While Speaker Colfax’s entourage completed its grand tour of Denver and points west, William Jackson Palmer spent a few weeks luxuriating in the amenities of Newport, Rhode Island. He gave little thought to his decision to leave the army, and events quickly proved the wisdom of his choice. On May 1, 1865, there were 1,052,038 men under arms in the Union forces. Six months later, more than 800,000 had been mustered out, and there was no denying that the army had an abundance of brevet brigadiers.
But the influence of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry and the leadership skills that Palmer honed at its head would stay with him all his life. He would always be “General” Palmer, but railroading and not the army would be his first love. No doubt his patrons, J. Edgar Thomson and Thomas A. Scott, would have gladly accorded him a new role with the Pennsylvania Railroad, but Thomson and Scott were themselves looking west.
Palmer’s Newport interlude was cut short by a terse telegram from Scott. “Can you meet me here [Altoona, Pennsylvania] on Saturday next. I go west for several weeks on Monday next. When you come, make your arrangements to go to Missouri permanently.” Palmer promptly accompanied Scott to St. Louis and arrived there on August 6, 1865. Two days later, he headed west to Kansas to inspect the initial 41 miles of the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western Railroad.1
Few railroads changed their name as many times as did the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western. Originally incorporated in Kansas Territory in 1855, the railroad was a winner in the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, although the Mississippi and Missouri was accorded the main eastern terminus. For its part, the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western secured the right to build west to a junction with the Union Pacific at the 100th meridian—roughly the middle of Nebraska—and the same government subsidies and land grants for each mile of track laid that were awarded to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific.
In 1863 a group that included John C. Frémont gained control of the line. With thoughts of immediate political gain, they changed its name to the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division. This was a mouthful that had nothing to do with the original Union Pacific—except for sharing the plums of Congress’s bonds and land grants—but it was calculated to attract investors because of the confusing similarity of names.
When the 1862 act was amended in 1864, the Eastern Division’s land grants were also doubled, and it was given the right to link up with the Central Pacific if it could reach the 100th meridian before the Union Pacific. Prior congressional victories by the Iowa-Chicago axis aside, such a linkup would have tilted the proposed transcontinental back toward Kansas and Missouri.
Frémont’s chief partner in the venture was a boisterous self-promoter named Samuel Hallett. Without Frémont’s knowledge, Hallett unabashedly cancelled an existing construction contract, awarded the work to his own company, and then negotiated a series of corporate loans with which to pay himself. While Frémont fumed, Hallett’s new firm hastily laid track from Wyandotte (now Kansas City, Kansas) west to Lawrence and then asked the government for payment.
But this first section of track proved a shoddy piece of work. When the railroad’s chief engineer, Orlando A. Talcott, refused to certify the first 20 miles of track as complete and ready for the government subsidy, Hallett fired him. Not to be outdone, Talcott wrote directly to President Lincoln and claimed that Hallett’s substandard construction was “the biggest swindle yet”—a statement that would prove hyperbolic considering the railroad construction schemes to come.
Lincoln referred Talcott’s charge to his secretary of the interior, John P. Usher, a Kansan who was siding with Hallett in his feud with Frémont. Usher showed Talcott’s letter to Hallett, who was in Washington seeking payment. The contractor promptly wired his burly brother back in Kansas to find Talcott and “slap” him. Thomas Hallett took the order to the extreme and beat the bookish engineer senseless.
Talcott, who was partially crippled from a stroke, waited patiently for his revenge. On the morning of July 27, 1864, Samuel Hallett returned to Wyandotte. As he approached company headquarters, Talcott limped out from the cover of an alley and shot him in the back with a rifle. Hallett died within minutes, and Talcott fled west to Colorado. He eluded capture for some fifteen years, and when finally tried for the murder, he was acquitted by a sympathetic jury.
