Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Collis P. Huntington

This is the tenth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the Mariposa Indian War. This week, I turn to Collis P. Huntington, one of the principals in the Central Pacific Railroad, the company that built the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad.

The main character in Trouble at Mono Pass is Jack Grier. His brother Richard is a close second. The novel opens a few months after the end of the Civil War. Richard, a lawyer and politician, remained in North Carolina throughout the war years, but sent his family to Canada to keep them out of harm’s way. Fifteen years earlier, Jack left his infant daughter with friends in California when he was unable to deal with a personal tragedy. His daughter, Helen, has grown up with the understanding that Jack’s friends, Eli and Sofie Monroe are her parents.

Jack decides to return to Carmel Valley in California, hopeful he can find redemption and form a relationship with the daughter he has not seen since she was an infant. Richard decides North Carolina’s prospects are poor and that the railroads offer the most promising opportunity. He travels to New York to meet Collis P. Huntington, who serves as the Eastern Agent of the Central Pacific. It is, after all, on his way to Ontario Province, where he will gather his family.

Richard rose from his chair as his guest approached the table in the Fifth Avenue’s dining room.

“Mr. Grier, I presume?” At six feet one, Collis P. Huntington, forty-five years old, with thinning pepper-and-salt hair and a close-cropped beard, seldom had to look up at anyone. Both men dressed conservatively, in black frock coats and tweed trousers. In Huntington, Richard had found a man every bit as calculating and driven as himself.

***

[I]n Richard, [Huntington] saw a younger version of himself, and admired Richard’s abstention from alcohol, a requirement he had imposed on his hardware clerks back in Sacramento.

Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 11.

Huntington hires Richard to serve as the company general counsel’s right-hand man. Two years later, Richard returns to New York to meet with Huntington. He had only a smattering of an education, which is reflected in the correspondence quoted in David Lavender’s biography of Huntington, The Great Persuader. I reflect Huntington’s grammar in his conversation with Richard (Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 191):

Charley [Crocker] told me there’s lots more work to do on culverts and trestles, but, by God, he pulled it off. He could always sell picks and shovels, but Charley’s more of a showman than I ever gave him credit for. There was three inspectors. One was our old friend Lloyd Tevis, so Charley didn’t worry about him. And I didn’t worry none about Sherman Day. I’ve known him for over ten years. But the third one, a Colonel Williamson – well, none of us knew what to expect from him.

Thus, with Lavender’s biography as a resource, I realized that I had to coarsen Huntington’s language to accurately reflect his limited education.

Please consider a longer read. New Garden, the novel in which I introduce the reader to the Grier family, is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

Trouble at Mono Pass, the sequel to New Garden, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

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