Category Archives: American history

You Can’t Please Everybody: The 1824 Presidential Election & the Twelfth Amendment

1824 election results (Source: WW Norton & Company)

1824 election results (Source: WW Norton & Company)

Last week’s article explored how the 1800 Presidential election motivated the highly partisan Democratic-Republicans and Federalists to pursue Article V’s extremely challenging process of amending the Constitution in order to avoid a repeat of the Jefferson-Burr fiasco (caused largely by the Democratic-Republicans’ failure to order one of its electors to vote for a favorite son, thereby avoiding a tie vote for its two candidates).

The Twelfth Amendment cured what in 1800 proved to be the most significant defect of Article V by requiring each elector to cast one vote for President and one vote for Vice President. The Twelfth Amendment further provides that in the event no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives will select the President among the three candidates who receive the most electoral votes. This provision became important in the second, and last, election in which the House of Representatives selected the President.

John Quincy Adams (Source:

John Quincy Adams (Source:

By 1824, the Federalist Party had collapsed, leaving the Democratic-Republicans to run a candidate or candidates for President. Four men ran to become the nation’s sixth President: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. It is the rare history buff who remembers Crawford, who served as Secretary of the Treasury, but he was the official candidate of the party caucus even though he was in poor health.

Jackson garnered the most popular and electoral votes, but not a majority. Clay came in fourth, so he was out of the running. Clay, however, wielded great influence as Speaker of the House. He detested Jackson and threw his support to Adams in exchange for Adams’ promise to make Clay Secretary of State. Adams won the Presidency on the first vote, as contrasted with 1800’s thirty-six.

Jackson had his revenge four years later when he swamped Adams by a 2-1 margin in the Electoral College. By that time, only two state legislatures selected their electors, meaning that most electors were determined by the popular vote.

The 1824 election fractured the Democratic-Republican Party. Those who followed Jackson ultimately became the Democratic Party. Those who followed Adams and Clay founded the Whig Party, the predecessor to yet another party, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party.

Andrew Jackson (Source:

Andrew Jackson (Source:

The take-away from the 1824 election is two-fold: the Twelfth Amendment worked, thus avoiding another Constitutional crisis; and the election generated a split in what had been the only viable political party, the Democratic-Republicans.

As I said earlier, the House of Representatives has not selected the President since the 1824 election. We have witnessed what can happen even when a candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes (civil war). How will American voters react in a future election if a candidate does not receive a majority of the electoral votes (most likely due to a tie)?

Remember, the Twelfth Amendment did not change the voting methodology in the House of Representatives – each state has only one vote. This country has had some very close Presidential elections in the not-too-distant past (2004, 2000, 1968, 1960). Will Americans take a collective deep breath and accept as President a candidate who wins neither the popular vote nor the electoral vote, but wins a majority of states in the House of Representatives? We can only hope we do not have to answer that question in the not-too-distant future.


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Constitutional Crisis: The 1800 Presidential Election

Charles Pinckney (Source: NNDB)

Charles Pinckney (Source: NNDB)

It isn’t easy to amend the United States Constitution. Article V requires that an amendment be proposed by Congress with a 2/3 majority in both the House and the Senate (or by a Constitutional Convention called by 2/3 of the States). The proposed amendment does not become part of the Constitution unless it is ratified by ¾ of the States. It is difficult to imagine how the current political divide would allow any further amendment to the Constitution in the near future. But the 1800 Presidential election generated change to the Constitution even in the midst of rancor between the two parties of the day, John Adams’ Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans.

The disdain shown by the Federalists and the Republicans might embarrass today’s Democrats and Republicans. Federalists called Jefferson an atheist. Republicans called Adams senile. Federalists feared Jefferson would bring America the worst of the French Revolution. Republicans were certain the Federalists would return America to its colonial status or impose a central government equally offensive as the British crown.

Aaron Burr (Source:

Aaron Burr (Source:

At that time, the parties did not nominate separate candidates for President and Vice President. Each party nominated two candidates, both for the Presidency. In 1800, the Federalists chose John Adams and Charles Pinckney as their two candidates. The Republicans chose Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The candidate who received a majority of the electoral votes became President. Under Article II of the Constitution, each of the state’s electors cast two ballots. The candidate who came in second became the Vice President.

