from Mojave and the Atlantic and Pacific completing its 35th parallel route west of Albuquerque.

In addition, the Atlantic and Pacific retained whatever rights it might have to build through California. But when Strong looked at the numbers, what was the rush? It had been projected to cost the Atlantic and Pacific at least $10 million to build from Needles to San Francisco. If, through its interest in the railroad, the Santa Fe could gain access to the entire Southern Pacific system without additional capital expense, the Atlantic and Pacific and the Santa Fe could save millions of dollars to use in improving their existing lines.

That is exactly what Strong set about doing throughout the remainder of 1882 and into 1883 as the two roads converged on Needles. Even Huntington had become envious of the financial condition of the Santa Fe. The railroad had “strong backers in Boston,” Charley Crocker acknowledged to Huntington, “[who] do not seem to want for money.” Part of the reason, of course, was that unlike many railroads, the Santa Fe was making money for its investors by means of steady but conservative expansion.

At the close of 1878—the year of the fight for Raton Pass and the opening blows in the Royal Gorge—the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe owned, leased, and operated 868 miles of track. It had net earnings of $2 million on gross earnings of $4 million. That left $2 million to service debt and reward shareholders with dividends. But just four years later, at the close of 1882—before completing the line to Needles—those numbers had more than tripled to 2,620 miles of track and net earnings of $6.5 million on gross earnings of $14.8 million.17

If nothing else, these numbers evidence the conservative financial leadership under Thomas Nickerson and William Barstow Strong that was to become a hallmark of the Santa Fe. Strong had big plans to increase those numbers much more, but for the moment in 1882, it served his long-term purposes to agree to meet Huntington at the Colorado River at Needles. After all, why do battle when one could achieve half the plum peacefully and ponder acquiring the other half at a later date?

So, the corporate shell of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, with the solid financial backing of both the Santa Fe and the Frisco, continued to build westward from Flagstaff in the summer of 1882. By September 1, the railhead had reached Williams—a bustling settlement named for mountain man and trapper “Old Bill” Williams. Land speculators anticipated the railroad’s advance, and their optimism was rewarded when Williams was initially made a division point.

West of Williams, the terrain got tougher again. The line dropped 2, 000 feet in elevation along a 3 percent grade to reach Ash Fork. The chief difficulty was in Johnson Canyon. Here workers were forced to blast two 150-foot cuts and a 328-foot tunnel through hardened lava flows.

It was dangerous work. On one hot summer day, two and one-half tons of powder were tamped into drill holes in preparation for the usual blast. Tamping with a copper or bronze rod was the correct procedure, but someone picked up an iron bar by mistake. It struck the hard rock with a spark that ignited the powder and caused a premature explosion. Six workers were killed and another three seriously injured. A young boy riding nearby in a mule cart became a seventh victim. The cart was totally demolished, but somehow the mule escaped unharmed.

J. T. Simms was the tunnel contractor, and he worked crews from both ends. Once completed in the spring of 1882, the Johnson Canyon Tunnel was a work of art. Because of loose rock, the tunnel was lined with stonework retaining walls topped with sections of boilerplate that arched across the roof.

The Santa Fe continued to use this tunnel until 1959. The fact that it was the only tunnel on the Santa Fe line between Cajon Pass and Raton Pass is a testament to the less mountainous terrain of the 35th parallel route when compared to lines in the Rockies or Sierras. (The Crookton Cutoff on the main line now bypasses this entire section of Johnson Canyon and has reduced grades to about 1 percent.)

Once the Johnson Canyon Tunnel and two nearby viaducts across arroyos were ready for rails, the tracklayers quickly pushed westward to Seligman, which eventually replaced Williams as the division point. Beyond Seligman lay Chino Wash, a normally dry expanse of arroyos that had the tendency to fill with raging flash floods when the rains of July and August dumped moisture from the south onto the rocky terrain.

Construction crews had already learned the lesson of the infamous summer monsoons of the Arizona desert the hard way. Flash floods and high water destroyed portions of the Southern Pacific’s new line across Cienega Wash, east of Tucson, in the summer of 1880. The Atlantic and Pacific experienced similar problems and was forced to rebuild sections of roadbed around Holbrook the following year. Finally getting wise to nature’s vagaries, the Atlantic and Pacific opted to construct a 600-foot iron viaduct across the usually dry flats of Chino Wash.

