Modern history


Learning the Rails

Leipsic, Delaware, was an unlikely place for a mountain railroader to be born, but Quaker roots ran deep there and nurtured in the townspeople an inner strength and quiet self-assurance. In 1836, at Kinsale Farm on the outskirts of town, Matilda Jackson Palmer gave birth to her first son, who was christened William Jackson—a good Quaker name matched with her own maiden name.

When William Jackson Palmer was five, his family moved to what were then the outskirts of Philadelphia. In 1840 greater Philadelphia was the second largest urban area in the country and no stranger to the acrimonious abolitionist debates already percolating throughout the North. The Palmers’ circle of friends included many ardent abolitionists, among them Charles Ellet, Jr., one of the most accomplished civil engineers of the day.

In 1853 Ellet’s work as chief engineer of the Hempfield Railroad got young Palmer his first job, that of a rod man on a surveying party locating the line. Later gobbled up by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Hempfield was being built in southwestern Pennsylvania to serve that region’s developing coal mines.

“Nothing stops us,” Palmer reported to a boyhood friend, “for a railroad line must be a straight one … it cannot avoid a hill or go round a pond or choose its own walking. It must tramp right over the one and ford the other and walk by the points of the compass.”1

Palmer’s apprenticeship on the Hempfield Railroad lasted two years. In the spring of 1855, when he was eighteen, his mother’s brother, Frank H. Jackson, appears to have been his chief sponsor in loaning funds and arranging a trip to England and the Continent. Palmer’s letters of introduction included one from J. Edgar Thomson of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The chief engineer of the London and North Western Railway was a large shareholder of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and, thanks to Thomson’s letter, he gave Palmer the freedom of the road. The young man made the most of it, “spending the time principally on the locomotives, and in visiting towns and famous places along the line.”

By the time Palmer returned to the United States in June 1856, the satisfaction of railroading that he had first experienced on the Hempfield was thick in his blood. After a brief stint with the Westmoreland Coal Company, twenty-one-year-old William Jackson Palmer went to work for J. Edgar Thomson as his confidential secretary at the then generous salary of $900 a year.2

If one sought a mentor in building fledgling railroad systems, it would have been difficult if not impossible to find one more astute than J. Edgar Thomson. Born in 1808 in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, Thomson learned engineering from his father, a civil engineer who counted among his credits work on the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal.

Early on, young Thomson showed a genius for planning and an eager curiosity about anything new. Through his father’s influence, he cut his teeth on the preliminary surveys for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad and by the age of twenty-two was in charge of locating the line of the Camden and Amboy Railroad across New Jersey. After more formal civil and mechanical engineering studies in Great Britain, Thomson became chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad, which proposed to build west across Georgia.

Clearly seeing the future, Thomson pointed the railroad toward the isolated, upland cotton country in the northern part of the state. The tiny town of Thomson just west of Augusta was named for him, but better known is the town site that he laid out as the western terminus of the Georgia Railroad. It became the transportation hub of the inland Deep South and retained the name that Thomson gave it: Atlanta.3

Meanwhile, Philadelphia was determined to retain its position as the commercial hub of the mid-Atlantic states. Between 1830 and 1835, more railroad construction was undertaken in Pennsylvania than in any other state. By and large, this construction was in short lines that linked would-be metropolises, without much thought to a unified statewide system.

This provincial planning began to change when the Pennsylvania Railroad was incorporated on April 13, 1846. The choice of a chief engineer was easy, and J. Edgar Thomson returned north to assume responsibility for the railroad’s construction and direction. No matter how daunting the terrain or how queasy the financiers, Thomson came up with a simple refrain: Build west, build west, build west.

On September 1, 1849, the Pennsylvania Railroad inaugurated service on its first section between Harrisburg and Lewistown, 60 miles to the west. A year later, Thomson had succeeded in pushing the line a similar distance west to Hollidaysburg—soon to be dwarfed by Altoona. There it connected with the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

To Thomson, the moves on the chessboard were clear. He was determined to complete a unified system of railroads between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and in the process thwart the rival Baltimore and Ohio to the south and the New York Central to the north in a race for the Ohio River country and, in time, Chicago itself.

When Thomson found his vision of a “great national enterprise” at odds with more parochial views of a road “built by the business community for the benefit of trade,” it was Thomson who prevailed. The shareholders of the Pennsylvania Railroad elected a slate of directors supportive of Thomson, and they unanimously elected him to the Pennsylvania’s presidency, a post he would hold for the next twenty-two years.