The sixteen states had a mishmash of methods of selecting electors. In eleven, the state legislatures selected the electors, meaning that the state’s controlling party selected the electors. In the others, white male property owners or white male taxpayers voted for the electors. Some states used a winner-take-all system while others split the votes.

The Federalists exercised sufficient control over their electors to insure that Adams received at least one more ballot than Pinckney. The Republicans failed to exercise such party discipline; their electors cast 73 ballots for Jefferson and 73 ballots for Burr. Adams received 65 votes and Pinckney received 64.

Tally of Electoral Votes for the 1800 Presidential Election (Source:

Tally of Electoral Votes for the 1800 Presidential Election (Source:

With neither Jefferson nor Burr receiving a majority of the electoral votes cast, Article II gave the House of Representatives the duty to choose the next President. Because Jefferson was the clear leader of the Republican Party, one would expect Burr to step aside. Ambition trumped party loyalty. It was left to the lame duck Federalist House to select one of its two Republican enemies as the next President of the United States.

Ultimately, backroom deals would give Jefferson the White House, of course, but it was not easy. Each state delegation could cast only one vote. With 16 states, Jefferson had to win nine, right? The Federalists cast their lot with Burr, generating 19 ties during a February 11, 1801 snowstorm. The deadlock remained unbroken through another sixteen votes. Finally, on Monday, February 17, Jefferson won a majority on the 36th vote, not because he picked up an additional state, but because the Delaware delegation abstained in accordance with Jefferson’s agreement to make various accommodations to the Federalists.

The parties averted a near debacle and worked to prevent a repeat of the 1800 election. Within three years, Congress proposed and the States ratified the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides, among other things, that electors must cast separate ballots for President and Vice President.

Our white-wigged forefathers recognized that the original Constitution is an organic instrument that requires change from time to time. They made amendment a difficult process, but not an impossible one.


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Snow Sheds of the Sierra Nevada

Mock up of snow sled construction on the transcontinental railroad. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

Mock up of snow shed construction on the transcontinental railroad. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

I had read about them, of course, while researching the construction of the transcontinental railroad for my upcoming sequel to New Garden. I know the Sierra Nevada – well, at least the portion that makes up Yosemite National Park, which I have visited at least once each year for the past fifteen years. I already understood that the Sierra, whose peaks reach 7,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level and trap the Arctic storms from the Pacific, experience heavy snows, sometimes from October to June.

I knew that the builders of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad, which ultimately would span 690 miles between Sacramento, California, and Promontory Point, Utah, faced a formidable task, having to drill the first of fifteen tunnels through granite just 92 miles east of Sacramento.

Snow shed in background. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

Snow shed in background. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

This past May, my wife and I traveled to Sacramento, where we visited the California Railroad Museum. While there, our excellent tour guide credited Building Superintendent Charley Crocker (who, along with Edwin Crocker, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins, ran the Central Pacific) with the two most important executive decisions that made railroad construction possible in the Sierra Nevada: first, hiring thousands of Chinese to perform the labor that white laborers refused to do; second, building over thirty miles of “snow sheds,” which allowed the laborers to work and the trains to run in all but the very worst snow storms.

Samuel Montague, the Central’s chief engineer, identified the problem and proposed the solution in his December 1865 survey and construction report:

The heavy snowfall in the immediate vicinity of the Summit, amounting in the aggregate to ten, and sometimes even twelve feet in depth, and a much heavier accumulation at some points by drifting, will render it necessary to provide a substantial protection, either of timber or masonry, to ensure the successful and uninterrupted operation of the road during the winter months.

The principal points requiring such protection occur upon the eastern slope, and within two miles of the Summit . . .

Central Pacific Railroad Office and Huntington & Hopkins Hardware, Sacramento, Calif.

Central Pacific Railroad Office and Huntington & Hopkins Hardware, Sacramento, Calif.

The California State Railroad Museum includes among its exhibits a replica of a snow shed under construction. There’s nothing like seeing a full-size reproduction of the snow sheds. Imagine 37 miles of such structures plus 15 tunnels! (If you’ve ridden the Metro in Washington or the subway in New York, you have some idea of the claustrophobic sensation.)

