Father’s Day

Wishing all the dads out there a Happy Father’s Day week. There’s an interesting history behind the holiday if you’re interested in finding out more: www.history.com/topics/holidays/fathers-day.

I cannot believe that my now 28-year-old daughter used to be this little. Time sure flies by.

Me and my girl circa 1988.

Me and my little girl circa 1988.

Leave a comment

Filed under history

Railroad Innovations That Have Stood the Test of Time

As I researched railroad history while writing Trouble at Mono Pass, I was amazed to learn how many ways railroads continue to impact our lives and how many innovations have stood the test of time. This morning I made another discovery when I opened the local newspaper, which included an article about a 100th anniversary being celebrated by Corning. The railroad connection? The Corning Museum of Glass website explains:

The production of Pyrex began at Corning Glass Works with the development of temperature-resistant borosilicate glass for railroad lanterns. The new glass was marketed in 1909 as Nonex or CNX (Corning Non-Expansion). A few years later, Corning began to look for other uses for this glass. Bessie Littleton, wife of Jesse T. Littleton, a Corning scientist, baked a sponge cake in a sawed off Nonex battery jar. Her experiment revealed that cooking times were short, baking was uniform, the glass was easy to clean, and since the glass was clear, the cake in the oven could be monitored – all advantages over bakeware. Initially, Corning produced twelve ovenware dishes under the brand named Pyrex, and kicked off a new Corning Glass Works division focused on consumer products.

The Corning Museum of Glass is commemorating the 100th anniversary of production of the kitchenware for American consumers with America’s Favorite Dish: Celebrating a Century of Pyrex, on view June 6, 2015, through March 17, 2016.

Several much earlier railroad innovations remain in use today. In 1830, American inventor Robert Livingston Stevens developed a flat-bottomed T-shaped iron rail and a flanged wheel that ultimately became the industry standards and remain in use to this day. He also found that rails laid on perpendicular wooden ties, laid on a bed of crushed stone, provided a better and more economical surface than earlier methods. Other types of rail (pear-shaped, bullnose) were used by some railroad companies for several decades, but by the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the T-rail dominated. Stevens went on to develop the standard rail spike and the “cowcatcher,” the triangular frame at the front of a locomotive designed to clear the track of obstructions.

Standard gauge. Photo I took at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

Standard gauge. Photo I took at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

In the early railroad days, track gauge also varied among railroad companies. In the South, one could find three different gauges, some five feet in width. One can imagine the difficulty of unloading passengers or cargo at one railroad station in order to accommodate a different gauge track for the next segment of travel. In the North, the predominant (but not exclusive) gauge was four feet, eight and one-half inches, consistent with locomotives manufactured in Great Britain. Railroad men understood the need for a standardized gauge when the nation was about to undergo construction of the transcontinental railroad. Congress gave President Lincoln the responsibility for determining the gauge. A railroad lawyer during much of his career, Lincoln chose the predominant gauge, four feet eight and one-half inches, the gauge used in most countries today.

Out of curiosity, and being a bit anal, I decided to check a railroad track in Greensboro. Sure enough, the distance between the rails met the standard set by President Lincoln. So, while we celebrate the 100th anniversary of kitchenware based on a railroad lantern, we should also celebrate Robert Livingston Stevens’ innovations 85 years earlier. Pay attention the next time you visit a railroad museum or see a train heading down the track in your hometown.

Sources:

4 Comments

Filed under railroad

America’s Transcontinental Railroad: The Pacific Railroad Act

Last week, I explored Abraham Lincoln’s background as a railroad lawyer and the Republican Party’s zeal for a transcontinental railroad. This week, I will highlight the most important provisions of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and subsequent amendments. And, lest we forget, the legislation passed in the midst of a very inconvenient civil war.

1862 Legislation

Right of way: Each railroad company received a 400-foot right of way for the railroad track.

Land Grants: 10 square miles (6400 acres) for each mile of track laid, provided in ten sections of 10-mile strips, in a checkerboard pattern with five alternate sections on each side of the railroad. The federal government retained the other strips of land for sale to the public.

Material Rights: Each railroad had the right to timber and stone on public lands, to be used for construction of the railroad.

Government Financing: The federal government would issue 30-year, 6% interest, first-mortgage bonds, in amounts determined by the terrain – $16,000 per mile for the “easy” work between Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada, and between Omaha and the Rocky Mountains; $48,000 per mile for the mountains; and $32,000 per mile between the two mountain ranges. The government would withhold 15% of the mountain funds and 25% of the other funds until completion of the entire railroad. The government would release no funds until each railroad company completed 40 miles of track and met certain capital requirements. Each company had to complete at least 50 miles of track within two years.

