Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Associates

This is the eleventh 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 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. This week, I turn to the “entire team,” of which Huntington was only one.

They called themselves “the Associates.” In addition to Huntington, they included brothers Edwin B. and Charley Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford. During most of the construction period, Huntington remained in New York as the company’s Eastern Agent. E.B. Crocker, called “the Judge” because of a brief term on the California Supreme Court, served as the company’s general counsel and Western Agent. Stanford handled the western political connections and Hopkins managed the books. In contrast to the Union Pacific’s principals, who led construction of the eastern leg from Omaha to Promontory Point, the Associates worked well as a team. That’s not to say they never disagreed, as illustrated in the following passage from Trouble at Mono Pass when fictional character Richard Grier, Judge Crocker’s right-hand man, returns home from the office at the end of the day and talks with his wife Lydia about a recent acquisition:

“Another late evening, Richard?” asked Lydia as the grandfather clock in the foyer struck eleven o’clock. “You do nothing but work.”

“We put the finishing touches on a major deal today, Lydia. The Central has acquired the Western Pacific. We now have rail rights to Stockton and San Jose. I’m sorry, but I could not discuss the details with you before now.”

“Is that why you have spent so much time lately in San Francisco?”

“Yes. It was touch and go, not so much with Charlie McLaughlin, who wanted to sell the Western, but among the Associates. Stanford and Judge Crocker saw it as a golden opportunity. Hopkins and Charley Crocker thought they had enough on their plates already.”

“So, I guess Huntington cast the deciding vote?”

“Not really. He sent a telegram neither approving nor rejecting the transaction. In essence, he left it up to the others. Hopkins did not really want to go along, but he did so once the Judge convinced his brother.”

Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 69.

Richard goes on to discuss the merits of the transaction.

I also provide the reader insight about Charley Crocker, who managed construction of the railroad. He was quite a contrast to his better educated brother, E.B. In one chapter, Richard’s son Richie tells his father that he wants to quit school and go to work on the railroad. Richard obliges his son in hopes that the back-breaking labor will change his mind:

They took the five o’clock morning train to Cisco. The train steadily chugged uphill from Sacramento through the foothills, where Richie detected small patches of snow in the amber fields of Spanish oats. Once the train climbed into the Sierra Nevada, the snow could be measured in feet. As the train slowed just after four p.m. for the Cisco stop, well over a mile higher than Sacramento, Richie found himself in a world of snow and ice. Sierra winters last well into May.


Charley Crocker stood at the platform waiting for them. Standing a hair above six feet, he weighed well over two hundred pounds. “Good afternoon, Grier. So this is the young man who is bored with the classroom. Can’t say I blame him. I spent most of my youth doing farm labor. I worked in a saw mill and an iron forge, too. If you want to drive men to accomplish a task, it’s best to have done hard labor yourself sometime in your life. What’s your name, son?”

Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 106.

In their correspondence, Judge Crocker and Huntington often took potshots at Stanford’s work ethic. I make several references to Stanford’s work habits, including one in which Judge Crocker makes a locomotive available to main character Jack Grier after the Crawford Gang has kidnapped Richard’s daughter Ellen and the Judge’s daughter Kate:

“As far as I know, [Wessels, Crawford’s inside man] never laid eyes on us,” said Jack.

“You can’t send a whole army after him. He’d know right away. *** It would help if we can get to Truckee before Wessels.”

“That’s no problem,” Crocker replied. “We’ve got the Governor Leland Stanford sitting idle, just like its namesake. It can haul one passenger car and one horse car. You can be out of here in an hour if that suits you.”

Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 225.

These are just three brief examples. I try to use history accurately in the context of the story. I hope the reader is entertained and learns a little history along the way.


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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