Six years after engineer Montague’s report, the New York brokerage that marketed Central Pacific bonds could boast to its bondholders that Sierra Nevada winters posed no obstacle to coast-to-coast travel:

The experience of the past year has shown that [a] journey [from New York to San Francisco] can be made with almost as much accuracy and certainty, as to time and connections, as from New York to Boston, and that even in winter, in spite of the mountain snows, from which so much was dreaded, and so much of failure prophesied, the aggregate detention of passengers and mails, in proportion to the distance traveled, is less than that experienced between New York and New Haven.

Photo timeline depicts pictures taken along different segments of the transcontinental railroad. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

Photo timeline depicts pictures taken along different segments of the transcontinental railroad. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

Thus, thousands of Chinese workers and miles of snow sheds allowed the Central Pacific to conquer the Sierra Nevada granite and weather and to make coast-to-coast travel possible for those who could afford the fare. Travel from California to the east coast no longer required one to sail to Panama City, cross the isthmus, and then sail from there to New York. One could now forget the perils of ocean travel and cross the continent by rail in only two weeks.

I wish to thank the Railroad Museum’s curator, Kyle Wyatt, and librarian, Cara Randall. They generously provided their time and a wealth of information about the Central Pacific, including the materials cited below.


  • Report of the Chief Engineer upon Recent Surveys and Progress of Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad of California (December, 1865)
  • Fisk & Hatch Report to the Bondholders of the Central and Western Pacific Railroad Companies (January 2, 1871).

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Filed under 1800s, American history, history, railroad, Transcontinental Railroad, United States

Bloody May: Grant’s 1864 Campaign Against Lee

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Union General U.S. Grant’s campaign to destroy Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Portrait of General Meade (Source:

Portrait of General Meade (Source:

As Virginia’s many rivers go, the Rapidan receives scant notice. Its headwaters begin 4,000 feet above sea level near the Big Meadows in the Blue Ridge. From there, the river descends east, gradually widening until it flows into the Rappahannock River northwest of Charlottesville and Fredericksburg. During the winter of 1863-1864, every American identified the river as the boundary line between General Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

On Wednesday, May 4, 1864, Grant sent Meade’s 120,000 soldiers across the Rapidan on pontoon bridges constructed by the army’s engineers at two points: Ely’s Ford and Germanna Ford. Grant was determined to destroy Lee’s 60,000-man army and capture Richmond in the process.

Throughout the month of May, Grant and Lee danced their deadly Tarantella, suffering losses in proportion to their numbers. In the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, the Union army suffered casualties – killed, wounded, or captured – of 36,000 men while the Confederate casualties totaled 24,000. To put the losses in perspective, one has to remember that the United States population today is ten times that of 1864 (taking into account populations both north and south).

Battle of the Wilderness, Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, 1865; Painting by Alonzo Chappel (Source:

Battle of the Wilderness, Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, 1865; Painting by Alonzo Chappel (Source:

Despite the heavy losses, Grant continued forward, unlike the Union commanders who preceded him. He made “turn the left flank” the order of the day, and by Thursday, June 2, Union troops had fought their way within ten air miles of Richmond. Both commanders replenished their losses. Grant received 40,000 fresh troops in the second half of May, most from the “heavy artillery” units in and around Washington, who previously had seen action only on Washington’s parade grounds. Lee had to move Confederate troops south of Richmond and in North Carolina to bring his troop strength back to his original 60,000. By doing so, Lee risked a rout from the rear.

June would open with a shocking loss for the Union troops. I will address that in another article.

Most of this brief account is taken from my Civil War era novel, New Garden (pages 275-276), available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel is also available in Greensboro, NC, at the Greensboro Historical Museum and Scuppernong Books.

For historical sources about Grant’s campaign, I recommend the following:

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Filed under 1800s, American history, battle, Civil War, General Grant, Presidents, slavery, United States

Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1869 Inauguration

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States (Source:


The theme song from the 1930 movie “Chasing Rainbows” was the campaign song for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful 1932 Presidential campaign and would become the unofficial campaign song of the Democratic Party for years to come. But the song’s spirit aptly describes the atmosphere of Ulysses S. Grant’s first inauguration.

Grant’s opponent, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, had waged an ugly, racist campaign. During the months between his nomination in May and his election in November, Grant had spent most of his time in his hometown of Galena, Illinois, and the rest of his time exploring America’s Great Plains. As was customary in most Presidential campaigns of the nineteenth century, Grant had left the public speaking to others.

