Victorious in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the United States acquired California and New Mexico. A year later, gold was discovered in California, luring hundreds of thousands of people across the plains. However, the new territories resembled distant colonies rather than parts of the republic. It took six months of hard, dangerous travel to cross the plains. The other options were sailing around South America or sailing to Panama and crossing the fever-ridden isthmus. The government approved the construction of a transcontinental railroad in 1862, but construction was slow until the American Civil War (1861-1865) ended, when labor and materials became available. The Union Pacific, which started from the Missouri River, relied mainly on veterans, while the Central Pacific, which originated at Sacramento, turned to cheap Chinese labor. Paid in government bonds, both companies competed to lay more track and qualify for more bonds. When the two tracks met at Promontory Point in Utah on May 10, 1869, a six-month-long trek by wagon had been replaced by a week-long trip on a train, thus linking the two sides of the nation.
- 1 Background
- 2 Formation of the Central Pacific Railroad (June 28, 1861)
- 3 Passage of the Pacific Railroad Act (July 1, 1862)
- 4 The Union Pacific Railroad (July 1, 1862-1865)
- 5 Indian Resistance (1864-1868)
- 6 The CP (1865-1867)
- 7 UP (1866-1867)
- 8 Hell on Wheels
- 9 CP: (1867-1868)
- 10 The UP (1867-1868)
- 11 The Last Spike-Promontory Summit, Utah (May 10, 1869)
- 12 Congressional Investigation (December 1872-January 1874)
- 13 Legacy
- 14 Fictional portrayals in film and television:
- 15 Further Reading:
- 16 Related Posts:
In 1844, the United States expanded west from the Atlantic coast, British Canada occupied the north, Oregon was settled jointly by the United States and the British, Mexico stretched south from Oregon to Guatemala, and the young Republic of Texas sat between Mexico and the United States. Surrounded by these nations was the Great American Desert. Shortly after James Polk became president in 1845, tensions increased between the United States and Mexico since Polk had campaigned on the platform of American annexation of Texas. Actually, war seemed equally likely with either England or Mexico. Oregon Territory had been occupied jointly by Britain and the United States since 1818, but Polk’s Democratic Party was demanding control of the entire territory, which stretched up to the southern border of Russian Alaska, the 54th parallel. Aware that Mexico had promised to resist the American annexation of Texas, Polk persuaded the British to accept a treaty that settled the border between the United States and British Canada at the 49th parallel, leaving the United States free to concentrate on Mexico. The territory acquired by the United States became the states Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as parts of Montana and Wyoming.
Texas was annexed by the United States on December 29, 1845. When the Mexican government refused to sell New Mexico and California, American forces seized disputed territory, provoking Mexico into war. The war was extremely popular in the southern states, and supporters of the war claimed that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand across the continent. The Mexican-American War lasted from 1846 to 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war on February 2, 1848, set the Rio Grande as the border between Mexico and the United States, and gave the United States New Mexico and California, which eventually became the states California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming, in exchange for $15,000,000.
Post-Mexican-American War (1848-1860)
The United States had greatly expanded its territory in the short space of two years. However, the new territories resembled distant colonies rather than parts of the republic. It took six months of hard, dangerous travel to cross the plains. The other options were an expensive and lengthy trip by ship around South America or sailing to Panama and crossing the isthmus, where travellers risked deadly fevers.
The discovery of gold in California in 1849 lured thousands of young men to the gold fields, providing the demand for a transcontinental railroad. More than 300,000 people, mostly men, made the overland journey to California between the discovery of gold and 1860.
People who were struggling to get ahead decided to emigrate to a distant colony, following the example of their parents, grand-parents or great-grand-parents, who had left their homes looking for a better future in the United States.
Emigrants to Oregon followed the Great Platte Valley Route had been used by the buffalo, the Indians who hunted the buffalo, and the fur traders. The trail was marked by the previous travellers but there were no safety warnings, except for those left by people who had passed before. The emigrants often spent days without seeing another white person, other than people in their own group, which is why the area was known as a desert. The emigrants were rarely alone, since wagon trains often stretched for miles. Trying to transport all of their belongings, people crammed them into covered wagons four feet wide and ten feet long, so the trail was littered with abandoned goods as people were eventually forced to reduce their loads. Even so, most of the emigrants walked the entire distance to spare the horses pulling the wagons.
Roughly five hundred thousand people made the journey in the two decades between the 1840s and the 1860s. However, not everyone reached their destination, so travellers passed graves, so many that people eventually lost count. Historians estimate the number to be roughly thirty thousand. Despite the fear of Indian attacks, cholera was probably the greatest killer. Beginning in 1847, groups of Mormons began using the route, seeking a new home for their young religion, although they stayed on the north side of the Platte River to avoid clashes with non-Mormons.
Freight trains transported supplies to the distant colonies, but they moved at the same speed as wagon trains. Stagecoaches temporarily improved the situation, since they traveled at three times the speed of wagon trains, covering the distance between Missouri and California in twenty-five days, but there was only enough space for a maximum of nine passengers, as well as several more on the roof, if they could stand it. Although there were thousands of stagecoaches operating in the West in the two decades between the 1840s and 1866, they were not enough. However, the web of stagecoach routes, with stations to change horses, usually every twelve miles, and a home station that offered food, every fifty miles, started the initial process of merging the distant colonies with the main United States.
Following the increased pace of emigration, the idea of a transcontinental railroad began to attract attention, but the route itself was debated. Too huge a task for any corporation, the railroad would have to be financed by the government, but the railroad could not be separated from the burning question of the decade, whether or not slavery should expand further in the Union. The slave states would never accept a line in the north and the free-soilers would never accept a line in the south. While no one could agree on a route, there was a clear demand for a railroad, so surveyors were sent out in 1853 to explore potential routes. They found several, but they also discovered that “The Great American Desert” was not a desert, but offered a wealth of land suitable for farming and minerals.
