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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester

The Central Pacific Railroad

The Story of the Central Pacific.—Having finished our round trip over the Central Pacific; now let us tell the story of the building of this road, and say a few words about its management. Those who have told this story heretofore have selected one of the few men who were the promoters of the enterprise, and eulogized him, often to the disparagement of the others; but I will try to do all justice, and state the part which each took in the great scheme, out of which was evolved the railroad, which, in its passage of the Sierras, stands to-day a triumph of engineering skill.

Five men, entire strangers to the building of railroads, promulgated, fostered, and carried to a successful issue, this important enterprise. Stanford was the governor of the State, but before that was a wholesale grocer; the two Crockers were dealers in dry goods; and Huntington and Hopkins were hardware merchants. They all lived in Sacramento, then a small inland town, which had a precarious existence between fire and flood. In that city, at No. 54 K Street, may be seen to-day the sign ‘Huntington and Hopkins.’ It is a store for the sale of hardware, and the business is still pursued in about the same style as in the early days of the enterprise. It was in a back room of this store, where the gentlemen named used to meet to pass away their evenings, that they organized their company. They early perceived the necessity for a road, talked it over night after night, till they became so ‘filled with the faith,’ that even though they had small means and few friends, they thought they could build the road. They resolved to act; and they began in earnest, although upon a small scale, to develope a plan. The time of which we speak was 1856–58; and the road only existed in the dreams of these enthusiasts, who, in the far-off future, saw the iron horse snorting over the snow-clad Sierra. Engineers of repute had said that the mountains could not be passed; and, whenever a Pacific Railroad bill was presented to Congress, these reports were conned over; and the very idea of a road amid these almost everlasting snows was ridiculed by grave senators.

Probably what gave the greatest impetus to the enterprise was the bold assertion of the engineer, Theodore Judah, who was engaged to build the Sacramento Valley Road, and who was so earnest in his declarations that a track could be laid across the mountains, that he was called ‘Pacific-Railroad Crazy.’ He at last so gained the confidence of the people directly about him, that, by much solicitation, he raised a subscription of fifty dollars to enable him to make a survey. This was the real beginning of the work. Having made a partial examination, he became more fully convinced of the correctness of his declaration; and, by a little more aid, he proceeded with his surveys, until he proclaimed, that, by way of ‘Dutch Flat,’ he had found a long and easy ascent of the mountains. He called public meetings of citizens of the mining villages along the route; and gradually the inhabitants became convinced of the practicability of the road, although the scheme seemed so unlikely to succeed, that all the banks and bankers, as well as the moneyed men, kept aloof from it; for they had little faith in the ‘Dutch Flat Swindle,’ as it was called, the five men first mentioned being about the only ones who were ready to give their money and stake their fortunes in the enterprise.

We can imagine all kinds of difficulties to be met and overcome; and by no means the least was the ridicule heaped upon the enterprise, especially by the bankers. In the city of San Francisco there was not a dollar raised; and the great express company (Wells, Fargo, and Company), the steamship lines, and all the various stage lines and river steamship companies, vied with each other in their opposition to building a railroad. The laws of the State of California, under which any company must act, were very illiberal towards corporations and the stockholders; and the people stood aloof from the scheme, leaving a few bold spirits to work out the problem, and reap the rewards which have followed from the completion of the line—large, surely, but only just.

Another turning-point in the life of the enterprise was when, at a meeting of gentlemen at Governor Stanford’s house, in 1860, after much and earnest discussion, and all seemed upon the point of flagging, Mr. Huntington rose and said, ‘I will be one of eight or ten to carry out this scheme.’ New life was infused; new purposes were awakened; and seven bold spirits put their names to a compact to pay all expenses for three years, to complete surveys, estimates, plans, &c.

Of these seven, Judah, who had been the prophet sent from afar to show the people of California the way over their mountains towards the Atlantic, had no money, and soon afterwards died. To Judah must be awarded much praise; for it was a bold spirit which could, in the face of such ridicule, still proclaim what to him seemed not only possible, but easy of accomplishment. He was a pioneer—a mind which perceived before others; one who lived outside of the circumstances which surrounded him. He took a grand step forward in railroad engineering, like Brunel in steamships, or Lesseps in canals. Another of the little band became disheartened, and fell by the way; leaving only the five whom I have mentioned—Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, and the two Crockers.