The town’s citizens were in a celebratory mood. They had endured four years of war and almost four years with President Andrew Johnson and Congress at each other’s throat, culminating in Johnson’s narrow escape from conviction at his impeachment trial the past spring.

 Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies' Library)

Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies’ Library)

Although the air was cool and misty on Thursday morning, March 4, 1869, eager onlookers crowded the streets of the nation’s capital. All of them wanted a glimpse of the President-elect, the man who had brought an end to the Civil War. Some in the crowd wanted to see the First Lady, Julia Dent Grant, bringing their spyglasses to determine if there was any truth to the rumor that her brown eyes peered in two different directions.

Grant had won the election in an electoral landslide. Within the next few months, work crews two thousand miles to the west would complete the wonder of the age, the transcontinental railroad. Land-hungry men, North and South, were filling America’s vast territories. Scandals about Congressional bribes and generous payments to railroad companies would come, but on inauguration day citizens took a deep breath and celebrated the war hero who promised to bring peace to a recently reunited nation.




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May 9, 2014 · 7:04 pm

Adlai Stevenson II: Intellectual, Graceful Loser to Eisenhower

TIME Magazine from October 1952 cover featuring Adlai Stevenson II (Source:

TIME magazine cover from October 1952 featuring Adlai Stevenson II (Source:

Continuing last week’s theme, this article addresses the 1952 and 1956 Presidential elections, when Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II suffered resounding defeats at the hands of General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the western allied forces in Europe in World War II.

In an earlier article on the 1960 Presidential election, I discussed the states of the largely “solid South” which, with several exceptions, cast their votes for the candidate from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Stevenson largely enjoyed the same support in 1952, when he carried West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In 1956, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana threw their support to Eisenhower, while Stevenson won a majority of Missouri’s voters. Eisenhower won over 80 percent of the electoral vote in both elections, 442-89 in 1952 and 457-73 in 1956. (One Alabama elector cast his 1956 vote for an Alabama politician, Walter B. Jones.)

In the absence of a scandal, Eisenhower, like U.S. Grant 88 years earlier, was a shoo-in whether he ran as a Republican or a Democrat. With great justification Stevenson reluctantly accepted his party’s nomination in 1952. Having been bitten by the bug, however, he successfully pursued the nomination again in 1956 and was swamped by John Kennedy in 1960. His ambition irritated the Kennedy team and cost him the position of Secretary of State in 1960. Instead, he was relegated to serve as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, where he served with great distinction until his death in 1965.

Stevenson campaign button (Source:

Stevenson campaign button (Source:

The Bushes and Clintons are not the first American political dynasties. They were preceded by the Kennedys and the Roosevelts (and, of course much earlier, the Adamses). Adlai Stevenson II also was part of a political dynasty. His namesake grandfather served as Vice President under Grover Cleveland. His maternal great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Republican Party, counting Abraham Lincoln among his friends. Adlai II’s father served as secretary of state in Illinois and his son, Adlai Stevenson III, served as a United States Senator.

Adlai Stevenson II is remembered best for his grace in defeat and his intellectual wit. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from him:

“It is said that a wise man who stands firm is a statesman, and a foolish man who stands firm is a catastrophe.” [Fools and Foolishness Quotes]

“An independent is a guy who wants to take the politics out of politics.” [Politics Quotes]

“Some people approach every problem with an open mouth.” [Quips and Comments Quotes]

For more about Adlai Stevenson II, please see the following sources:

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Filed under 1800s, 1900s, American history, Elections, history, Presidential elections, Presidents, United States, World War II

Running for President against a War Hero

Horatio Seymour (Source: Dickinson College)

Horatio Seymour (Source: Dickinson College)

For much of this country’s history, America’s voters have elected Presidents with some history of military service. Until President Clinton’s election in 1992, every successful candidate for the White House since World War II had worn a military uniform. But for a down-cycle economy in 1992 and a thriving economy in 1996, it is unlikely Mr. Clinton would have broken the trend.

Of our 44 Presidents, twelve have held the rank of general, with ten having seen battle action: Washington, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Eisenhower.

Imagine two of the unsuccessful candidates who ran against the heroes of their day, former New York governor Horatio Seymour, who ran against General Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, and Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who challenged General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. This article is limited to a discussion of Seymour. I will talk about Stevenson in my next article.