Railroads were booming, and 2,000 miles of new track were laid every year in the 1850s. Following a frenzy of track-laying, half of the world’s railroad’s tracks were in the United States by 1859.
Formation of the Central Pacific Railroad (June 28, 1861)
While the population of California had boomed, there was no industry and everything had to be imported. The first railroad in California was completed in 1856 by a promising engineer named Theodore Judah. After finishing the railroad, Judah threw himself into lobbying for a transcontinental railroad. A skilled marketer, Judah was persuasive and able to express his expertise in terms easily understood by the legislators, so he was given an office in the Capitol building, and the office became known as the Pacific Railroad Museum. Recognizing that the debate between the northern and southern route would not be resolved soon, Judah focused on the main technical issue: how to cross the Sierra mountain range, so he spent the fall of 1860 surveying the mountains. After finding a suitable pass, he formed a company with Daniel Strong, and started to raise the investment needed to incorporate the Central Pacific (CP) corporation, but he failed to attract large investors.
The situation changed when he gave a speech in Sacramento that was attended by Collis Huntington, a successful merchant, who convinced Judah to seek out a few, large investors, rather than chase after hundreds of small investors. Huntington found several Sacramento merchants, including Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charlie Crocker, who agreed to invest the necessary capital. When the Central Pacific Railroad company was formed on June 28, 1861, Stanford was elected president of the company, with Judah’s support, creating resentment between Judah and Huntington, who had wanted the position.
Passage of the Pacific Railroad Act (July 1, 1862)
The primary obstacle to a transcontinental railroad had been the debate over the expansion of slavery in the Union, but the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865) on April 21, 1865, ensured that the Platte route would be chosen. Once the Southern states had seceded, the representatives of the remaining states dominated Congress, and they should have been willing to approve the transcontinental railroad, but everyone was preoccupied with the war. Also, there was fierce infighting among the railroad companies, both existing and newly formed, for the opportunity to make money building the railroad.
However, President Abraham Lincoln was a firm advocate of the railroad, and his enthusiasm helped ensure that the bill was passed in July 1862. The bill decided that the Union Pacific would start from the Missouri River and the Central Pacific would build from Sacramento. The primary financial support of the railroads were government bonds that they could then resell, and they would be paid $16,000 per mile for flat land, $32,000 for foothills, and $48,000 for mountainous land after the first forty miles. Furthermore, the railroad companies would receive land grants from the public lands along each side of the railroad, alternating in a chess board pattern between government and railroad land, enabling the railroads to raise funds by selling the land to settlers. The road had to be finished by July 1, 1876.
In the fall of 1863, both the CP and the UP appealed for subscriptions from businessmen. Starting a project like the transcontinental railroad during wartime was already daunting, but raising funds proved difficult because investors were reluctant to invest in a project that had many, many obstacles and promised returns at a much later date, when profits could be made much faster supplying the army’s contracts.
In the end, Crocker, Huntington, Stanford and Hopkins, along with several smaller investors, were forced to buy most of the shares themselves, risking bankruptcy if the railroad failed. Having gained control of the CP, Crocker, Huntington, Stanford and Hopkins would be called the Big Four.
Fearing that an outside company would have to be paid in shares, and would eventually accumulate enough shares to take control of the railroad, the Big Four invested in Crocker’s company, Charles Crocker & Co., which was assigned the construction contracts on December 27, 1862. Judah correctly realized that the four men intended to profit from the construction company, but incorrectly concluded that they did not care if the railroad was ever completed. Judah believed that Crocker was incapable of building the railroad, which was unfair, since he had managed men in numerous projects. Crocker proved dedicated to the project, selling off the contents of his store, and allowing his brother to take his place on the board of directors to avoid conflict of interest charges. More important, he hired experienced builders to do the actual work.
However, the conflict was merely part of a larger struggle between Judah and Huntington. Judah thought that he was essential to the railroad, which he was, but he did not appreciate the difficulty in raising money, although Huntington was proving effective in the East. Since Judah only brought his expertise, the other investors thought that he should be grateful to be a well-paid employee with a minority share. Tired of the fighting, Judah and his friends tried to buy out the Big Four, but failed. Travelling to New York to try to raise money, Judah caught yellow fever in Panama and died on November 2, 1863, shortly after arriving in New York. Judah was replaced by Samuel Montague, one of his assistants.
As the railroad inched towards the mountains, it started to earn a tiny revenue when it offered passenger service on the completed section of the track, but still nothing compared to the amounts that were needed to pay for the construction. The Big Four had to guarantee loans with their personal property to keep the workers paid. Stanford had already abused his position as governor to persuade the state legislature to permit county governments to invest in the railroad by exchanging millions of dollars worth of bonds for railroad stock, which attracted much controversy.
The Union Pacific Railroad (July 1, 1862-1865)
Despite the unfavorable investment climate, the UP had raised its required ten percent by September 1863. General John Dix was elected president, but Thomas Durant, the vice president, was the guiding force of the railroad. The son of a successful merchant, Durant had been an ophthalmologist, before entering his uncle’s shipping company. Astonishingly successful, he had expanded into the railroad world in 1851.
When the Union Pacific was organized, Durant seized control by buying stocks under his own name and those of his friends, in order to bypass a regulation that no individual could own more than 200 shares. Having partnered with Durant in the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad, Dix agreed to be a cooperative figurehead in the UP, even though he was a major general assigned to command the Department of the East.
However, Durant’s goal was to make money, not build a railroad. Realizing that businessmen would invest in the company that supplied with the railroad, rather than invest in the railroad itself, Durant and George Train formed the Credit Mobilier of America company as a construction company in March 1864. The directors and principal shareholders of the UP owned the Credit Mobilier, and ensured that it received all of the railroad’s construction contracts, thus guaranteeing them profits even if the railroad failed.