Construction Rights: If the Union Pacific reached the California-Nevada border before the Central Pacific, it could continue into California. If the Central Pacific reached the line first, it could continue construction beyond that point.

Forfeiture Provision: If the railroad was not completed by January 1, 1874, both companies forfeited to the federal government the entire railroad, “together with all their furniture, fixtures, rolling stock, machine shops, lands, tenements, hereditaments, and property of every kind and character.”

1863 Legislation The gauge of the track was set at 4 feet 8 ½ inches.

1864 Amendments

Land Grants: 20 square miles per mile of track, in 20-mile strips.

Funding: Funds were released after completion of 20 miles of track.

Company Bonds: The railroad companies were allowed to issue first-mortgage 30-year, 6% bonds, with the first 20 years of interest guaranteed by the federal government. The bonds could be issued 100 miles in advance of “continuous, completed track,” in increments of $24,000, $48,000, and $96,000, depending on the terrain.

Construction Limits: The Central Pacific was limited to building 150 miles across the Nevada line. Two years later, Collis Huntington successfully lobbied to remove that limitation. (14 Stat. 241, July 25, 1866)

Forfeiture: The 1862 forfeiture provision was removed.

Commentary:

In hindsight, many of the legislative provisions appear very generous, especially the land grants. But much of the land between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada had limited value in the absence of a railroad. The checkerboard pattern of land grants allowed the government to raise the funds needed to finance the government bonds. The private bonds had to have priority over the government bonds to make them marketable. Investors had too many other options for easier money. The railroads needed both public and private funds to succeed.

In the end, i.e., at the golden spike ceremony, Americans could look with pride at a monumental accomplishment. They no longer had to risk the deadly diseases of Panama or the perils of the trail across the continent to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. During the California Gold Rush, East Coast prospectors endured a six-month ordeal to reach the Sierra Nevada diggings. That journey now took two weeks by rail. Commerce would soon follow.

In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was every bit as important as the internet and related developments of today. The nation’s newspapers followed the progress of the competing railroads every step of the way.

In the East, we’ve spent four years re-living the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I look forward to sharing a happier 150th anniversary, the golden spike ceremony at Promontory Point. After all, who doesn’t love trains, whether it’s Thomas & Friends, The Little Engine That Could, or Hell on Wheels?

Sources:

  • Pacific Railway Acts, 12 Stat. 489 (July 1, 1862), 12 Stat. 807 (Mar. 3, 1863), 13 Stat. 356 (July 2, 1864), 14 Stat. 241 (July 25, 1866).
  • Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, cprr.org/Museum/Tunnels.html.
  • For a more detailed discussion of the railroad companies’ “greasing the skids” for favorable legislation, see David Bain’s Empire Express (Penguin Group 1999).

Leave a comment

Filed under American history

My Author Facebook Page is Up

For those of you who have been following my blog long enough, you’ll know that I’ve written two historical fiction books titled New Garden and Trouble at Mono Pass. For more information on my most recent book, read about it in this recent blog post. To get updates on me and my two books, please “Like” my author Facebook page: www.facebook.com/writer.jedward.gray.

Screen shot 2015-05-12 at 6.28.15 PM

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Abraham Lincoln, Railroad Lawyer Extraordinaire

All of us identify Abraham Lincoln with the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. In his PBS National Parks series, Ken Burns reminded us that Lincoln was even more than that – that in the midst of the brutal war, he signed the Yosemite Land Grant to protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias. That historic measure set aside land for public use and preservation and put the land under the soon-to-be questioned protection of California, not the federal government. It was a first step toward what would later become a system of national parks. (Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. Yosemite became part of the national park system in 1890.)

But before Lincoln became a president worthy of Mount Rushmore, he had to make a living. And he made that living as a very successful lawyer – primarily a very successful railroad lawyer. Admitted to the Illinois state bar in 1836, Lincoln pretty much took whatever business he could get early in his career. That meant traveling town to town, often sharing rooms, and beds, with other struggling lawyers – that’s just the way it was.

By the early 1850’s, railroads were on the rise, offering an alternative to other forms of transportation such as riverboats and stagecoach lines. As a member of the Whig Party, Lincoln supported “internal improvements,” private transportation projects subsidized by state funds. The Whigs, and later the Republicans, saw such projects as benefiting the economy.