Seymour had served two terms as governor of New York. In 1863, he had questioned the constitutionality of the Union’s conscription laws, largely because he believed they were tilted in favor of Republican congressional districts. During the New York City draft riots in July, 1863, he had addressed some demonstrators as “my friends.” The riots ultimately were extinguished by veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Adlai Stevenson (Source:

Adlai Stevenson (Source:

At the 1868 Democratic Convention, Seymour reluctantly accepted the nomination on the 22nd ballot. In the election campaign that followed, Seymour and his Vice-Presidential running mate, former former Union General Francis Blair, pursued a “white man’s” platform, arguing that the Republicans’ reconstruction policies should be nullified. President Johnson had narrowly escaped conviction in his impeachment trial only a few months earlier. His impeachment had been due in large part to his resistance to reconstruction legislation (although the principal pretext for impeachment had been Johnson’s non-compliance with the highly controversial, and certainly unconstitutional, Tenure of Office Act). Americans had just suffered through four years of civil war and three years of Johnson and the Congress at one another’s throats. And Seymour thought they wanted more of the same?

Grant, in contrast, followed the tradition of the age, not campaigning at all (Can you imagine?), but instead spending much of his time either in his hometown of Galena, Illinois, or on vacation on the Great Plains. Rather than stirring the pot, he avoided making speeches. His campaign managers exhorted the populace to “[l]et us have peace.”

Seymour did win over 47 percent of the popular vote, but Grant won the electoral-college vote in a 214-80 landslide. Seymour won New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Oregon, Louisiana and Georgia. Three Southern states – Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas – had not been readmitted to the Union, and therefore did not participate in the election.

As I stated earlier, Grant was the hero of his age. He had “conquered the peace,” bringing an end to four bloody years of conflict. It is unlikely any Democratic candidate could have beaten Grant, particularly when many Americans believed the Democratic Party had brought on the war with their contentious 1860 Presidential nominating conventions in Charleston, South Carolina, and Baltimore, Maryland. Republicans waved the “bloody shirt.” Americans were not going to turn the White House over to the party they deemed responsible for over 600,000 American lives.


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Filed under 1800s, American history, history, Presidential elections, Presidents, Uncategorized, United States

Edwin B. Crocker, Railroad Lawyer

Born in upstate New York, E.B. Crocker set out for California in 1852, not to dig for gold or to sell to the miners, but to hang his lawyer’s shingle in Sacramento. His brother, Charles, soon followed, not to practice law but to sell to the miners.


E.B. Crocker (

The two brothers made up two of the five “Associates,” the men who guided the Central Pacific’s construction of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad, from Sacramento, California, to Promontory Point, Utah. In my prior article, I provided a brief biography of one of the Associates, Collis Huntington, the most successful railroad man of the Gilded Age. The other Associates were Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins.

As I stated in an earlier article, the Associates largely got along well, each contributing his talents in a collaborative manner, in stark contrast to the men who headed up the Union Pacific, responsible for completing the eastern leg of the transcontinental railroad. I say largely, because Huntington constantly complained about Stanford’s work ethic.

All five men were instrumental in founding California’s Republican Party, not necessarily a popular position in 1856 Sacramento. Stanford later served as California’s governor and appointed E.B. Crocker to the California Supreme Court. E.B. in later years often was referred to as Judge Crocker.

Ultimately, E.B. Crocker served as the Central Pacific’s legal counsel. In that role, he resolved the company’s many legal issues, including the legal details involved in the acquisition of other railroads. But he was much more than that. He regularly exchanged lengthy correspondence with Huntington, who served the company’s needs in the East (purchasing iron and rolling stock; securing financing; lobbying politicians in Washington).

The pressure was enormous. The Central had the onerous task of almost immediately having to drill through the Sierra Nevada granite. The price of Central Pacific bonds rose and fell with the latest rumor. Government subsidies depended upon laying as much track as possible. It was critical that the railroad “end” in a town or city, not in the middle of the Nevada desert or the Utah salt flats. Judge Crocker had to withstand Huntington’s demands to lay off Chinese and Irish workmen when weather prevented work; he knew that doing so might mean he would never get the workers back.

Huntington’s correspondence often chided his western partners when he thought progress was too slow. In turn, Judge Crocker expressed his exasperation with his Eastern Associate, letting Huntington know when he failed to timely arrange for the shipping of rails and other materials required to move forward.

