America’s First Transcontinental Railroad: The Men Who Supervised Construction of the Railroad

For millennia men have left their families behind to create an economic opportunity for their families, to march off to war, or to participate in construction of an extraordinary engineering marvel. (Think of the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, and America’s first transcontinental railroad.)

I know something about the first. When I was a small boy living in West Virginia, my father suffered horrific injuries when the roof of a coal mine collapsed and pinned him in the bowels of the earth. A rescue team rushed to his aid and after several agonizing hours succeeded in freeing him from the rock. They immediately realized that the collapsed roof had broken both of his legs. That evening at the county hospital, the medical staff discovered that one lung had collapsed, punctured by three broken ribs.

It took months for my father to recover from his injuries. By that time he had run through most of his life’s savings and had to find a means of supporting a wife and five children. The accident had crushed any interest in returning to the mines and, with only an eighth-grade education, his options were limited. After another six months of trying several vocations, he acquired a Texaco dealership in Newport News, Virginia. Before relocating the family there, he made certain he could make a go of it. To minimize expenses, he slept on a cot in the stock room among cases of oil and grease and took bird baths at the stock room sink.

After a year away from the family, he gained the reputation and clientele he believed necessary to succeed. So he gathered the family from the cool breezes and poverty of Appalachia and moved us to the sweltering heat and new-found economic opportunity afforded by Hampton Roads.

Creating an Economic Opportunity and Participating in the Extraordinary

I’ve written numerous articles about America’s first transcontinental railroad. Most of them detail the struggles and accomplishments of the railroad titans, the men who owned the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies. The construction of the railroad rarely took those men away from home for an extended period of time. That was not true of the men who actually cleared the path and laid the rails or for the men who supervised the work. In this article, I will speak briefly about the two men responsible for overall supervision of the work.

Before the Civil War, John S. (Jack) Casement made his living in the fledgling railroad industry. He worked as a common track layer, a foreman, and ultimately formed his own company, contracting to lay track for several railroad companies in the Midwest. During the war he rose to the rank of general in the Union Army. Afterward, he dove unsuccessfully into the speculative cotton trade. Stung by failure, he returned to the trade that had put bread on the family table before the war.

The Union Pacific Railroad was appropriately named, as the company hired on a number of Union Army veterans. In 1866, Thomas Durant hired former Union General Grenville Dodge as the chief engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad. In February 1866, the Union Pacific had laid only forty miles of track when Durant also contracted with brothers Jack and Dan Casement to complete the task. The Union Pacific had initiated construction in Omaha, Nebraska, even though President Lincoln clearly expected that Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, would serve as the railroad’s eastern terminus. There is no greater professional lapse for a lawyer than to approve or draft contract language that allows the counterparty, particularly a con man such as Durant, to avoid executing the terms of an obligation consistent with the client’s intent (in this case, President Lincoln’s intent).

Dan Casement handled the books and General Jack drove the men. They did so at great personal sacrifice by General Jack and Frances Casement. He spent most of his time supervising the work, rarely taking time to visit Frances and the children in Painesville, Ohio. His loneliness is evidenced in his letters to Frances, who remained behind in Ohio throughout the three-year project. American Experience, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/tcrr

In the West, James Strobridge took a different tack once the Central Pacific’s work crossed the Sierra Nevada. During the early years of construction, Charley Crocker of the Central Pacific worked with Strobridge on a contract basis, just as the Union Pacific did with the Casement brothers. But in January 1867, Crocker hired Strobridge as his construction company’s superintendent in charge of building the line. In the winter of 1866-67, Strobridge arranged to bring his home along with him. A boxcar was converted into a one-bedroom apartment for his wife.

Of course, the Central Pacific’s workers – most of them Chinese peasants, at times numbering over ten thousand – were not so fortunate. Their families remained behind in Kwangtung Province, hoping the men who had left China for “Gold Mountain” would forge a more prosperous life for them in America or return home with enough savings to provide a comfortable life. They left home for economic opportunity, but they also played an integral role in an extraordinary project, one that connected east coast with west coast, thereby bringing the country one step closer to becoming one truly united U.S.A.

SOURCES:

  • Bain, David Haward. Empire Express. New York, New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • American Experience, pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/tcrr.

 

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Filed under railroad, Transcontinental Railroad, United States

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