Tag Archives: railroad

Railroad Innovations That Have Stood the Test of Time

As I researched railroad history while writing Trouble at Mono Pass, I was amazed to learn how many ways railroads continue to impact our lives and how many innovations have stood the test of time. This morning I made another discovery when I opened the local newspaper, which included an article about a 100th anniversary being celebrated by Corning. The railroad connection? The Corning Museum of Glass website explains:

The production of Pyrex began at Corning Glass Works with the development of temperature-resistant borosilicate glass for railroad lanterns. The new glass was marketed in 1909 as Nonex or CNX (Corning Non-Expansion). A few years later, Corning began to look for other uses for this glass. Bessie Littleton, wife of Jesse T. Littleton, a Corning scientist, baked a sponge cake in a sawed off Nonex battery jar. Her experiment revealed that cooking times were short, baking was uniform, the glass was easy to clean, and since the glass was clear, the cake in the oven could be monitored – all advantages over bakeware. Initially, Corning produced twelve ovenware dishes under the brand named Pyrex, and kicked off a new Corning Glass Works division focused on consumer products.

The Corning Museum of Glass is commemorating the 100th anniversary of production of the kitchenware for American consumers with America’s Favorite Dish: Celebrating a Century of Pyrex, on view June 6, 2015, through March 17, 2016.

Several much earlier railroad innovations remain in use today. In 1830, American inventor Robert Livingston Stevens developed a flat-bottomed T-shaped iron rail and a flanged wheel that ultimately became the industry standards and remain in use to this day. He also found that rails laid on perpendicular wooden ties, laid on a bed of crushed stone, provided a better and more economical surface than earlier methods. Other types of rail (pear-shaped, bullnose) were used by some railroad companies for several decades, but by the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the T-rail dominated. Stevens went on to develop the standard rail spike and the “cowcatcher,” the triangular frame at the front of a locomotive designed to clear the track of obstructions.

Standard gauge. Photo I took at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

Standard gauge. Photo I took at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

In the early railroad days, track gauge also varied among railroad companies. In the South, one could find three different gauges, some five feet in width. One can imagine the difficulty of unloading passengers or cargo at one railroad station in order to accommodate a different gauge track for the next segment of travel. In the North, the predominant (but not exclusive) gauge was four feet, eight and one-half inches, consistent with locomotives manufactured in Great Britain. Railroad men understood the need for a standardized gauge when the nation was about to undergo construction of the transcontinental railroad. Congress gave President Lincoln the responsibility for determining the gauge. A railroad lawyer during much of his career, Lincoln chose the predominant gauge, four feet eight and one-half inches, the gauge used in most countries today.

Out of curiosity, and being a bit anal, I decided to check a railroad track in Greensboro. Sure enough, the distance between the rails met the standard set by President Lincoln. So, while we celebrate the 100th anniversary of kitchenware based on a railroad lantern, we should also celebrate Robert Livingston Stevens’ innovations 85 years earlier. Pay attention the next time you visit a railroad museum or see a train heading down the track in your hometown.

Sources:

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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: PBS.org)

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

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.

PBS.org Video: Transcontinental Railroad Recruits Chinese Laborers: www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/akh10.socst.ush.now.trchinese/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.

Sources:

  • 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)

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June 21, 2014 · 1:47 pm

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.

tcrr_ecrocker

E.B. Crocker (PBS.org)

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-photo

Crocker Art Museum (Source: TripAdvisor.com)

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 http://crockerartmuseum.org.

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Collis Huntington: Restless Railroad Tycoon

Collis P. Huntington (Source: Biography.com)

Collis P. Huntington (Source: Biography.com)

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: Flickr.com)

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: PBS.org)

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: PBS.org)

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

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.

Sources:

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

Additional Resources:

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Time Zones

You are walking in downtown Philadelphia. You call your friend in Pittsburgh to trash talk about tonight’s 8:00 p.m. game between the Flyers and Penguins in Philly. When the game starts at 8:00 in Philadelphia, it’s 8:00 in Pittsburgh, too, right? Of course, it is. It’s even 8:00 in most of Indiana. The time is the same because the United States adopted four time zones across the lower 48 in the 1918 Standard Time Act.

Before that time, the cities’ clocks could have read differently – 8:00 in Philadelphia, 7:45 in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is roughly 188 miles west of Philadelphia and the “real time” based on the sun’s position in the sky differs one minute every 12.5 miles.

Can you imagine a world where every individual’s clock could vary by minutes rather than by the uniform times largely adopted by most countries? There was a time it was so.

You remember the sun dial. Fortunately, none of us have to go out into our garden (sunny days only) to get a general idea about time. As recently as 1850, it really did not matter that much. Few people traveled more than 12 miles each day. Each town could set its clock tower to “real time.”

Sandford Fleming (thecanadianencyclopedia.com)

Sandford Fleming (Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

The railroads changed all that. In 1880, one could travel over 200 miles in a single day. Train schedules were a real mess. A Canadian railroad engineer, Sandford Fleming, deserves most of the credit for cleaning up that mess by promoting today’s generally uniform time zones in North America. On November 18, 1883, the North American railroads adopted Fleming’s recommended standard times for the railways. In the following year, the International Meridian Conference – in which Fleming was instrumental – was held in Washington, DC. The conference proposed using the Greenwich Meridian for longitudinal references, and adopted a system whereby the 360-degree circumference of the planet was divided by 24, the number of hours in each day, resulting in 24 international time zones covering 15 degrees each.

Many town and city leaders chose not to follow the example set by the railroads. Old habits are hard to break. So it was 1918 before the federal government required them to fall into line.

For me, it’s tough enough adjusting between standard and daylight savings time. Forget adjusting the watch every time I travel more than 12.5 miles east or west!

Current time zones in the U.S. (Source: NationalAtlas.gov)

Current time zones in the U.S. (Source: NationalAtlas.gov)

For more time-related information, go to the following sources:

“The Invention of Clocks,” http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa072801a.htm

“Invention of Standard Time,” www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com

“U.S. Time Zones,” http://aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/us_tzones.php

“A Brief History of Time Zones,” http://www.timeanddate.com/time/time-zones-history.html

“Standard Time Began with the Railroads,” http://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/d.html

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