As much as Huntington relished the railroad business, Judge Crocker often expressed his desire to be done with it. His health suffered from the long hours and the stress. He suffered a minor stroke in the spring of 1868. In June, 1869, only one month after officers from the competing railroads drove the golden spike at Promontory Point, he suffered a second stroke, which left him paralyzed. He was done with the railroad. In August, 1869, he and his family set out for a two-year vacation to Europe, where they went on an art buying spree.

Judge Crocker died in 1875. As one of the Associates, he helped to build the wonder of his age, a network of railroads spanning the continent. His widow, Margaret, contributed to his legacy, in the form of many charitable causes. On May 6, 1885, Margaret presented the Crocker art gallery building, grounds, and the E.B. Crocker art collection to the City of Sacramento and the California Association of Museums. The museum was the first public art gallery west of the Mississippi. It remains a vibrant world-class gallery and is located in historic Sacramento.


Crocker Art Museum (Source:

Judge Crocker’s most colorful child was Aimee, whose autobiography is titled And I’d Do It Again. She married five times and lived an extravagant lifestyle. Among her marriages was one to a European prince. The marriage of American money to European royalty, as portrayed in Downton Abbey, was not uncommon during the Gilded Age. Huntington’s adopted child Clara also married European royalty.

Sources: Bain, Empire Express; Lavender, The Great Persuader. You can learn more about the Crocker family at


Filed under 1800s, American history, Gilded Age, railroad, Transcontinental Railroad, United States

Collis Huntington: Restless Railroad Tycoon

Collis P. Huntington (Source:

Collis P. Huntington (Source:

Of all the so-called robber barons of the Gilded Age, Collis P. Huntington reigned as the railroad king. He was born near Hartford, Connecticut, in 1821, the sixth of nine children in a humble household. Huntington received a very limited formal education, a few months here and there. His alma mater truly was the school of hard knocks.

As a teenager, Huntington entered the retail business. He traveled the countryside for a number of years, peddling a smattering of household goods. At twenty-one, he went to work for his brother, Solon, who owned a store in Oneonta, New York. Two years later, the brothers formed a partnership.

When news of James Marshall’s gold discovery reached New York, the brothers decided to extend the reach of their business to the California gold fields. Solon financed the venture and Collis made the trip, joined by five fellow Oneontans. They decided to take the shortcut across the Isthmus of Panama rather than sailing around Cape Horn, the route favored by most gold seekers, who feared the cholera, yellow fever, and malaria of tropical Panama more than the rough seas of the Atlantic and the Pacific.

When Huntington’s group reached the Pacific coast, they had to wait six weeks to catch a steamer to California. Huntington did not idle that time away. He walked all over the region, buying goods on the cheap and selling them at great profit to his fellow travelers. By his estimation, he made three thousand dollars during the six-week layover, an enormous sum when one considers that the average American farm worker earned thirty dollars as a monthly wage.

Huntington & Hopkins Hardware Store (Source:

In California, Huntington successfully sold his goods to the miners and eventually settled in Sacramento, where he and fellow adventurer Mark Hopkins established Huntington & Hopkins Hardware in 1855. Five years later, Huntington was bitten by the railroad bug, in the form of Ted Judah, who visualized a railroad stretching across the American continent. Judah, the railroad prophet, contracted a tropical fever while crossing Panama and died in New York in 1863. Huntington and his business associates, whom Judah inspired, would see to the execution of Judah’s dream, accomplished six years later (May 1869) at Promontory Summit, Utah.

While the pressures of building the transcontinental railroad ruined the health of Edwin Crocker, one of Huntington’s business associates, it only spurred Huntington to do more. Huntington was instrumental in building and controlling railroads throughout the West. Not content there, he helped revive the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad. Huntington planned to build an eastern railroad that would extend from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Newport News, Virginia. He went on to establish the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, still actively building ships today.

Thus, Huntington’s reach extended over the entire American continent. It is true that some of his success resulted from lining the pockets of politicians at the national and local levels. But he was not the lone sinner in that regard. He was, however, one of the most successful. He took the big chance and received great financial rewards for successfully doing so.

Huntington’s legacy lives on, not only in the railroads and shipyard that survived him, but in the charitable gifts left by his heirs. Those include Mariner’s Museum in my hometown of Newport News; Brookgreen Gardens near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

Sources: David Lavender, The Great Persuader (Doubleday 1970); David Bain, Empire Express (Viking Penguin 1999).