They organised their company with the first-named as president, the second as vice-president, and the third as secretary and treasurer—positions which they still hold, managing with marked ability the affairs of the company. This was in 1860. The passage of the Pacific Railroad Bill by Congress gave this little company an assured life and each fell naturally to work in his particular sphere. The usual fortune of railroad enterprises was apparent: they resolved to reap themselves the advantages of their early planning and patient toil. They established their offices at 54 K Street, where they are to-day, and began work in detail, considering well each step, and surmounting the difficulties as they arose. Stanford—full of genuine good sense, a man of vigour and determination—was at the head, and did valiant service in the State. Hopkins —the man of figures and calculations, who had made his business successful by calculating every cost—now applied the same careful calculations to this larger scheme; and Huntington—intrepid, with innate honesty, of good address—went to Washington, New York, and other cities, to negotiate bonds, buy material, and make the people of the East know that the road was to be built, and that they must lend their money to do it. He succeeded; and, for materials for construction, he exchanged bonds, which were guaranteed by the personal endorsements of the promoters of this grand, yet, at that time, hazardous enterprise. All the iron, and a large portion of all the material, had to be brought from the Atlantic cities, round Cape Horn, by a long and tedious voyage; the prices were fluctuating by the war; the bonds which the government issued to them fell to a low figure in gold; and thus circumstances seemed to frown upon this plan for a railroad over the mountains which would serve to supply a new trade which had arisen between Sacramento and Nevada, as well as for a link in a grand transcontinental line.

Several times their money was all used up; and then individual pluck was shown, and a few men were paid by each; and so the work was kept on. Each contract was looked to closely, and its terms were scanned; for these men were daily pledging every dollar they were worth, as well as their honour and reputation. These facts I state thus minutely, that they may be compared with the circumstances attending the building of the other road which forms the Pacific line. Many were the obstacles which they encountered; and much credit is due to Grey and Montague, the engineers who made the plan and laid the grades, as well as found the way to take huge locomotives over the mountains by ox-teams, and make a road-bed with snow-banks from ten to twenty feet deep around them. Upon the Alkali Plains they were obliged to bring water and fuel many miles, and to find men to do all this work. Chinese were brought over, and, to the number of several thousand, lent their toil to this great undertaking.

The Central Company, of course, as they made success sure, found many friends; and, after all the great difficulties were passed, many were ready to aid them with money. This company pushed east as far as it could, and, as it approached the westward marching line of the Union, shot by it, on towards the Atlantic; and here came a warfare to determine where the two roads should meet. Congress had to interfere, and fix upon Union Junction, five miles west of Ogden, as the place of union. At length the year 1869 saw the road completed.

The Central Company are now the owners of the whole railroad system of California, and are pushing their lines in all directions. The California and Oregon line is being pushed north through the great Sacramento Valley, around Mount Shasta, on towards Portland, there to join the railroad system of Oregon. To the south, through the Santa Clara and San Joaquin Valleys, they have the Southern Pacific, which is to reach Los Angeles, and thence on to the Colorado River. The California Pacific has pierced the Napa Valley; and the Sacramento Valley Road is pushing east into the mountains.

In the prosecution of these various enterprises, the Company is spending some half-million of dollars per month; and the whole machinery of this vast corporation is so nicely adjusted, and works so smoothly, that all these plans are being successfully carried out at once. Montague is still the chief engineer; Grey has charge of the Southern Pacific; while the same officers who were long ago first elected to their positions retain their places. Mr. Towne, the general superintendent, is a gentleman who admirably fills his place—one of the most responsible and important of the many.

I was told that the company had in its employ within the State of California over 7,000 men, which seemed at first a large number; but when we consider how many lines of road are under construction, and how vast is the business of the through line, I am not so surprised. The road-bed is in good order; the snow-sheds are all permanent structures; the rolling-stock is of a fair grade, but not as comfortable as the Union Pacific; and what was painfully noticeable was, that the conductors were not so obliging and gentlemanly as they should have been. An air of arrogance was shown, which seemed to say, ‘that, until a southern road is built, this is the only train for San Francisco, and we graciously allow you to ride in our cars.’ Competition will no doubt remedy this, but it is an evil which should sooner be removed; for some day in this country, as it has been in England, it will be decided that railroads are to be worked for the public, and for their benefit and accommodation. Corporations and monopolies, cliques and combinations, may, for a time, oppress and hinder the people; but there always comes a day when the public assert—and asserting, maintain—their rights.

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