The railroads also provided another revenue stream for lawyers. In the 1850’s, Lincoln began handling a significant amount of railroad litigation, sometimes as a railroad company’s lawyer, sometimes representing the railroad company’s adversary. By 1860, he had established a solid reputation as an attorney with railroad litigation expertise. He counted as his most valuable client the Illinois Central, whose general superintendent was George McClellan, with whom he later locked horns when McClellan served as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

In one case, Lincoln earned $4,800 in legal fees from the Illinois Central. That amount is equivalent to almost $150,000 in 2015 currency. Lincoln represented the Illinois Central in more than fifty cases.

Because of his support for internal improvements and his representation of the railroads, it came as no surprise that Lincoln strongly supported plank 16 of the 1860 Republican Party platform:

That a railroad to the Pacific [O]cean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country; that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction ….

As President, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and its amendment in 1864. Although little progress on the country’s first transcontinental railroad would take place until the nasty business of civil war ended, Lincoln saw the railroad as critical to the country’s future. Railroading had become part of his DNA. While the war in one sense impeded the progress of the railroad, in another way it served to accelerate the project because Congress no longer included Southern politicians holding out for a southern route. Thus, war was a mixed blessing.

The Central Pacific’s construction of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad serves as the historical backdrop of my second novel, Trouble at Mono Pass. Search this blog for other articles about the Central Pacific’s interesting cast of characters.

Sources:

  • Abraham Lincoln Historical Society, “Abraham Lincoln, the Railroad Lawyer,”   abraham-lincoln-history.org.
  • Bain, David, Empire Express (Penguin Group 1999).
  • Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, org/Museum/Tunnels.html.
  • Ely, James W., Jr., “Abraham Lincoln as a Railroad Attorney,” indianahistory.org.
  • Shultz, Jay, Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company,” lib.niu.edu.

1 Comment

Filed under Transcontinental Railroad

The Emancipation Proclamation and the Evolution of Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

As I mentioned in my previous article, I serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum. The museum currently has among its exhibits one of the 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in 1864. The copies were sold to raise money to care for wounded Union soldiers. The original proclamation, of course, was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863.

I thought this would be a good time to correct some misunderstandings about the famous document and to discuss how Lincoln’s own thinking evolved about the subject of slavery. Every president takes an oath of office whereby he or she swears to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Thus, if Lincoln – a seasoned lawyer of at least regional if not national reputation – wished to extend freedom to those held in bondage, he was well aware that he had to do so consistent with the Constitution. (In 1863, the United States Constitution did not include the Thirteenth Amendment, which in 1865 abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.)

So, Lincoln relied on his Constitutional war powers as authority to declare free all persons held as slaves in states, or designated parts of states, “then in rebellion.” The proclamation did not release the bonds of slaves then living in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and parts of Louisiana and Virginia (including the counties that had seceded from Virginia to form West Virginia, and other counties under Union control). Lincoln wished to retain his tenuous hold on the border states and was prepared to allow slavery to continue there to preserve as much of the Union as possible. Critics complained that the proclamation granted freedom to slaves where he lacked the military capacity to enforce it and kept them in bondage where he had the military might to guarantee their freedom.

Source: CivilWar.org

Source: CivilWar.org

Whatever Lincoln’s personal views about slavery, his first priority was to hold the Union together. Various anecdotes indicate that Lincoln’s views evolved during the course of the war. He campaigned on a Republican platform that slavery would not be allowed in any new states carved out of United States territories. Slavery would remain legal where it already existed. He likely hoped it would wither on the vine. But Southern politicians saw execution of such a platform as the first step in a major shift in the existing balance of power between the free states and the slave states. Thus, before Lincoln took the oath of office, seven states made the fateful decision to attempt to extricate themselves from their existing governmental relationship with their northern brethren, thereby accelerating the end of the peculiar institution they hoped to preserve.

The idea certainly began earlier, but in July 1862, Lincoln raised the prospect of an emancipation proclamation with his cabinet officers. At the time, Union armies were faring poorly in the field and some officers argued that under then-existing conditions, it would look like a last gasp effort by a government headed to defeat. Lincoln agreed that any such proclamation should await a significant Union victory.

That victory came on September 17, 1862, at Antietam. There, General McClellan’s forces won a bloody, hard-fought battle against General Lee. Although in what would become an all-too-common theme, McClellan failed to pursue and destroy Lee’s army after the victory, it was nonetheless a victory on whose peg Lincoln could hang the proclamation. He issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22. The proclamation allowed slavery in any rebel state that chose to return to the Union before January 1. All of the rebel states remained in rebellion.