From there the line headed northwest to a more reliable and less tumultuous source of water. Near orchards that the Hualapai Indians cultivated, Peach Springs gushed out a reliable supply. Crews constructed a 50,000-gallon water tank there, and because of the reliability of water, the little oasis became a place of importance to the railroad. Major sidetracks and a six-bay roundhouse were also installed. Later, a generation of Route 66 travelers found similar respite at Peach Springs.

By now it was March 1883, and Strong and his Santa Fe associates were anxious to beat the Southern Pacific to Needles. Yes, they had Huntington’s word that he would meet them there and not build into Arizona, but the Boston crowd well remembered the Southern Pacific’s charge into Yuma six years earlier. They urged their contractors onward, and crews put down from 2 to 2.5 miles of track per day. The line advanced so quickly that carpenters working on bridges were almost bowled out of the way as temporary shoo-fly tracks were thrown down on hastily piled debris around the permanent sites.

By the time the first train steamed into Kingman on March 27, 1883, the railhead had finally run itself out of rail. Tracklaying came to a halt for several weeks while more iron was rushed to the front. During the lull, all available carpenters were sent ahead to work on the Needles bridge. With them went 60-foot-long piles of fresh-cut pine from the San Francisco Peaks that were brought to Kingman by rail and then hauled by mule teams to the crossing site.18

Today the railroad and Interstate 40 cross the Colorado River within yards of each other about a dozen miles south of Needles at Topock, Arizona, where the river channel narrows. But in 1883, the surveyed line stayed on the east side of the river and ran north before crossing the river directly into what became the town of Needles.

Here the riverbed was very wide, with many braided channels. Long before the Colorado was harnessed by a succession of dams, spring floods—these caused by annual snowmelt high in the Rockies and not the summer monsoons—swept a muddy, brown torrent down the river. That’s exactly what happened at the bridge site in June 1883 as workers attempted to erect a 1,700-foot trestle.

Meanwhile, Southern Pacific crews were pushing eastward across California’s Mojave Desert. Truth be told, Huntington was in just as much of a hurry to reach the Colorado River at Needles as Strong was. The question of the Santa Fe extending into California appeared to be momentarily resolved, but Huntington was taking no chances. Huntington didn’t intend to force his way across this bridge, but he certainly wasn’t going to permit the Santa Fe much of a toehold on the western bank.

So, east from Mojave, the Southern Pacific crews raced at breakneck speed. Technically, it was Huntington and Stanford’s Pacific Improvement Company doing the work, and its ranks were again filled with veteran Chinese laborers. The site of Barstow, California, was only an empty valley—a town would not be founded there until some years later. From there east to the Colorado River, the line snaked through 150 miles of desert mountain ranges, crested 2,770-foot Mountain Springs Summit, and descended to the Colorado at Needles.

The flurry of construction was at times as haphazard as that on the Atlantic and Pacific, but when the Southern Pacific laid rails into Needles, the Atlantic and Pacific crews were still struggling to complete the bridge. This time the agreed-upon boundary at the river would stand.

Finally, on August 3, 1883, Atlantic and Pacific tracklayers spiked rails across the long trestle and five days later joined those of the Southern Pacific. The 35th parallel route west from Albuquerque was complete, but more important, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe had become a critical link in a transcontinental at last.

The line wasn’t under one management, let alone one ownership, but it was now possible to travel by rail from St. Louis to San Francisco along a route generally free from the blizzards that routinely plagued the Union Pacific’s route. By the fall of 1883, one could board a Pullman sleeper in St. Louis and travel west to Halstead on the Frisco, then continue to Albuquerque on the Santa Fe, to Needles on the Atlantic and Pacific, and finally arrive in San Francisco on the Southern Pacific.

The 574 miles between Albuquerque and Needles alone required twenty-four hours via what was unabashedly billed as “express service,” but in time, the gentle grades, moderate climate, and beeline path of this southern route would make it the crux of America’s greatest transcontinental line.19

At the time, William Barstow Strong and his backers did not pause to celebrate. No matter which way they looked—from Deming or from Needles—they were still hostage to the whims of Collis P. Huntington and the Southern Pacific. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe had become a transcontinental link, but the battle for California remained to be fought.

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