Durant’s first choice for chief engineer was Grenville Dodge, who had worked for the leading surveyors and engineers in the railroad industry, and had surveyed Nebraska for a railroad in 1853. Since he was busy building railroads for the Union army, Durant had to settle for Peter Dey. Actually, Dey had trained Dodge, so he was a fine engineer, but Durant was attracted by Dodge’s mix of engineering ability and political and military connections. In fact, Silas Seymour was appointed consulting engineer because his brother Horatio was the Democratic governor of New York, and Durant wanted as many political connections as possible.
The UP had struggled to find laborers, but the problem was solved when the war ended. However, Lincoln’s assassination meant that a passionate supporter of the railroad was replaced by Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was at best indifferent to the project.
Indian Resistance (1864-1868)
Hoping to encourage settlement in the new territories, the government had passed laws like the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and the 1862 Homestead Act, which gave free pieces of land to every family who settled on the land for five years, but the land usually belonged to one Indian tribe or another. However, almost nobody had sympathy for the Indians, believing that it was Manifest Destiny or basically the white man’s right to expand where he wanted. Even prominent abolitionists like Horace Greely dismissed the idea that Indians had a right to their lands.
Although Dodge had refused to leave the Union army to become chief engineer for the UP, he did help the railroad. Assigned to take charge of Missouri, Dodge believed that his true mission was to pacify the Indian tribes who lived in the areas near the UP’s prospective route.
Dodge’s task was not made any easier by John Evans, the governor of Colorado Territory, who stirred up war with the Cheyenne and the Arapaho. Believing that there was no difference between friendly and hostile Indians, Evans’ friend Colonel John Chivington led several volunteer units, a total of seven hundred men, to attack a camp of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapho at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. The Indians had been promised by the commander of a nearby fort that they would be protected, so most of the men were away hunting. The camp flew an American flag and a white flag to show that they were friendly, but it did not protect them from Chivington, whose men slaughtered more than a hundred men, women and children.
Following the massacre at Sand Creek, a thousand Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapho raided along the Platte, tearing down telegraph poles, burning ranches and attacking small towns. Dodge told his troops to pursue the Indians relentlessly, which forced a temporary peace.
When spring came, the Indian tribes returned to raiding, and they had many targets since the plains were covered with wagon trains of emigrants and prospective miners. Dodge organized three expeditions, but they frequently attacked peaceful camps of Indians without warning, killing everyone including women and children. Worse, the actual raiding parties easily evaded the huge clumsy columns of cavalry with their giant clouds of dust.
Recognizing the threat of the raiding parties, the government held peace talks with several tribes, including the Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne, at Fort Laramie in June 1866. Red Cloud of the Ogala Sioux hoped to avoid war, while Spotted Tail of the Brule Sioux was all too aware of the cavalry’s power. However, the peace conference was a disaster. Aside from the railroad, the army was building a fort on a new trail connecting the Oregon Trail and the goldfields in Virginia City, crossing Sioux hunting grounds. Most of the chiefs refused to sign a treaty, and the attacks continued.
A raiding party of Cheyenne led by Chief Pawnee Killer tore up the rails in Nebraska on August 7, 1866, twisting the rails, which caused two trains to crash. Any survivors were killed and the trains were set on fire. General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the Missouri Military District, which stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, met with the Indian tribes as part of a peace commission in September, but he thought the only options were extermination or locking them up on a reservation. When he bluntly told them that they could not stop the railroad, so they must submit or die, his candor unsurprisingly did not improve the situation.
On December 21, 1866, the foolhardy Captain William Fetterman disobeyed his superior’s orders and led his force into an ambush, where all eighty-one cavalrymen were killed, near Fort Kearney in Wyoming. News of the Fetterman Massacre spread across the plains, causing the government to send more troops to ensure the safety of the UP workers.
The situation had reached a stalemate. Sherman had too few soldiers to protect the railroad from the Indians’ guerrilla raids, but the Indians were unable to stop the railroad’s progress. Sherman wanted to provide enough soldiers to ensure the safety of the railroad workers, but settlers across the region were also calling for troops, the South was still under military control, and the army had shrank drastically after the war. One solution was to recruit a battalion of Pawnee scouts, led by Major Frank North, who had lived among them. Formed in March 1867, the Pawnee were happy to fight against their old enemies the Cheyenne and the Sioux, but the area was too big, and the surveyors were in the greatest danger. Cheyenne and Sioux raiding parties attacked small parties of surveyors and graders, ripping up stakes placed by surveyors and stealing equipment.
By 1868, the Indian threat had largely disappeared because there were five thousand soldiers guarding the railroad between Omaha and the Salt Lake. More important, technology had changed the situation in the soldiers’ favor. Both the soldiers and the Indians had been using muzzle-loaders, leftovers from the Civil War, but the soldiers had been issued Springfield breech-loaders, which loaded faster and had a much longer range. The Sioux and Cheyenne had agreed to launch separate attacks against American forts, but the attacks failed because the cavalry had experienced, careful leaders and the new rifles reloaded much, much faster, depriving the Indians of the pause while soldiers desperately reloaded after firing a volley and were dangerously vulnerable.
While there were fewer direct attacks, Indians continued to sabotage the tracks, hoping to cause accidents.
The CP (1865-1867)
The Sierra Nevada mountain range seemed to have been designed to keep California separate from the rest of United States. The huge mountains were too high to cross and too solid to dig through. But there was no other route for the CP.
However, the immediate problem was labor. Men worked for a week or two to earn a stake and then left for the mines, hoping to strike it rich. Giving up on white workers, Crocker suggested hiring Chinese. At the time, Chinese were deliberately kept at the bottom of society through rampant racism and discriminatory taxes. A series of laws passed between 1850 and 1863 forbade Chinese from receiving public schooling and giving evidence against or for white men in court, while they had to pay a monthly tax just to stay in the state. While they were free, their economic opportunities were limited to laundrymen, gardeners, housekeepers and cooks.