This left the Union Pacific, Eastern Division—née Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western—in shambles, both as to its corporate structure and its physical roadbed. John D. Perry, a banker from St. Louis who had made some of the loans to Hallett, sorted through the mess, bought out Frémont, and repudiated Hallett’s construction contract. The roadbed was put in working order, and trains began regular service between Wyandotte and Lawrence in December 1864.2
By the summer of 1865, as William Jackson Palmer inspected these first miles of track, the railhead of the original Union Pacific was still within sight of Omaha, 220 miles east of the dividing point of the 100th meridian. The Eastern Division’s railhead at Lawrence was about 260 miles east of the line. No wonder that the Union Pacific’s confusing namesake was quick to attract national attention.
It added to the confusion of names and the importance of reaching the 100th meridian that for a time the Union Pacific main line was considered to be only that segment west from the 100th meridian to the proposed junction with the Central Pacific. This was initially thought to be 150 miles east of the California-Nevada border—Huntington’s “Give me Nevada” compromise.
The Union Pacific branch line was that portion between the 100th meridian and Omaha. When Congress removed the 150-mile Nevada limit in an 1866 amendment, the Central Pacific was free to build east as far as it could. The Union Pacific was forced to race westward, not only to beat the Central Pacific to as much ground as possible but also to beat the Eastern Division to the 100th meridian and ensure itself the main line.
From the start, John D. Perry had no interest in the Eastern Division being merely the tail of the Union Pacific dog. There is no better evidence of this than the alliance he made with J. Edgar Thomson and Thomas A. Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott had watched and learned from Thomson’s consolidation of the Pennsylvania across the Keystone State during the 1850s. His own experiences with the Union war effort had further convinced him of the necessity of a transcontinental line under the control of one company. Thomson’s mantra, “Build west,” resounded anew.
A quick look at the map of the United States told the story. The Pennsylvania Railroad was already knocking at the gates of St. Louis through control of a number of subsidiaries. There were several Missouri lines that might be acquired to span that state between St. Louis and Kansas City. West from there, the Eastern Division promised a direct connection with the Central Pacific if it could beat the Union Pacific to the 100th meridian. Failing either that or coming to terms with Huntington and his Central Pacific cohorts, there was the lure of the independent continuation of the Eastern Division toward California.
To restart the Eastern Division, Thomson and Scott agreed to raise $1 million in eastern capital to match another $1 million that Perry was contributing from his St. Louis contacts and the value of the initial construction. The St. Louis parties thought “Scott drove a pretty hard bargain” by requiring an indemnity for his investors against any claims that might still arise from Hallett’s construction shenanigans. But that was only the beginning. By the time Scott concluded his negotiations with Perry, J. Edgar Thomson held the power to name the odd director to the Eastern Division’s board, otherwise equally split between westerners and easterners.
To look after their investment, Scott arranged for the appointment of William Jackson Palmer as the new treasurer of the Eastern Division. Quite suddenly, within a week of his arrival in Kansas, Palmer had become Thomson and Scott’s man on the ground in the West. For his part, the not quite twenty-nine-year-old seems to have understood his role perfectly.
“Young men without money can only make a fortune by connecting themselves with capitalists,” Palmer wrote his uncle shortly afterward. “The heaviest of these reside in the East where they can look after their own affairs. But the best place to invest capital is in the West. Eastern capitalists must therefore have representatives here to attend to their interests if they wish to invest heavily in the West.”3
Thomson and Scott’s representative that he was, Palmer keenly watched the Eastern Division come to life and sputter west from Lawrence. The railroad reached Topeka, another 20 miles farther, early in 1866. Topeka town father Cyrus K. Holliday no doubt celebrated, but his own railroad enterprise had yet to lay a single mile of track. By fall, the Eastern Division had completed its tracks another 60-some miles past Fort Riley to Junction City, as well as a spur from Lawrence to Leavenworth.
