Tag Archives: Union Pacific

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, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/tcrr

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.

SOURCES:

  • Bain, David Haward. Empire Express. New York, New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • American Experience, pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/tcrr.

 

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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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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: Politico.com)

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

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, www.cprr.org.

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