Crocker convinced James Strobridge, the foreman, to try a group of Chinese laborers in 1865. Viewing Chinese as less than human, Strobridge agreed reluctantly but was impressed with their endurance and work ethic. By the end of the year, the railroad’s workforce consisted of seven thousand Chinese and two thousand whites, so arrangements were made to bring more Chinese over from China. Claiming that it was impossible to tell apart the Chinese, Crocker divided Chinese workers into work gangs with a headman who received the gang’s wages and paid the men at the end of each month. The Chinese were healthier than the white workers because each work gang cooked its own food and they drank tea all day, while the white workers were fed boiled meat and potatoes, and they drank from local streams, unaware if the water was clean or not, so they often suffered from diarrhea or dysentry. Furthermore, the Chinese did not drink, and relaxed by smoking opium on their day off, and they bathed regularly, so they were preferred by the CP, although they were still not treated as equals to white men.
The cheap labor enabled the CP to fill the ravines rather than bridge them. When there was not enough earth on the rocky terrain, trestle bridges were constructed. Carving out a road along Cape Horn proved especially dangerous. After weaving baskets from reeds, the Chinese were lowered to drill holes for blasting powder, and then raised up, not always in time. The CP did not record Chinese fatalities, so it is not known how many died. The route was finished in the spring of 1866. Aside from the rocks, huge amounts of powder were needed to blast out the stumps of the massive trees.
Meanwhile, other work gangs had started on the tunnels, working in shifts around the clock, carving their way from both sides. There was only enough room for three men at a time, one to hold the drill and two to swing sledgehammers, so progress was limited to six to twelve inches per day.
After completing the first forty miles of track, and receiving bonds from the government in early 1866, Durant made personnel changes to increase the pace of track-laying. Samuel Reed, the surveyor, was made head of construction, since he was a methodical man who could be relied on. The Casement brothers, Jack and Dan, were put in charge of the actual track laying, and Dodge finally agreed to leave the army and accept the position of chief engineer, on the condition that he had absolute control. Until then, every senior official had reported directly to Durant, and was left alone to accomplish his own work in the field, which had naturally led to confusion and clashes over resources. Having served in the military, Dodge understood the importance of the chain of command, and he persuaded Durant to accept a more organized system.
One of Jack Casement’s first achievements was the construction of sleeping and dining cars for the workers in March. So many men had to be fed in the dining car during the meal times that the tin plates were nailed to the tables. When one group of men had finished eating, an attendant quickly wiped down the plates for the next group.
The surveying parties were usually made up of twenty men, and had military escorts in dangerous areas, when military escorts were available. Once the surveyors had placed stakes to show the line, they were followed by teams of graders, basically hundreds of men armed with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and plows, who smoothed the land and then piled earth until they had made a grade solid enough to bear the track. Behind the work trains, which brought in the materials, were the living trains and then the trains that transported the supplies.
Aside from the railroad itself, the telegraph spread across the land because the railroad companies were required by the Pacific Railroad Act to build the telegraph alongside the railroad.
Since the majority of Dodge’s chief subordinates had held positions of command in the Union army, they were used to receiving and giving orders. Military discipline would prove essential when building the railroad since many Indian tribes were hostile, resisting the railroad’s passage across their lands. The Sioux and the Cheyenne were especially angry that the railroad would divide the buffalo herds, since the buffalo refused to cross the tracks. Aware that the army had too few men in the area to protect the entire railroad, Dodge armed the workers, and the rifles were stored in racks on the ceilings in the sleeping cars.
The workers were almost all veterans in their early twenties. They ate in dining cars and slept in sleeping cars, paying $5 a week for room and board. They worked all day, from first light to dusk, rain or shine, hot or cold. The food was decent and plentiful, and they relaxed during the evenings. After a few months, the workers and their supervisors had developed a rhythm, so the rails were hammered in every thirty seconds once the grading had been finished, and they averaged 1.75 miles per day, which was vital since the UP needed to complete 100 miles of finished track, including stations, sidetracks and watering facilities, by July 1, 1866, otherwise it would lose its charter.
Once the railroad reached Kearney, it started to operate passenger trains. The railroad was also used by the army because it was faster to shift men by train than station them in small forts across the plain to guard the countless wagon trains.
Initially, the CP and UP had a fixed meeting point but Huntington wanted a race, and hired former congressman Richard Franchot to lobby for him in 1866. Armed with a generous salary and an unlimited expense account, Franchot had a critical advantage; the CP was still inching its way through the Sierra Nevada range while the UP was speeding along the prairies. Believing that it would be impossible for the CP to win the race, the UP did not oppose the proposal, and the railroad bill was amended in July 1866.
In 1866, Dix left the company to accept the position of ambassador to France. Durant had expected that he would replace Dix, but he experienced an extremely unpleasant surprise. Having grown rich manufacturing shovels and tools before and during the Civil War, the Ames brothers, Oakes and Oliver, had been early investors in the Union Pacific. The directors, even those previously loyal to Durant, had become weary of his constant scheming, and Congressman Oakes Ames’ brother Oliver was elected president on November 24.
As the UP progressed, roughly ten thousand men were stretched out for hundreds of miles in 1867. 3,000 graders were working ahead of the main line, with the advance parties 200 miles in front of the line; 100 surveyors were ahead of them, planning the road; the track was laid by 450 men, while there were several thousand men chopping down trees and cutting ties, along with a thousand men working in shops to build or repair equipment. The construction trains stretched for twenty miles, and the sound of sledgehammers hitting spikes echoed everywhere.