By the spring of 1867, the Eastern Division had reached Salina, Kansas, but it was still more than 100 miles shy of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific, spurred on by the specter of losing any race, had laid an exhausting 247 miles of track in just 182 working days and reached the 100th meridian in October 1866.4
So the Eastern Division’s race to beat the Union Pacific to the 100th meridian and build west to connect with the Central Pacific proved short lived. But by now it was clear to any knowledgeable observer that the West would be crossed by far more than just one transcontinental railroad. From the Eastern Division’s railhead at Salina, the railroad was confident of its route all the way west to Denver. If the Union Pacific now appeared to control its destiny north of Denver, Thomson, Scott, and Perry simply redoubled their interest in a transcontinental route of their own to the south of Denver through New Mexico and Arizona.
Those who thought to call John D. Perry shrewd would suggest that the Eastern Division’s destiny bent in that direction as early as 1864, when he chose to stake its line through western Kansas along the more southerly Smoky Hill drainage rather than the Republican River to the north. This may well have contributed to Thomson and Scott’s interest in the line.
In the spring of 1867, Thomson made a request of Perry. Presuming that few of the eastern directors would journey west for the annual meeting, Thomson nonetheless noted that the expanding company could use a vice president. He suggested William Jackson Palmer for the position and expressed “the personal knowledge which we of the East possess of him would make such a choice especially agreeable to us.” Just so Perry had no doubt that Thomson’s courteous suggestion was in fact a command, all of the controlling eastern directors signed the letter to “heartily concur in his views.”5
Once appointed, their new vice president was charged with the task of organizing a comprehensive survey of their transcontinental options. Palmer’s primary objective was “to ascertain the best general route for the extension of the company’s road from the end of the track … by a southern parallel, through New Mexico and Arizona, to the Pacific Ocean.” This general direction bespoke the obvious learned from at least four decades of Southwest travel. The initial objective must be Santa Fe and/or Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley and thence west via either the 35th or 32nd parallels.
Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple, of course, had been over much of the 35th parallel route in 1853 and reported positively on it, although without the benefit of detailed measurements. What Palmer thought of Jefferson Davis’s long-touted southern route along the 32nd parallel—particularly in light of his wartime pursuit of the Confederate president—would become clear only upon publication of his final report.
Early in July 1867, while Palmer was completing business in the East, the Eastern Division survey party left Fort Wallace, near present-day Sharon Springs and the Kansas-Colorado border. Santa Fe was the goal, and three major routes with a half dozen variations were to be explored.
The first followed the general corridor of the well-established Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail southwest across the Raton Mountains, past Fort Union, and on to Santa Fe from the south. A second route continued up the Arkansas to the Huerfano River, along its headwaters to Sangre de Cristo Pass, and into the upper Rio Grande Valley to reach Santa Fe from the north.
The third route followed the Arkansas through its Grand Canyon—later known as the Royal Gorge—to the north side of Poncha Pass, and then south across it to the upper Rio Grande Valley. This latter route was the longest of the three and at first glance appeared wildly circuitous. A closer look, however, showed its advantages in tapping any mineral potential in the Colorado Rockies and in securing a future transit between the headwaters of the Arkansas and Colorado rivers.
But for the moment, these Colorado considerations were minor, and the main attention focused on crossing the volcanic mesas of the Raton Mountains directly to Santa Fe. Raton Pass just south of Trinidad at the foot of Fishers Peak was the proven route of the Mountain Branch—perhaps a little steep for a railroad, but passable.
Thirty-five miles to the east was a second possibility: 7,079-foot Trinchera Pass. When General Palmer caught up with the survey at a camp on its northern approaches, some in the expedition were already singing its praises. An English investor and self-styled adventurer named Dr. William A. Bell called Trinchera Pass “by far the best natural highway across the range.” It had never been crossed with wagons, but there was “no doubt”—in Bell’s mind, at least—“that a very small outlay would make it, not only a shorter, but a better route … than that via Trinidad and Raton Pass.”
Lastly, there was Cimarron Pass at the eastern end of the range. It was lower than the others by almost a thousand feet and sat on a direct line from Kansas City to Albuquerque. Much of this route followed the ruts of the main Santa Fe Trail. But between the Arkansas River and Fort Union—as many Santa Fe–bound caravans could attest—this route traversed almost 300 miles of “dry and inferior country.”
