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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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The Union Pacific Railroad’s Thomas Durant: Getting the Facts Right

I have written a great deal about the men of the Central Pacific Railroad. But one cannot talk about the transcontinental railroad without talking about the Central Pacific’s eastern counterpart, the Union Pacific and Thomas Durant.

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A meeting of the board of Union Pacific Railroads in a private railway car. L-R, seated at the table Silas Seymour, consulting engineer, Sidney Dillon, Thomas Durant (1820 – 1885), and John Duff, directors. Photograph by Andrew Joseph Russell (1830-1902). (Photo by A. J. Russell /Getty Images)

The popular television show Hell on Wheels has part of it right – Thomas Durant was a stock manipulator and con man who did not hesitate to instruct his engineers to take the long way to get from Point A to Point B so as to maximize the railroad’s take at the government trough. But much of the rest of the portrayal is at odds with fact – he spent very little time on the railroad, preferring to make business deals in his luxurious New York office or entertaining clients on his yacht. Just understand that the television program is for your entertainment. (Similarly, the show puts the Central Pacific’s Collis Huntington in California. As the eastern agent for the Central, he moved to New York in 1863. He lived and worked there, with side trips to Washington, D.C. He did not return to the West until December 1868, when he wanted to see for himself the railroad’s progress. He immediately returned to New York after an absence of only 31 days.) Consult the history for the facts.

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Colm Meaney plays Thomas Durant on the AMC show “Hell on Wheels”

He was born in 1820, the son of a prosperous Massachusetts merchant – also at odds with the television show’s portrayal of him as someone who had to grovel for sustenance as a child. At 20 years old, he graduated from Albany Medical College with a specialty in ophthalmology. At 23, he cast that profession aside to join his uncle’s shipping firm as a partner.

In 1853, Durant became a partner in the contracting firm of Farnam and Durant. The firm’s first project was the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (which later hired attorney Abraham Lincoln to represent the company in a dispute with ferryboat companies about a bridge built over the Mississippi River). Due to contract obligations having to be paid in the form of railroad securities, Farnam and Durant ultimately took control of the railroad, with Farnam as its president.

Thereafter, Farnam and Durant chartered another railroad company, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (“the M&M”), with their eyes set on Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, the first set on the east bank of the Missouri and Omaha across the river on its western bank. The railroad progressed in fits and starts, with bond money from Council Bluffs, Omaha, and several Iowa counties that wanted in the game. The company had made little progress when the Panic of 1857 brought down the whole operation. With most of the bond money unaccounted for, Farnam discovered that Durant had pledged their construction company’s securities to dabble in the stock market. Durant survived the Panic unscathed while Farnam was ruined and Iowa saw very little track and grade for its investment in the railroad men.

Undeterred, Durant set his eyes on the transcontinental enterprise. Once he took control of the Union Pacific during the Civil War, he could look west and hope to complete the tracks that would connect the west coast to the east. Contrary to President Lincoln’s wishes, Durant established the eastern terminus in Omaha rather than Council Bluffs. That bridge would have to wait until after Promontory Point, when Durant had left the company. A railroad bridge over a major river is an expensive project, especially when your company can lay miles of tracks in less time over the Great Plains.

It had to test Durant’s patience and stamina, for the Union Pacific did not lay a single rail until after Appomattox. Along the way, Durant established Credit Mobilier, the construction company that secured all the contracts for the grading, the tracks, and all the bridges, trestles, and tunnels – thus guaranteeing Durant would make money in the enterprise even if the Union Pacific failed. Ultimately the Union Pacific had laid two-thirds of the track between Omaha and Sacramento when the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869. Durant cheated business partners and employees the entire journey, but in the end he received credit for an achievement that resulted as much despite his interference as because of his contributions.

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The Central Pacific Railroad

Kyle Wyatt, Kathryn Santos, Cara Randall

California State Railroad Museum employees: Kyle Wyatt, Kathryn Santos and Cara Randall

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

June 9, 2015 – Sierra Nevada – J. Edward Gray

This past week, I stayed in Reno, Nevada, and visited Sacramento prior to going to Yosemite where I am serving as a volunteer in Tuolomne Meadows. While in Sacramento, I renewed acquaintances with the good folks at the California State Railroad Museum Library – Curator Kyle Wyatt and Librarian Cara Randall. I also met for the first time Archivist Kathryn Santos. As I noted in the Acknowledgments to my book Trouble at Mono Pass, Kyle and Cara provided highly valuable information about the operations of the Central Pacific Railroad during its construction of the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad.

Traveling on Interstate 80 between Reno and Sacramento, I passed many of the places mentioned in Mono Pass – Dutch Flat, Cisco, and Donner Lake, to mention a few. I-80 largely parallels the original Central Pacific line between Reno and Sacramento. Along the way, I stopped at Donner Lake Park’s new visitor center, which includes many exhibits about the Central Pacific as well as exhibits about the tragic Donner Party.

When I visited with Kyle Wyatt, he suggested that I take the Soda Springs exit off I-80 and drive on historic Route 40 to get an even better idea of the obstacles faced by the Central Pacific. I followed his advice and am glad I did! It certainly gave me much greater perspective about the Sierra Nevada in this part of California. I received a double bonus when I stopped for a view of beautiful Donner Lake.

Donner Lake

Donner Lake

On Wednesday, June 10, I left Reno for Lee Vining. Along the way I stopped in the town of Bridgeport, also referenced in Mono Pass as a layover spot for some of outlaw Joe Crawford’s men and where Judge Crawford and his army of 50 men stayed while Jack Grier and his men completed their efforts to rescue Jack’s niece and Crawford’s daughter.

On June 11, I entered Yosemite National Park to begin a month of volunteer service. While here, I will write almost exclusively about my experiences in one of my favorite national parks.

Bridgeport Courthouse

Bridgeport Courthouse

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