The Great American Desert was being settled. Wyoming Territory grew from a population of a thousand white people in 1867 to forty thousand a year later.
Although the UP seemed to be moving forward well, there was a powerful internal conflict brewing between Durant and Oliver Ames. Durant thought the railroad would never be profitable, so he wanted to make money through the Credit Mobilier, therefore he wanted to make the railroad as cheaply as possible. Ames thought the railroad would be profitable if he could end Durant’s preference for cheap materials and habit of adding unnecessary curves to lengthen the mileage in order to qualify for more bonds. Since the Casement brothers had the men working so smoothly that they were laying a mile a day, reaching a mile and a half to two miles on good days, it seems that Ames was right.
When Dodge and the advance surveyors reached Weber Canyon in Utah, the route to Salt Lake city, they found the CP’s surveyors mapping out the future route of their railroad, and he learned that the CP planned to go further east than he had thought.
The railroad was relentless, since the UP had fifty-three locomotives, eleven hundred freight cars and ten passenger cars by then, while the company’s mechanics in Omaha produced twenty cars a week.
The struggle between Durant and Ames was resolved in Ames’ favor when he arranged the ouster of Durant from every office in the Credit Mobilier on May 21, 1867. Hoping to increase the railroad’s political influence, Ames arranged for nine congressmen and two senators to buy a total of 160 shares.
Although the Ames brothers had taken control of the UP, Durant bribed the five government representatives in July, and used their support to ensure that Ames had to negotiate with him.
Hell on Wheels
Behind the track-layers was Hell on Wheels, the floating town of saloons, prostitutes, and card sharps that happily separated the hard-working men from their money. The town appeared at the end of the track, where the company would set up operations. Hell on Wheels had a couple of thousand people, but the tent saloons could be taken down and put up again in a day. Paid well, the men needed entertainment, and they knew they would make more money the next day, or the next season, if they were waiting out the winter.
When the gamblers at Julesburg boldly refused to pay for the lots on the UP land where they had placed their tents and saloons, Dodge told Casement to take men to persuade them to pay. After some fresh graves were filled, the rest of the gamblers agreed to pay. The gamblers had learned that they could cheat the UP workers but not the UP.
As the UP moved west, it established a temporary base of operations in Cheyenne. Realizing that Julesburg was played out, the gamblers and saloon-keepers placed all of their tents, frame buildings, whiskey crates and mattresses on several flat cars and shipped them to Cheyenne, leaving Julesburg a ghost town, on November 11, 1867. However, the UP was laying track at such a pace by then that the following boom towns never became as famous as Cheyenne because the UP never stayed in one place long enough.
Every temporary town hoped that the railroad would transform it into a metropolis. Some of the towns did eventually become relatively large cities like Omaha in Nebraska, and Cheyenne and Laramie in Wyoming, but most quickly disappeared after a brief life as a wintering spot for the UP or as a temporary construction depot. Filled with dreams of growth, the town fathers would lay out grids for the township and sell plots. The practice was encouraged by the UP since the revenue stream was needed to help fund construction. Most of the towns would swell to a population of several thousand and then disappear when the railway moved on a couple of months later. The floating town, inhabited by the same gamblers, barmen, musicians and prostitutes, followed the railroad. If the town proved able to survive without the railroad, it would be relatively easy to clean it up since most of the criminal element would have left to follow the railroad.
While the Chinese inched their way through the Summit Tunnel, the CP continued to lay tracks on the eastern side of the tunnel, hoping to reach Salt Lake City before the UP. Hoping to increase the pace of tunnelling, the CP started using the more powerful nitroglycerin but soon gave up because it was too dangerous. Gunpowder was invaluable; the company was using roughly three to four hundred kegs of powder each day.
In 1867, the situation looked bleak for the CP, since it had still not penetrated the summit of the Sierra Nevada. Stuck in the mountains, it was unable to collect government bonds or sell land grants, but it was spending huge amounts of money. Outside observers naturally concluded that the UP would win the race. However, the Chinese were carving their way through the granite, and meticulous calculations ensured that when the facings met, there was never more than an inch of deviation. The work was hard, unknown numbers of men had lost their hands holding the drill for the sledgehammers, and the men worked all winter without seeing the sun, either in the middle of the tunnels or sleeping in quarters under a roof of snow.
Although the CP depended on the Chinese laborers, their reputation as excellent workers made them attractive to other employers, so the CP raised their salaries from $31 a month to $35 in the spring of 1867. Dissatisfied with the raise, the Chinese went on strike, asking for better conditions and a raise to $40. The CP’s initial response was to try to find other sources of labor. After that attempt failed, Crocker simply cut off food supplies to the camps, and the strikers caved in a week later. Crocker had brought up the local sheriff and an armed posse to improve his negotiating position. It worked. Also, more workers were arriving from China, thanks to recruiting posters sent there, in order to keep the price of labor down, so the CP had more than enough workers.
The first breakthrough in the summit took place in August 1867, but the CP still did not have a single stretch of track longer than twenty miles, which was needed to qualify for government bonds.
Driven to win the competition, the CP kept operating during the winter despite heavy snowfalls. Rather than wasting time and energy clearing away the snow, the Chinese dug tunnels in the snow to the tunnel entrance, and then carved out space for living quarters underneath the snow, digging up to the surface for chimneys and air. Aside from the two ends of the tunnel, holes had been dug in the centre of the tunnel, so the Chinese were also moving from the centre to each end. Huge amounts of snow combined with relentless blasting led to numerous avalanches that killed many people, although the exact number is unknown. Storms that lasted for days prevented work and led to more avalanches. The rails were kept clear of snow by a massive plow backed by three engines, which would push until it got stuck, then back up and start again. Even so, much of the labor force would be needed to shovel snow.