In meetings with African-American leaders, Lincoln suggested that once freed, blacks should leave the United States because he could not see the white and black races living side by side in harmony. Black leaders rebuked such a suggestion, noting that generations of slaves had lived in the United States for over 200 years. They had earned the right to share the bounties of democracy on an equal footing with the white race. In time, he accepted the argument, but not without reservation. Generations of free blacks would find that freedom did not mean equality.

Back to the constitutional authority for the Emancipation Proclamation. Rebels depended upon slave labor to prop up the war effort. They built trenches and military fortifications. They sowed and harvested fruits and vegetables. They raised and slaughtered the livestock. They produced the cotton that provided the rebel government the financial means to prosecute the war. They were a significant component of the Confederate war effort. Depriving the South of that component, in turn, would greatly enhance the Union’s chances of suppressing the rebellion.

Lincoln certainly harbored doubts about his constitutional authority to suppress slavery once hostilities drew to a close. There would no longer be a war to justify freedom for the slaves. Thus, his campaign for the Thirteenth Amendment, to guarantee the end of slavery in the United States. But for the moment, and indeed for the generations that have followed, the Emancipation Proclamation served as a historically powerful first step – recognition by our nation’s chief executive that slavery is an evil incongruous with democracy.

SOURCES:

I wrote this article based on dozens of books and articles on the subject. Three excellent sources are:

  • Catton, Bruce. Terrible Swift Sword. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, New York, in 2009).
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, slavery

Levi Coffin’s Early Struggles with Slavery

Greensboro Historical Museum (Source: MuseumTrustee.org)

Greensboro Historical Museum (Source: MuseumTrustee.org)

I count among my many privileges the opportunity to serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum, located in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is a beautiful museum filled with wonderful artifacts and operated by a lean but talented and dedicated staff. My service includes occasionally serving at several stations for tours.

One of my stations is “Debating Liberty,” which contains several exhibits related to the causes of the Civil War. Several of the exhibits within the station tell the story of young Levi Coffin’s advocacy on behalf of a runaway slave, Ede.

Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad, was born in the Quaker community of New Garden, near modern-day Guilford College, and he lived there until he moved to Indiana in 1826 when he was 28 years old. His family was fervently anti-slavery and their views were well-known in the local community. While Quakers opposed slavery as part of their religious principles, one must understand that very few participated in the Underground Railroad, an illegal activity.

When his family lived in New Garden, Levi assisted runaway slaves in various ways. On one occasion a young slave, Ede, showed up at the home of Levi’s parents. She had taken her infant child to a wooded area to hide from her master, Dr. David Caldwell, when she learned that he planned to give her and her infant child to Dr. Caldwell’s son, who lived more than 100 miles from Greensboro. Ede was married to another slave (owned by a different master) and had three other children who would remain behind with Dr. Caldwell.

Ede and her infant child had spent several nights in the woods when the child became ill. She sought shelter and protection at the Coffin home due to the Coffins’ reputation. Levi’s parents took Ede and her child into their home, although it was a crime to harbor runaways. Levi then went to visit the Caldwells in an effort to dissuade Dr. Caldwell from bringing charges against his father and to prevail upon Dr. Caldwell to keep Ede in his household as a servant.

Ede and her infant (Photo by: Jim Gray)

Ede and her infant (Photo by: Jim Gray)

Dr. Caldwell was a prominent Guilford County citizen. He served as a physician, Presbyterian minister, and school master of a boys’ school (less than a mile from my current home). The young people of the community liked Dr. Caldwell for his wit and good humor. Dr. Caldwell graciously received Levi into his home and, after talking about a host of other matters, Mrs. Caldwell entered the room. Levi informed the Caldwells that Ede and her child were being cared for by his parents. Mrs. Caldwell expressed her thanks that Levi’s mother had cared for the child and said that she had only reluctantly given her consent to Ede being separated from her family.

Levi asked whether his father had done right in taking in Ede and her child in violation of the law, thus making himself liable for a heavy criminal penalty if Dr. Caldwell was disposed to prosecute.

Dr. Caldwell told Levi that he had preached a very good sermon and he feared Levi might give up the prospect of becoming a preacher if he was not successful in his first effort. He said Levi’s father had done right and need not fear prosecution. Ede could come home and Dr. Caldwell would not send her away.

Thus, Levi Coffin could cite an early success in his struggle against slavery, a campaign he said he waged until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I will discuss the significance and legal limitations of that famous document in my next article.

Until then, if you live near Greensboro or are coming through in your travels, make a stop to tour the best historical museum between Washington, DC, and Atlanta.

SOURCES:

Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (Second Edition). Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1880 (available electronically from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html).

Greensboro Historical Museum, greensborohistory.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under history, North Carolina, slavery, Underground Railroad