Category Archives: Transcontinental Railroad

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,

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.


  • Bain, David Haward. Empire Express. New York, New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • American Experience,


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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.


  • Abraham Lincoln Historical Society, “Abraham Lincoln, the Railroad Lawyer,”
  • 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,”
  • Shultz, Jay, Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company,”

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Frontier Bias against the Chinese and the Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad

Chinese transcontinental railroad workers (Source: Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center)

Chinese transcontinental railroad workers. Photo taken in 1869. (Source: Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center)

As I mentioned in my last article, this past May, I visited the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento. 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.

Last week, I discussed the snow sheds. This week, I will turn my attention to the thousands of Chinese who made such a significant contribution to the construction of the railroad. Most people even vaguely familiar with the building of the transcontinental railroad know that the Chinese made up a significant portion of the workforce. Few people understand why.

The answer has three components: bias against the Chinese; the shortage of white men willing to do the work; and the Chinese work ethic and history of similar construction.

A Chinese tea carrier outside the east portal of tunnel #8 through the Sierras. (Source:

A Chinese tea carrier outside the east portal of tunnel #8 through the Sierras. (Source:

The Chinese arrived in waves shortly after the beginning of the Gold Rush. They spoke a different language, practiced a different religion, dressed differently, and maintained a different diet. More importantly, they enjoyed success finding gold in California’s foothills. White miners often drove them off their claims – the same fate suffered by other foreign miners. Local jurisdictions restricted them from filing mining claims. White miners successfully lobbied for state laws that penalized the Chinese: the Foreign Miners’ License Tax; the Act to Provide for the Protection of Foreigners and to Define Their Liabilities and Privileges; the Act to Discourage the Immigration to This State of Persons Who Cannot Become Citizens Thereof (and a host of others cited in Professor David Bain’s Empire Express, p. 206).

The proximity of Nevada’s Comstock Lode on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada worked against the Central Pacific’s retention of white laborers, who often worked only long enough to earn money to pay the fare for the Dutch Flat Wagon Road to the east side of the Sierra. The prospect of striking it rich outweighed the certain monthly $30 plus board for back-breaking work. To the Chinese, the lower wage of $26 per month, with which they had to provide their own meals, looked brighter than the certain discrimination and harassment they could expect if they tried to compete with white miners in the silver mines.

Charley Crocker, whose line superintendent, one-eyed James Strobridge, resisted hiring the Chinese to do stonework, famously said, “Didn’t they build the Chinese Wall?” Strobridge, initially one of the Chinese workers’ greatest skeptics, soon became one of their greatest boosters. The Chinese showed up on time and did not lay out the first day of the week (like some white workers who drank their wages on their day off). Before beginning work, the Chinese boiled their tea to take with them to work, thus assuring themselves of a sanitary source of water. Video: Transcontinental Railroad Recruits Chinese Laborers:

And, as Charley Crocker said, they had built the Great Wall of China. The building methods differed little in the Sierra, where initially gunpowder was the predominant means of blasting through the rock. (The Central Pacific did learn to use the less stable nitro glycerin, which required substantially less drilling than did the gunpowder. John Gillis, American Society of Civil Engineers, “Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad,” 1870.) The Chinese were doing the kind of work they had done for centuries.

For those who worked on the railroad, the hours were grueling and extremely strenuous

For those who worked on the railroad, the hours were grueling and extremely strenuous.

Thus, limited economic opportunities (due to bias), a livelihood for which few white men wished to compete, and experience in the construction methods they had to employ, all conspired to make the Chinese available and capable to make their substantial contribution to the wonder of their age, the construction of the railroad through a mountain range many did not think possible to cross.

Rather than honoring the Chinese for their work, California and the United States would continue to discriminate against them, most significantly with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all immigration of Chinese laborers.

I wish to reiterate my thanks to the Railroad Museum’s curator, Kyle Wyatt, and librarian, Cara Randall, who so generously provided their time and a wealth of information about the Central Pacific.


  • Bain, Empire Express, Penguin Group: New York, NY (1999)
  • Brands, The Age of Gold, Anchor Books: New York, NY (2003)
  • Gillis, American Society of Civil Engineers, “Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad (Jan. 5, 1870)
  • Lavender, The Great Persuader, Doubleday: Garden City, NY, (1970)


June 21, 2014 · 1:47 pm

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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Financing America’s First Transcontinental Railroad

The roles of the Associates and the Central Pacific’s construction of the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad are laid out in detail in the past three articles. While the Associates risked their personal wealth in accomplishing their task, the project required far more in resources than they could muster from individual investors. The same was true of the Union Pacific’s principal owners.

In this painting, a rail official drives the golden spike in Promontory, Utah (Source:

In this painting, a rail official drives the golden spike in Promontory, Utah (Source:

The Associates obtained substantial amounts of funding from California and from municipalities, but the greatest source for the national project was the federal government. It seems only fitting that President Lincoln, a former railroad lawyer, signed the first two major pieces of legislation, the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and a significant amendment to the Act in 1864.

The 1862 legislation provided for 30-year federal loans at 6% interest, in amounts that depended upon the difficulty of the grade. The “easy grades” generated bonds in the amount of $16,000 per mile. The track in the extremely difficult mountainous regions generated bonds in the amount of $48,000 per mile. Bonds in the amount of $32,000 per mile were issued for track over the high plains. A portion of the funds were withheld until the entire line was in working order. Failure to complete the entire line by January 1, 1874, would result in forfeiture of all rights, including the entire rail line completed as of that date.

In addition, the companies were granted 6,400 acres of land per mile of line completed. The companies were not entitled to mineral rights, but they were entitled to timber and stone on either side of a 400-foot right-of-way.

The 1864 legislation allowed the companies to float their own 30-year bonds at 6% interest, on which the federal government paid the interest the first year and guaranteed the interest payment for the next nineteen years. Authorized amounts ranged from $24,000 to $96,000 per mile. To enhance the marketability of the companies’ bonds the 1864 legislation gave the company bonds first-mortgage status over the government-issued bonds. The legislation also allowed the Central Pacific to extend its track 150 miles across the Nevada line, assuming the Union Pacific did not get ahead of them. Important to both companies, the forfeiture provision was removed.

It is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (but is not the final golden spike). (Source: Wikipedia)

This is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (but is not the final golden spike). (Source: Wikipedia)

An 1865 amendment, signed by President Andrew Johnson on July 3, 1866, dropped the restriction against the Central Pacific going 150 miles beyond the Nevada border, allowing the companies to lay track as far as they could until the two tracks met. The race was on and would not end until the driving of the ceremonial golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, well before the 1874 deadline set in the 1862 Act (but removed in the 1864 amendment).

One may argue whether the legislation was too generous to the railroad companies, but there is little doubt that few investors would have taken on the task without the government subsidies. Much of the West would have remained isolated without the railroad. Before the railroad, goods were shipped either around the southern tip of South America or across Panama. To put matters in perspective, it took upwards of three weeks just to ship mail between New York and San Francisco. Completion of the transcontinental railroad reduced the time to ten days.

Sources: Bain, Empire Express; Lavender, The Great Persuader; Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum,

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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


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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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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,

Additional Resources:

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