After the winters of 1866-67 and 1867-68, the directors faced the sad truth that they would have to build snow sheds in key areas to keep the roads clear, despite the insane cost of building snow sheds for fifty miles of track. Construction of the sheds began in the summer of 1868, and finished a year later. The longest shed extended for twenty-eight miles without a single gap.
However, progress was still painfully slow, and every ship that brought material to San Francisco also brought several letters from Huntington complaining about the slow progress. The correspondence between Huntington and Crocker’s older brother Edwin reveals both Huntington’s inner fear that the project would result in abject failure and Crocker’s belief that the agonizingly slow pace would eventually wear down the seemingly impenetrable granite of the mountains. This belief was not shared by Durant, who had heard reports from travellers and engineers sent to spy on the CP that it would take the CP at least another two years to blast its way through though the mountains, therefore he happily mocked Huntington whenever the two men encountered each other.
After the CP finally made its way through the mountains, it reached the Great Desert, a hundred miles straight of desolation, in the summer of 1868, but it was flat, so the railroad advanced at a mile and a half a day in July and early August. First, Strobridge had to deal with the Chinese laborers, who believed in rumors that the desert was filled with giant Indians and snakes that ate men whole. Discovering in late May that the Chinese workers were leaving the camps, Strobridge organized a trip for their leaders, showing them the route of the tracks so they could see for themselves that there was no danger.
Once the CP reached Utah, the real battle between the two railroads began. The railroads’ grading parties neared each other in Utah and even graded past each other, working on parallel tracks.
The UP (1867-1868)
Dodge wins a showdown with Durant (July 26, 1868)
Although Durant was more interested in making money than building the railroad, he still wanted the credit, so in May 1868, he gave his crony Seymour authority as consulting engineer equal to Dodge, claiming that Dodge had too many responsibilities, especially since he had been elected to Congress, although he had spent little time in Washington. Hoping to achieve a clear victory over Dodge and make it clear who ran the UP, Durant summoned him to a meeting at Fort Sanders, which would be attended by Republican presidential nominee Ulysses Grant, accompanied by generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, since they were touring the railroad in July. Learning that his former commanders were on their way, Dodge met with them at Benton, Wyoming, the day before the official meeting, and explained his decision for the final route and the problems he had with Durant, who was trying to limit his authority.
When the official meeting commenced on July 26, Durant sat back and let Seymour attack Dodge’s performance, but the government directors and Grant and Sherman quickly realized that Seymour did not have Dodge’s expertise and familiarity with the railroad. Most important, Grant and Sherman trusted Dodge, so the direct confrontation was a major error by Durant. Grant stated that the government expected the railroad to be finished and Dodge to stay as chief engineer until it was finished. Seeing the tide, Durant withdrew all objections. As the party returned to Council Bluffs, Grant and Sherman stayed with Dodge at his house where they could drink and tell old stories.
Grant’s interference did not prevent Durant from issuing dividends of 200 and 300 percent to the Credit Mobilier shareholders, even though the UP was running out of money.
As the UP advanced westwards, Dodge returned to Washington for the congressional session, where he continued to try to protect Reed from Durant and Seymour, who viewed Reed as interfering with their efforts to make illegal profits from the railroad. To be fair, others were scheming to use the railroad for their own benefit. The Casement brothers and several contractors were shipping freight for free, claiming that it was all for the construction, but a portion of the goods ended up in stores that they operated in the various towns. Actually, it should not be a surprise that many contractors and even officials on the railroad were running scams, since many had been war profiteers or had run similar scams for the smaller railroads. Since the government was paying the tab, the railroad was viewed as a giant feeding trough. Everyone seemed to be robbing the railroad blind, and a number of senior engineers left the road, exhausted by the need to battle both the land and Durant. Even some of the government inspectors were demanding and receiving bribes.
Dodge decided not to run for a second term, and obtained a leave of absence permitting him to not finish the rest of his term, having only worked twenty-two weeks for his constituents, although his employers in the UP were extremely pleased with his accomplishments in the capital.
Although the UP is closely associated with bribery and corruption, the CP were equally as generous with payments to politicians and government officials, purchasing influence with either direct payments or contributions to campaign chests or payments to intermediaries. They even hired Thomas Ewing to lobby his former partner, Secretary of Interior Browning, to ensure that the line through Utah favored the CP.
Utah Territory-The Mormons work on the railroad (May 1868-May 1869)
The railroad was strongly supported by Brigham Young, leader of the Mormons at Salt Lake City in Utah Territory, and an early investor in the UP. The city had been founded in 1847 by Young, seeking refuge from the persecution experienced by the Mormons in the east. As the tracks moved closer to the city, it became easier and much less expensive for converts, mainly from England, to reach the growing Mormon settlement. Fuelled by steady immigration, the population of the Mormon community numbered in the tens of thousands, offering an invaluable source of labor for the competing railroad companies.
The arrival of the CP and UP meant juicy construction contracts, as well as a tithe for the church. Hoping to win the race against the CP, Durant sent Young a telegram saying that Young could name his price for the grading between Echo Canyon and Salt Lake. The equipment, including powder, would be supplied by the UP. Aware that the many young men needed jobs, Young agreed immediately and signed a contract on May 21, 1868. The timing was excellent, since grasshoppers were eating the wheat crop, and locusts had plagued the crops three years in a row. However, Young failed to convince Dodge to put the railroad through Salt Lake City, so the Mormons would have to build a spur line to connect the city to the main line. For the young Mormon men, the railroad was a bonanza, and they made a huge amount of money in a few months.