Palmer worried that it “does not follow the line of settlements, and of mineral, arable and timber wealth,” but he conceded that if the Cimarron line was “not adopted at first, it must be built eventually, to economize the transportation of through passenger and freight traffic—including all that will originate west and south of Fort Union.”6
The next major stop was Santa Fe itself. “General Palmer held quite a levee here,” Dr. Bell reported. “His rooms were always crowded with men either interested in the railway or well acquainted with some portion of the country to the westward.” All possible information was obtained about the 32nd and 35th parallel routes, and, according to Bell, “the relative advantages seemed from the reports to be so evenly balanced” that Palmer decided to examine both in detail.
If Bell is a reliable source, Palmer initially favored Jefferson Davis’s assertion that “the decided preference” should go to the 32nd parallel. But having heard the local testimonials, he now wasn’t so sure. At Fort Craig, about 30 miles south of Socorro on the Rio Grande, Palmer split his survey into three divisions. Two were to continue south down the Rio Grande: one following the known route through Cookes Canyon and into the upper reaches of the Gila River, the other charged with finding any more direct cutoffs. Palmer went with the Third Division, which backtracked to Albuquerque and then struck westward along the 35th parallel.7
Dr. Bell joined the southern party exploring for cutoffs. This led him into the Mimbres Mountains north of Cookes Canyon at a passage that he named Palmer’s Pass. But the Burro Mountains farther west proved too steep for a railroad grade, and the cutoff party moved south. They joined the main party after crossing the Continental Divide on the broad plateau between present-day Deming and Lordsburg.
To the west, all acknowledged that the established emigrant trail through Apache Pass past Fort Bowie was too steep for rails. But to the north, between the twin summits of Dos Cabezas and Mount Graham, there was a wide depression that offered a gradual ascent on both sides. This was the key to getting into the drainage of the San Pedro River, a tributary of the Gila. Back in 1853, Lieutenant John Parke had prematurely named it Railroad Pass. Now Palmer’s survey confirmed the worth of Parke’s work.
From Railroad Pass, while the main survey worked west across the broad salt flats of the Sulphur Springs Valley, Dr. Bell elected to make a wide detour south into Sonora. Considering Palmer’s later exploits in building Mexican railroads, it is reasonable to assume that Bell had more than a passing interest in gaining “information as to the best way to reach the Port of Guaymas in the Californian Gulf.” One affable Englishman was likely to be far better received than a large party overweight with recently discharged Union officers.
So Dr. Bell trekked southward to Hermosillo and then on to Guaymas, commenting in his diary about everything from making tortillas to the influences of Moorish architecture. While this region was somewhat removed from the unrest of Mexico’s fight against its recent French invaders, Bell found its inhabitants in utter despair and poverty. Perhaps with a mind to more than just a railroad connection, Bell observed, “they seemed to me to look upon annexation to the United States as their destiny, and one to be hoped for with as little delay as possible.”
But Bell’s report to Palmer on railroad possibilities was not encouraging. If anything, it would confirm the general’s growing bias in favor of the 35th parallel route. Finding the harbor at Guaymas too small and too far up the Gulf of California for easy Pacific access, Bell came to the conclusion that whatever trade there might be in Sonora was best served by local railroads “radiating from the coast inland.” So the good doctor boarded a steamer and sailed north with plans to rejoin his companions.8
While Bell made this detour, the main party along the 32nd parallel followed the Gila westward, arriving at its confluence with the Colorado River opposite Fort Yuma. Here, Arizona City, described as “a very small place with a very big name,” was nonetheless acknowledged as “an excellent bridging point, the river being confined between rocky bluffs.” Those who gaze at the Colorado at Yuma today might doubt the claim that it was “472 feet wide, and from 12 to 37 feet deep, with a very rapid current,” but it then flowed unchecked to the sea.9
Meanwhile, General Palmer moved west from Albuquerque along the 35th parallel. His survey passed Inscription Rock (now El Morro National Monument), where in 1853 Lieutenant Whipple added his name to those of numerous Spanish travelers. Then it was west past the Pueblo of Zuni and into the mostly dry headwaters of the Little Colorado River.