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Gilded Age, railroad, Transcontinental Railroad, United States

The Men of the Transcontinental Railroad

(Source: WXII)

(Source: WXXI)

Building the first transcontinental railroad was the largest engineering and technology undertaking of that time in U.S. history. In the sequel (coming December 2014) to my historical novel New Garden, the construction of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad serves as the primary backdrop for the story. As a preview of sorts, this article centers on “the Associates” of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, who built and financed the railroad that ran from Sacramento, California, to Promontory Summit, Utah. The eastern leg, built by the Union Pacific, ran from Omaha, Nebraska, to Promontory Summit, where the companies drove the ceremonial golden spike on May 10, 1869.

So who were these “Associates,” and what in their backgrounds prepared them for this engineering achievement, even more important in that time than today’s Internet and social media?

Known as the “Big Four,” the primary Associates were Sacramento grocers and hardware retailers: Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charley Crocker, and Leland Stanford. The fifth, Edwin B. Crocker (Charley’s brother) was a prominent California lawyer. Although Edwin received a civil engineering degree, he opted for the law, so there was no practicing engineer in the entire group. As was true of most Californians at the time, they had come west during the California Gold Rush. They had made their fortunes by supplying the miners, not by digging for gold themselves. Huntington hailed from Connecticut and all the others came from upstate New York.

Union Pacific workers taking lunch in Utah's Uinta Mountains

Union Pacific workers taking lunch in Utah’s Uinta Mountains (Source:

In addition to the engineering challenges at hand, many geographic barriers impeded the process. The Union Pacific’s initial flatland work over the Great Plains proved to be a piece of cake compared with obstacles the Central Pacific encountered – who almost immediately had to tunnel through the Sierra Nevada granite before reaching the easy work east of the mountains. And it wasn’t as if they had to drill only one tunnel; they had to drill fifteen. The longest, Summit Tunnel, required drilling through 1,750 feet of granite at an elevation of seven thousand feet. The Central Pacific also had to deal with Sierra Nevada winters, often lasting from October to June, when snow fell in feet, not inches.

The federal government subsidized the work based on miles of track laid. Although the government provided a higher rate for mountain work than for the easier prairie work, it did not come close to compensating for the greater difficulty of the task.

While the railroad ultimately made the Associates incredibly wealthy, it just as easily could have driven all of them into poverty. It ruined Edwin Crocker’s health. He suffered two strokes before leaving the railroad business behind in August, 1869, for a two-year vacation in Europe.

Mormon workers digging the Union Pacific Deep Cut #1 through Weber Canyon (Source:

Mormon workers digging the Union Pacific Deep Cut #1 through Weber Canyon (Source:

The Associates operated from the Stanford Building’s second-floor offices (known as “Stanford Hall”) at 56-58 K Street, next door to Huntington & Hopkins Hardware, in Sacramento. Charley Crocker worked on the line with one-eyed James Strobridge, driving the thousands of Chinese and Irish workers who graded the roadbeds. The duo also built the bridges, cut through the granite, and laid the track. Huntington went east, where he twisted arms in Washington and bought the iron and rolling stock that was shipped around the southern tip of South America. Treasurer Mark Hopkins watched prices like a hawk. E.B. Crocker did the legal maneuvering in California, while Leland Stanford handled local politics and negotiated with Brigham Young in Utah.

Once the Central Pacific crossed the Sierra Nevada, the workers laid track at a rate of one to two miles per day. Near the end, Charley Crocker wanted to demonstrate how much track his Chinese workers could lay when really pushed. On April 28, 1869, they laid ten miles of track.

While Charley Crocker puffed out his chest with pride, Huntington, who often questioned why Charley did not accomplish more when funding depended on the number of miles laid, had a different reaction, which he put in a letter to Charley on the same day the other railroad men celebrated at Promontory Summit:

I notice by the papers that there was ten miles of track laid in one day on the Central Pacific, which was really a great feat, the more particularly when we consider that it was done after the necessity for its being done had passed.

That was Huntington, about whom I will say much more in another article.


  • Bain, David, Empire Express (Penguin Group 1999).
  • Lavender, David, The Great Persuader, (Doubleday 1969).
  • Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum,

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Filed under 1800s, American history, history, railroad, Transcontinental Railroad, United States