The Mormons were excellent workers, and the CP also wanted to win the race, but the UP had made a deal with Young first. Since there were not enough workers for both projects, a bidding war broke out between the two railroads. Realizing the need to be on good terms with Young, Stanford visited Utah in June and then moved his headquarters to Salt Lake City in November. After negotiations between Stanford and Young, the Mormon leader agreed to do work for the CP, once he had finished the contracted work for the UP. Young finally agreed in November 1868 to build from Ogden west to Monument Point, and the work would be done by several subcontractors, including Young’s son and several leading bishops. The CP’s bargaining position was helped by Durant’s tardiness in paying Young for the work that had been done, even though Young and the other subcontractors had already borrowed money to pay their workers.
The UP was unable to pay its creditors, including Brigham Young, in 1868, but the Credit Mobilier paid a dividend of two hundred percent, which attracted a lot of attention, most of it unfavorable. The delay in paying the Mormons made it easier for the CP to lure Mormons to work as contractors for them.
By the end of 1868, the UP had laid 446 miles of track, bringing the total to 982. It had constructed 64 stations, 73 water tanks, and 15 coal houses, while the company operated 124 engines, 21 first-class coaches, 10 second-class coaches, 81 cabooses, 16 baggage cars, 8 sleeping coaches, 520 boxcars, and 1,734 flatcars.
Legal Difficulties (March-April 1869)
Reporters and writers were investigating the massive profits earned by both companies and making accusations that they simply wanted to obtain subsidies, but had little interest in actually building a railroad. There is little doubt about the profits. The partners in the CP had made so much profit that they were purchasing or scheming to purchase controlling interests in several local railroads in order to control all traffic in California. In fact, they were looking for safe places to put their new-found wealth.
Suspicious that both companies were swindling the government, Grant’s first order as president was to halt the payment of subsidies in order to unravel the accounts. In particular, Grant had lost confidence in Durant. Since Dodge and Grant were friends and war buddies, Durant’s days should have been numbered. When the board of directors held a meeting on March 9, 1869, the Ames brothers, investor Roland Hazard and the government directors tried to vote Durant out of the UP, but they discovered that Durant had worked with financier James Fisk to arrange for the UP to be declared bankrupt. William Tweed, Jr., son of Boss Tweed, head of the Democratic Party political machine that dominated New York City, was appointed receiver, so nothing could happen, thus preventing Durant’s ouster, and greatly amusing Huntington, whose office was only a block away from the UP headquarters.
Aware that the legal embarrassment threatened both companies, Dodge and Huntington spent the night of April 8 and the next day negotiating until the two men agreed that the UP would build until Promontory Summit, but the CP would buy the UP’s tracks from Promontory Summit to Ogden, and the CP would receive the bonds for that section of the track. Unknown to the Mormons, Dodge and Huntington agreed to build a new city near Ogden in order to block Brigham Young and the Mormons from entering the real estate market in the area. Despite Huntington’s lofty ambitions, the town would never be built. Instead of thanking Dodge, Oliver Ames strongly criticized Dodge’s deal with Huntington, stating that the company desperately needed those bonds.
The day after Dodge and Huntington made their agreement, Congress officially produced a resolution that the railroads would meet at Promontory Summit, so the UP grading crews were annoyed to learn they were doing work that would end up part of the CP. However, emigrants to the west were happy because they could take the train to the end of the tracks, hire a stagecoach to take them to the CP tracks and proceed to California, covering the distance from Omaha to California in a week.
The same resolution permitted the UP to move its headquarters from New York City to Boston, thus escaping the reach of the Tweed-controlled courthouse. Tweed Jr. was happily examining the seized records, but unknown to him, the Credit Mobilier records that were the real object of the seizure had been moved in January by Sidney Dillon, a member of the UP’s board of directors, to the headquarters of the New Jersey Central, where he was vice president. Soon after the resolution, a federal judge followed instructions from Washington and took Fisk’s lawsuit away from the New York court and moved it to a federal court, where the case remained for years. Basically, it appears that the government rewarded the UP’s cooperation by ending all of its legal troubles.
The scandal had caused the price of the UP bonds to drop, so when the board of directors met on April 22, they decided to not force Durant out of the company, since a showdown would only attract even more bad attention, causing the bond prices to fall even further.
The Last Spike-Promontory Summit, Utah (May 10, 1869)
As the two tracks neared each other, both companies competed to set a record of laying track in a single day, starting before dawn and working until midnight by lantern. The UP started with four and a half miles in a day, then the CP laid six miles, and the UP responded with eight miles. Crocker waited until April 27, when the tracks had almost met and the CP had fourteen miles left, and the UP nine, to ensure that there was not enough space left for the UP to beat them. Five separate supply trains, each with enough material for two miles of track, were lined up. Crocker bet Durant that his people could lay ten miles in a day, and Durant accepted, so there were many spectators, including Durant, Dodge and a number of reporters. An accident postponed it to the next day, but impressive organization ensured that Crocker won his bet. Each man had been given a specific task, and the entire crew of workers was told that no man could stop or allow another man to pass him. The tracklayers were each given four days’ pay after winning the wager.
Durant continued to scheme. On his way to the final ceremony, Durant’s train was stopped by a mob of 300 armed UP workers demanding to be paid. The money was sent after a series of telegram messages, but it is difficult to know what happened. Accustomed to Durant’s relentless scheming, Dodge and Ames believed that he had staged the event to ensure that the men were paid by the UP, not the Credit Mobilier.
The competition between the CP and the UP continued until the ceremony itself, and the UP won by building a siding before the CP’s construction team arrived, thus winning the right to operate the terminus there. However, the ceremony itself was a letdown by modern standards, since only Durant and Dodge were there for the CP, and Stanford and Strobridge were there for the CP, while neither Brigham Young nor President Grant attended. The total number of witnesses was probably less than six hundred, since most of the workers had gone home once they had received their last payment. However, the organizers had attached a telegraph wire to the golden spike and another to the sledgehammer to send a signal when it was hit, thus sending the news immediately across the continent, and even to London, England. When the message was sent, people celebrated across the nation.