Determined to avoid a line too high on the pine-covered slopes of the San Francisco Peaks, Palmer pushed ahead of his main group and traversed the upper canyons of the Verde River. Backtracking to take a second look, his party dropped into the canyon of Sycamore Creek. An ascent upstream looked impassable for his pack animals; downstream only slightly less so. Then the rattle of Apache muskets and a flurry of arrows made escape all the more necessary.
From the comparative safety of the cedars lining the canyon rim, the Apaches hollered threats and rolled rocks that resounded “like heavy ordnance.” Palmer got a little melodramatic when he recounted the fray later, writing that the cries of their largely unseen attackers called out, “This country belongs to us—the whole of it; and we do not want your people here, nor your soldiers, nor your railroad.”
Palmer led a detachment of the accompanying cavalry troop on foot up one side of the canyon in an attempt to outflank them. The Apache seemed more intent on harassment than frontal combat, and, miraculously, no one was hurt. But in the process, Palmer’s group got separated from the main force. When they finally rejoined the column the next day, Palmer learned that as the main force had slowly worked its way out of the canyon via a narrow and precipitous path, the general’s prized gray horse, Signor, had lost his footing and tumbled to his death.
After Sycamore Canyon, the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks didn’t look so bad. Rather than the tortuous canyons of the Verde, they promised gentle, rolling country and the added benefit of bountiful timber. “The grades up to this place are easy,” Palmer reported, “and the line runs for nearly 150 miles through a dense forest of fine tall pines, which will of themselves be a great advantage to the railroad in many ways.”10
Hugging the San Francisco Peaks had the effect of pointing the survey due west toward Fort Mojave on the Colorado River rather than a more southerly crossing near the mouth of the Bill Williams River (present-day Parker Dam), as Palmer had originally planned. But this proved fortunate. Their survey line crossed the Colorado 3 miles above the rocky spine of the Needles and proved it almost as good of a crossing of the Colorado as that surveyed at Yuma.
Then an interesting encounter occurred. Once again, Palmer had gone ahead in the vanguard. He aimed almost due west across the Mojave Desert toward Tehachapi Pass. But the expedition’s botanist, Charles C. Parry, met a man along the Colorado River who claimed to have traversed the Grand Canyon on a raft. This was James White. It was two years before John Wesley Powell’s epic passage, but Parry, and later both Palmer and Bell, were inclined to believe White.
Historians and Colorado River rats will forever debate the claim, but if nothing else, White’s story shed some light for Palmer on the terrain north of the 35th parallel. It also prompted him to contemplate Grand Canyon railroad routes. In his published report of the survey, Palmer was among the first to call what had previously been known as simply the “Big Canyon” by its much more superlative name.
“If the Grand Canyon of the Colorado,” Palmer theorized, “… should be ascertained to be narrow enough at the top to be spanned by a suspension bridge at any point on the Colorado Plateau … the temptation of a possible saving of 5,000 feet of rise and fall would warrant a reconnaissance westward in California, to ascertain if this point of crossing could be favorably connected with Tehachapi Pass.”
That statement wasn’t as outlandish as it now appears, because Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives, coming upriver from the Gulf of California in 1857, had reported the canyon “to be not over 50 yards wide at the bottom, with very precipitous walls.” Palmer, however, quickly went on to say what was the obvious: “The innumerable side cañons, of great depth, with which this plateau everywhere in the vicinity of the ‘Grand Cañon’ appears to be furrowed, might, in any event, render such a line impracticable.”11
From Tehachapi Pass, Palmer pushed on down the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco and rendezvoused with the irrepressible Dr. Bell. By now it was January 1868, and the general was anxious to return east and report his findings to his nominal superior, John D. Perry, and to those who held the real power, Thomson and Scott. But he had one important call to make first.