By the time William Jackson Palmer came under Thomson’s tutelage, the Pennsylvania was beginning to gobble up little branch lines with what would become an insatiable appetite. On July 18, 1858, a Pennsylvania Railroad train rode its own tracks all the way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.4

Another Thomson protégé in the thick of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s expansion was Thomas A. Scott. Born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in 1823, Scott was the son of a tavern keeper at a stagecoach stop. Young Scott worked in country stores and then got a clerkship in the office of the collector of tolls for the state’s system of public roads and canals. In 1850 he went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a station agent at Hollidaysburg.

In the following decade, Scott rose quickly through the corporate ranks. He was soon in charge of the Allegheny Portage Railroad segment and the western division of the state canal. When Pennsylvania Railroad tracks were completed to Pittsburgh, Scott became general superintendent of the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh line. In 1860 Thomson tapped him to be vice president of the company.

Thomson himself was rather humorless and reserved. He cast the perfect image of a conservative and thoughtful corporate leader, but when it came to lobbying legislators or putting an exuberant public face on plans for expansion, Scott was the man to carry the flag. “Quickwitted, dapper, handsome, and well-met,” Scott was perfect in the role of Thomson’s alter ego. Much later, when Scott had arguably become a more powerful rail baron than his mentor, he would emulate Thomson’s style and prefer to play a shadowy role while pulling strings through subordinates.

One of the more important lessons that Scott learned from Thomson—other than Thomson’s mantra of “Build west”—was the business principle that “the best investment a thriving railroad can make of its operating profits is in itself, and not in large dividends.” At the time, many businessmen viewed the reinvestment of profits as a rather radical step that hurt their pocketbooks, but Thomson took the longer view. Part of Scott’s responsibility was to double-track heavy traffic sections of the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh main line even before it was completed to Pittsburgh.5

•    •    •

But J. Edgar Thomson, Thomas A. Scott, and William Jackson Palmer were not the only men learning the rails in Pennsylvania. Cyrus K. Holliday was born in 1826 in Carlisle, the youngest of seven children. He graduated from the Methodist enclave of Allegheny College in Meadville in 1852, expecting to become a lawyer. One of his first tasks was to prepare the incorporation papers for a branch line railroad near Meadville. Taking an equity interest in lieu of a fee, Holliday reportedly realized a profit of $20,000—a significant sum in those days—when the little line was acquired by outside interests.

Holliday resolved to look west for a place to invest his new fortune, and he made a tour of Cleveland, Chicago, and St. Louis before taking a steamboat up the Missouri River to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory. By the end of 1854, he had purchased a few shares in the Lawrence Town Company, a real estate promotion to develop the town of Lawrence, but he was already looking farther west.

On New Year’s Eve 1854, Holliday wrote to his wife, Mary, back in Meadville, that he had been elected president of the city association of the Topeka Land Company. Assuming the persona of an old-timer, the twenty-eight-year-old asserted to his recent bride, “You Pennsylvania people would be greatly surprised could you have a view of us as we find ourselves situated in this new territory.”

Holliday confessed that he had been wearing the same shirt for two weeks and “scarcely know when I will get a clean one.” But he was sold on Kansas, and he told Mary, “I would not exchange Kansas and its dirty shirt for Pennsylvania with all its elegance and refinement.” Holliday devotedly wrote hundreds of letters to Mary until she eventually joined him in Topeka.

Town promotion, abolitionist politics, and a quest to make Topeka the territorial capital consumed the next few years. But railroad plans were afoot here, too, and Holliday, no doubt inspired by his early success in Pennsylvania, became convinced that a railroad linking Topeka with Atchison on the Missouri River was the key to the town’s success.

In late January 1859, Holliday was in Lawrence as a member of the territorial legislature when he scribbled out a charter for the Atchison and Topeka Railroad. Well aware of wider domains, Holliday provided for its westward extension beyond Topeka in the direction of Santa Fe. The legislature approved the charter, and the territorial governor signed it on the last day of the blissfully short legislative session, February 11, 1859.

But these were tough years for Kansas. A dreadful drought and open warfare between abolitionists and slaveholders made Kansas bleed. Many settlers simply packed up and headed back east with signs proclaiming, “In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted.”