After the ceremony, the companies argued with their contractors over money. Brigham Young finally accepted a huge quantity of rail, equipment and cars instead of the money he was owed, and the equipment was used to build a branch line from Ogden to Salt Lake City.
Congressional Investigation (December 1872-January 1874)
Rumors of corruption had grown so high that the House of Representatives held hearings on the UP, the CP and the Credit Mobilier. In September 1872, the New York Sun had published numerous documents from disgruntled UP shareholder Henry McComb, including a letter from Congressman Oakes Ames to McComb, where he listed the names and amounts given to congressmen to win their support. The Sun strongly backed Horace Greely against Grant in the 1872 presidential election, and hoped that revealing that several of Grant’s congressional supporters, including Vice President Schuyler Colfax, had accepted bribes from Oakes Ames would damage Grant’s chances. The congressmen denied the accusations, and it turned out that the names on the list were men who Ames had been trying to convince to invest in the company. Despite the accusations and counter-accusations, almost 200 UP shares were never accounted for, and they may have become part of politicians’ portfolios.
Although Grant easily won re-election, the national mood was against political corruption, which had become blatant during Grant’s first term as his cronies made huge profits. Citizens were furious that congressmen held stock in the companies and were outraged by the huge profits made by the men who owned the companies.
Reacting to public anger, on December 2, 1872, the House of Representatives formed a five-man Credit Mobilier Committee to investigate the charges that the UP had bribed politicians. Ames told the committee that he had sold shares to the politicians on the list but his goal was to reward friends, not bribe lawmakers. The committee’s proceedings were secret at first, so the press was not permitted to attend, but public demand for openness grew so loud that Congress eventually gave in and permitted a public hearing.
Ames had initially allowed his fellow congressmen to defend themselves by painting him as the villain who had corrupted his fellow legislators. However, he apparently became tired of being the scapegoat. When he gave testimony on February 11, Ames used notes made in his memorandum book to list the exact amounts given to legislators. When the committee made its final report on February 18, it announced that most of the men mentioned on the list had made an error in judgement but they were not guilty of accepting bribes. However, Ames was declared guilty of attempting to bribe fellow congressmen, which makes no sense if the other men were not guilty of accepting bribes, therefore it appears that the committee had selected Ames to be the fall guy. Already in ill health from the strain of the proceedings and relentless accusations, he managed to avoid criminal proceedings but was censured. Returning home, he died of a stroke and pneumonia on May 8, 1873.
A second committee was formed by Congressman Jeremiah Wilson to investigate whether the UP or the Credit Mobilier had defrauded the government, and it first held hearings on January 10, 1873. The committee tried to subpoena Dodge but the engineer feared giving testimony and evaded the federal agents sent to summon him for testimony, hiding in Texas until the committee’s term ran out. Afterwards, he continued to build railroads and accumulate wealth.
The Wilson committee was much too small to unravel the complex machinations of Durant, the efforts of the directors of the Credit Mobilier to milk the UP and the government of as much money as possible, and the struggles between Durant and Ames for control of the UP. Although the committee proved that the Credit Mobilier had been formed to fleece the government, the members lacked the resources to properly investigate all of the deals made by the individual directors who had negotiated favorable contracts for themselves as sub-contractors.
Hoping to avoid the scandal of the Credit Mobilier and besieged by investors demanding a proper accounting of the CP, Huntington produced a grossly over-inflated figure for the construction of CP, hiding the over-estimates and favorable contracts for the partners within the figure, and then burned the fifteen volumes that contained the correct amounts in the early summer of 1873. The cover-up had been done just in time, since Huntington was notified on July 28 to hand over the books to the Wilson committee, but he was able to state that the books had been destroyed to save space in the new headquarters.
Hoping to qualify for as many government bonds as possible, both railroad companies had emphasized speed over safety. Following the Last Spike, government inspectors found that shoddy work and poor materials were widespread. Even though it took years to rebuild and relay track, the completion of the railroad helped bring together the nation after the horrible conflict of the Civil War. Strangely enough, the size of the project would have been daunting before the war, but not afterwards. The construction of the railroad occurred after the Civil War where men had learned to take orders as part of groups, and engineers and officers had learned how to organize and lead huge groups of men in difficult situations.
Obviously, continental travel became affordable, but the railroad also reduced the cost of sending letters and newspapers from dollars per ounce to pennies per ounce, and only took days, instead of months, thus creating a national culture through shared access to news. The railroad became so influential that it even led to the creation of standard time in the US. Local areas had set their own times, but those times often conflicted with the schedule set by the railroad, therefore the government divided the nation into four time zones.
Fictional portrayals in film and television:
The Iron Horse (1924)
Directed by John Ford, starring George O’Brien and Madge Bellamy
It presents the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Union Pacific (1939)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck
A troubleshooter working for the Union Pacific battles a financier who hopes to profit by interfering with the construction of the railroad.
How the West Was Won (1962)
Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, starring Gregory Peck and James Stewart
The film follows four generations of the same family as they continue to move westwards.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Directed by Sergio Leone, starring Claudia Cardinale and Henry Fonda
A railroad tycoon employs an outlaw to gain control of a vital water source during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
The Claim (2000)
Directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Milla Jovovich and Wes Bentley
A surveyor for the Central Pacific Railroad becomes involved in a power struggle in a town dominated by a wealthy miner.
Hell on Wheels (2011-2014)
Starring Anson Mount and Common
A former Confederate officer joins the Union Pacific’s construction crew, and eventually becomes chief engineer as he helps build the Transcontinental Railroad. (Season One and Season Two)
Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad-David Haward Bain, New York: Penguin, 2000.
Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869-Stephen E. Ambrose, New York: Touchstone, 2001.
Hell on Wheels: Wicked Towns along the Union Pacific Railroad-Dick Kreck, Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 2013.