Months before, out on the Colorado plains just shy of Trinchera Pass, Palmer had bluntly written to Perry what had long been obvious when it came to the confusing name of their railroad. “We can never get along with the Eastern Division, it looks subordinate on the face of it, and leads to constant misunderstanding.” The replacement name that slowly came into usage, and that was officially changed in 1869, was far more descriptive as to both origin and planned destination. The ill-fitting Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, became the Kansas Pacific Railway.
That name and Palmer’s enthusiasm for a transcontinental route spoke volumes when the general paid a call in California on Judge E. B. Crocker, Charley’s older brother and nominally the fifth member of the Big Four. Hearing Palmer voice the Kansas Pacific’s transcontinental intentions, Judge Crocker suggested that a southern branch of the Central Pacific might agree to meet the Kansas line at some point on the California border. Palmer was quick to reply that the Kansas Pacific intended to build right on to San Francisco by itself. “I, of course,” Crocker reported to Huntington, “had no reply.”
While Huntington pondered this news, Palmer hurried east from Sacramento via the Central Pacific. He had not yet publicly committed to either the 35th or 32nd parallel, but his journey across the snowy Sierra Nevada must have convinced him that either was preferable to the line the Central Pacific was still building.
By the time Palmer arrived back at Fort Wallace, Kansas, on the morning of March 10, 1868, he had been on the trail eight months. In the meantime, the Kansas Pacific railhead, which he had left at Salina, had pushed 100 miles farther west and spawned the new towns of Ellsworth and Hayes, Kansas.12
While Palmer focused on the route west, it was these towns that provided the Kansas Pacific with much-needed revenue from the growing cattle trade. Texas longhorns were driven to Louisiana in small quantities before the Civil War, but in its aftermath, hundreds of herds with hundreds of thousands of cattle were driven north toward the meatpacking center of Chicago. The Kansas Pacific rails at Abilene, Kansas, welcomed the first herd up the Chisholm Trail in 1867. Abilene got most of the bad press for being a rowdy cow town, but Ellsworth and Hayes weren’t far behind.
When the full report of Palmer’s Kansas Pacific survey was published the following year, it acknowledged four “practicable and good general routes” from the Kansas Pacific’s growing main line to the vicinity of Albuquerque. Westward from Albuquerque and the Rio Grande, the choice was clearer, essentially Whipple’s 35th parallel modified by straightening the route in western Arizona and crossing the Sierras via Tehachapi Pass.
When Palmer finally said it publicly, he left no doubt. “The results along the thirty-fifth parallel proved to be of such a favorable character that, with its great advantage in distance and accessibility from nearly every section of the Union to start with, its claims have been found decidedly to outweigh those of the extreme southern line.”
Palmer trumpeted anew Whipple’s thesis that such a route might indeed please both northern and southern interests. The latter had not been thought too important of late—Jefferson Davis had only recently been released from a Union prison—but this would change as war wounds healed. Palmer also shared Bell’s view about the future of northern Mexico. Among his pleas for government assistance to the Kansas Pacific was the assertion that “the Government should give its assistance, because a railroad is the cheapest and most efficient means of defense to our southern border, until Mexico becomes a part of the United States.”13
The details of Palmer’s more immediate personal report to Perry and Scott can be surmised by the actions they took as Palmer returned east in March 1868. Perry had already been trying to obtain an additional land grant from Congress for the Kansas Pacific that would extend from Colorado to California. Learning of Palmer’s conversation with Judge Crocker and the general’s enthusiasm for the 35th parallel route, Perry—no doubt with Scott’s concurrence—decided that it was time to sit down with Collis P. Huntington and further divide up the continent.
Perry and Scott were keenly aware that Huntington’s support, or lack of it, was critical to any favorable land grants for the Kansas Pacific. Indeed, Judge Crocker’s report to Huntington of Palmer’s western visit only strengthened Huntington’s resolve to work behind the scenes to thwart any Kansas Pacific aid. He found willing allies in the Union Pacific who did not like the Kansas Pacific competing with it across the plains.