Holliday persevered through these maelstroms, however, and finally, in September 1860, accompanied by future senator Edmund G. Ross and two others, he rode in a buggy from Topeka to Atchison for the organizational meeting of the Atchison and Topeka Railroad. Thirteen directors, many of them the future leaders of the state of Kansas, each subscribed $4,000 in stock. Fortunately for most, only 10 percent was to be paid immediately. Some of these would-be rail barons were so strapped for cash that Holliday elected to ford the Kansas River en route to Atchison rather than pay the ferry fee. It would be a while before iron rails crossed the Kansas prairies. 6

Far to the west of Kansas, there was another would-be rail baron getting his first taste of the business. Collis P. Huntington was born in 1821 in Connecticut. The sixth of nine children, he left home early and wandered rather aimlessly around the East as the proverbial Yankee peddler. But the tall, broad-shouldered lad also showed his business acumen by routinely buying defaulted notes at a heavy discount. The creditor merchants were glad to get a few cents on the dollar, and Huntington frequently made money when he chanced upon the debtor in the course of his travels.

Shortly after his twenty-first birthday, Huntington settled in Oneonta, New York, and went to work for his older brother, Solon, in his general store. By 1844, the brothers were partners, and Collis purchased a little house for his new bride, Elizabeth Stoddard. Such domestic tranquility was interrupted early in 1849 when news of gold discoveries in California excited the town. Collis joined an eager group of Oneonta men and headed west, intending from the start to open a branch of the Huntington store and make his money from trade with the miners and not directly from the hills.

Anxious to get a jump on the hordes, the Oneonta group opted for the expensive passage across the Isthmus of Panama. Among the passengers on the paddle wheel steamer Crescent City outbound from New York was Jessie Benton Frémont, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton and wife of explorer John C. Frémont. The only woman on board besides her six-year-old daughter and her maid, Jessie was on her way to California to rendezvous with Frémont, who, unbeknownst to her, had been delayed by his wintry ordeal in the San Juan Mountains.

There is no record that the glamorous Jessie exchanged even so much as a glance with the burly Collis, who was ensconced in steerage, but Huntington would always be among the controversial explorer’s admirers. Decades later, when Huntington’s railroad empire spanned many of the passes that Frémont had mapped, Huntington would gallantly assist the Frémonts on another journey.

As it was, Jessie’s standing got her first-class treatment in Panama and better connections for the voyage up the West Coast. Huntington and his fellow Oneonta residents languished amidst assorted tropical fevers and dysentery. Finally, an overloaded Dutch bark, hastily converted from a coal carrier to a transport, took them north to San Francisco after a squalid 102 days at sea. A month later, in September 1849, Huntington arrived in the booming little town of Sacramento.

The first year was tough. Huntington was plagued by illness, interminable mud, and exorbitant freight costs. By the following fall, he was eastward bound, but not to turn tail and run. After a respite in Oneonta, he packed up Elizabeth, ordered more goods from wholesalers in New York, and once more headed for California via Panama. Upon hearing of the horrors of Collis’s first year in Sacramento, Elizabeth had been skeptical, but even she pronounced the jungle passage “a fine trip.”

But Sacramento was little improved, and the hardware business was momentarily suffering from a glut of merchandise as early placer operations in the gold fields ebbed. Huntington nonetheless managed to build a brick residence for Elizabeth, only to suffer its loss in a November 1852 fire that leveled much of downtown Sacramento.

Out of the ashes eventually came a partnership with the merchant next door, who had also suffered a loss and quickly rebuilt. The neighbor’s name was Mark Hopkins and he too was a New Yorker. Eight years Huntington’s elder, Hopkins was the antithesis of Huntington physically—reed thin, perhaps even scrawny—but Hopkins possessed an even sharper financial mind than did Huntington. They were a pair, and the firm of Huntington-Hopkins Hardware, which they decided to evolve from general merchandise into heavy equipment, would be just the beginning.

Among the other business ventures in Sacramento that Huntington and Hopkins watched with interest was the budding Sacramento Valley Railroad Company. The company harnessed the energies of a young engineer named Theodore Judah and in just two years managed to build from the wharves of Sacramento up the American River toward Folsom, California.

Rail service commenced on February 22, 1856, but Judah was soon dreaming of destinations beyond the Sierra Nevada foothills. On his own, he incorporated the California Central Railroad and announced that he had found a pass through the mountains that would allow it to reach Nevada—perhaps run even farther east. When San Francisco financiers showed little interest in the venture, Judah turned to Sacramento’s merchants in hopes of a more favorable response.

Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins listened to Judah’s sales pitch, by one version of the story, on the second floor of Huntington-Hopkins Hardware. Two other merchants in attendance were Charles Crocker, who sold dry goods, and Leland Stanford, whose firm specialized in groceries. The four had already been working together in Republican Party politics; why not a railroad? Before the meeting broke up, Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker, and Stanford were among those agreeing to pay their share of a preliminary survey to validate Judah’s proposition.7

Meanwhile, “confidential secretary” hardly begins to explain the nature of William Jackson Palmer’s work for J. Edgar Thomson. At five foot nine, with reddish brown hair and a dapper mustache, Palmer was slight of frame and somewhat wiry. He quickly became Thomson’s trusted aide and inveterate troubleshooter, overseeing a number of special assignments, including the Pennsylvania Railroad’s transition from wood to coal as a fuel source for its locomotives.

Palmer built on his experiences in Great Britain and with Westmoreland Coal, and he readily experimented with this new way to increase the Pennsylvania’s fuel efficiency. “The experiment made during the year 1859 with coal-burning engines,” Thomson wrote in the railroad’s annual report, “has demonstrated the entire practicability of substituting bituminous coal as fuel for locomotives instead of wood, providing as it does, a much more reliable article at a greatly reduced cost. In a short time all passenger trains on this road will be moved with coal-burning engines, at a saving in cost of fuel of about 50 percent.”8

This transition to coal meant that as the Pennsylvania and other railroads pushed westward, they sought to serve areas with good coal deposits—both for their own locomotive needs and as a profitable commodity to be shipped over their developing lines to other markets.

In Thomson’s behalf, Palmer made his first trip west in 1859—if only to Chicago and St. Louis. “I find the name of J. Edgar Thomson a passport wherever I go,” Palmer wrote his parents, “and believe, with his letter of credit, I could travel from Maine to Texas without the unpleasant necessity of putting my hand in my pocket for the pewter.”9

But even as the network of the Pennsylvania Railroad spread toward Chicago, J. Edgar Thomson was looking farther west. Palmer probably had a hand in a letter that Thomson drafted but for some reason never sent, urging Congress to get behind a unified Pacific Railroad plan. The intended addressee or addressees is not entirely clear, but it appears to have been Georgia congressman Alexander Stephens, with whom Thomson was probably well acquainted from his days on the Georgia Railroad.

“A railway to connect the valley of the Mississippi with the Pacific Ocean, passing through the territory of the United States, must now be viewed by every thinking person as a great national necessity,” the draft began. “To secure the completion of such an enterprise within a reasonable period, the aid of the general government seems to me to be essential, and cannot be longer withheld, without a sacrifice of the best interests of the country.”

Recognizing the obvious, Thomson continued: “It is alleged that sectional interests prevent action at this session of Congress upon any particular route and that the credit of the Nation would scarcely be sufficient to compass the construction of all the lines that have been proposed.”

There was, however, a solution, Thomson maintained. “Fortunately for the early completion of this national thoroughfare,” there was a “narrow belt of country … so situated that any line traversing it, can with equal facility, accommodate the northern and southern sections of the Union”[underlined in original].

Thus did J. Edgar Thomson argue for a line between the 32nd and 35th parallels, essentially some combination of Lieutenant Whipple’s compromise route. “To ensure the early completion …” Thomson concluded, “a liberal capitalization of the pay for transporting the United States mails is all that is required.”10

What motivated Thomson to draft this in the first place is debatable. Perhaps he did so as a favor to Alexander Stephens. What caused him to have second thoughts and not send it is even more problematic. Perhaps Thomson looked at the map and saw the logical extension of the Pennsylvania Railroad and its connections straight west from Chicago and lost whatever enthusiasm he may have initially professed for a compromise southern route.

Whatever Thomson’s reasoning, by the following spring, Palmer was writing to his own contacts in behalf of the latest Pacific Railroad bills before Congress. “You can say to Mr. Thomson,” Charles Ellet, Jr., replied to Palmer, “that if he thinks my name or aid would serve to forward the work he has on hand, I will cheerfully contribute either …”

Ellet weighed in on the route question by noting, “my own prepossessions are in favor of the more southern of those two routes … though I think that there ought to be two, and that two roads will find support by the time they can be made.”11

But the success of even one transcontinental railroad, let alone two, was still highly in question. “Remember boys,” John Butterfield had admonished his first drivers, “nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States mail!” But now a number of things threatened to do just that: escalating political acrimony, still struggling new technologies, and the gathering clouds of civil war.

“We think ourselves fast,” Palmer wrote to a friend in March 1861, “but those to come after us, will rank us ‘slow old coaches,’ and wonder how we ever were satisfied to creep along at 30 miles an hour behind such lumbering old machines …”12 In time, the political uncertainties would be resolved and the technological frontiers pushed wildly with unbridled determination, but first there would have to be an interruption of war.

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