To change Huntington’s position, Perry offered the Central Pacific the California portion of any land grant the Kansas Pacific might acquire along the 35th parallel. Huntington bluntly refused, saying that the Central Pacific “would not think of it” and wanted no part of what “would only be a small feeder line to their road.” Instead he countered with a proposal to build the entire western half of the route between Colorado and the Pacific. If Perry wanted Huntington’s support, that was his price.
Huntington’s seemingly preposterous proposition—after all, under that scheme the Kansas Pacific would have gained little ground—may have been designed to lure in the other players. If so, it worked perfectly because several weeks later, on March 21, Perry again met with Huntington, this time in the company of Thomas A. Scott.
Scott candidly laid out the pieces of the Pennsylvania Railroad–Kansas Pacific transcontinental plan for Huntington. “Their proposition was that we come in with them and build the road under one organization,” Huntington reported to Judge Crocker. “I of course refused,” Huntington added, saying that he had already ruled out a branch line relationship and in any event “was not aware before that they had anything to give west of Denver.” That, of course, was a dig that the Kansas Pacific’s desired land grants west of Denver would not budge out of Congress without his support.
Huntington’s intransigence left Perry and Scott with little to negotiate. The meeting ended with them saying that they had to confer with their engineer (Palmer) who was due in Washington in a day or two. But then a few minutes later, Scott, whom Huntington described as “very sharp,” reappeared at Huntington’s door alone. If Huntington’s version is correct, Scott “said if I would give a certain party a small interest in our part of the line, he thought he could carry it with his people.” Presumably, Scott was alluding to J. Edgar Thomson or perhaps even himself as the one who could “carry” the deal with the Perry crowd.
Now Huntington really flaunted his power. Playing the likeable friend who was saddled with intractable partners, Huntington told Scott that he didn’t think that his California associates would agree to any dilution of control. Then Huntington may have held the door open just a crack and suggested that he might be able to offer a small portion of the construction proceeds.
This wasn’t what Scott was after, and he left Huntington a second time, asking him not to mention this subsequent meeting to anyone. If nothing else, Huntington, whose Central Pacific partners still had their hands full meeting the Union Pacific in Utah, had become interested in a second southern transcontinental line. By the end of March 1868, Huntington boasted to Mark Hopkins that before it was over, Scott’s crowd would “agree to what we want, which is: to have the line between, say Denver and San Francisco …”14
But when Huntington next called on Scott in Philadelphia, it was Scott’s turn to be firm. “Since General Palmer’s return, they have been very stiff,” Huntington told Hopkins. “I could do nothing with him,” Huntington continued with rare exasperation. By the time Huntington got up to leave, he was reduced to bluffing Scott that he would secure his own land grant in California and let Scott fend for himself. This had the desired effect, and Scott replied that he did not want to see that done. Instead he promised to meet Huntington again the next week in New York and to bring Perry with him.
The trio met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel until midnight on April 16. Once again, maps of the West were unrolled and the horse-trading began. It continued the next day at the Central Pacific’s New York office. When Huntington, Scott, and Perry were finally finished, they had agreed to meet at the Colorado River and work together to secure congressional aid for the entire route.
Unbeknownst to Scott and Perry, Huntington’s partners were already beginning to question his unbridled expansion, but a few days after their deal, Huntington was certainly not regretting it. He wrote Judge Crocker, avowing as how “I think we have got to a point now where, with care, we can control the west end of the three Pacific roads, which I think will be built, and that the west end of all three of them will be in San Francisco, California.”15
The following spring, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific completed their headlong rush across the continent and joined rails at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. Along many miles on both roads, the last sprints of construction left unballasted track, rickety trestles, and improbable grades. But the deed had been done and the claim to be America’s first transcontinental railroad won.
Meanwhile, the Kansas Pacific continued its march across Kansas, reaching the Colorado border in January 1870. It had come out of the gates first, but now, as the Kansas Pacific was transfixed by Palmer’s survey and potential battles with Collis P. Huntington farther west, there was a new competitor nipping at its flanks. The race to the Southwest was just beginning.