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The Big Four and the Transcontinental Railroad

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 12, 2023 3:02 am

The Big Four and the Transcontinental Railroad

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 12, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, this is the story of the men known as “The Big Four,” who incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad and helped build the transcontinental railroad. These four individuals risked their businesses, money, time and talent in order to achieve an unprecedented feat of engineering, vision, and courage. Here to tell the story is Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories. Before the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad, a journey across the continent meant a dangerous six-month trek over rivers, deserts, and mountains.

Alternatively, a traveler could hazard a six-week fee voyage around Cape Horn or sail to Central America and cross the Isthmus of Panama by rail, risking exposure to any number of deadly diseases in the crossing. This is the story of the men known as the Big Four who incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad and helped build the Transcontinental Railroad. These four individuals risked their businesses, money, time, and talent in order to achieve an unprecedented feat of engineering, vision, and courage. Here to tell the story is Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier. A U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA, Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries and he is a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories.

Here's McGrath. During the late 19th century, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker became so powerful in California that they were known simply as the Big Four. The power came from building the Central Pacific Railroad, which accounted for the western half of our nation's first Transcontinental Railroad. Now, the Big Four didn't start out life as the big anything, but like tens of thousands of others, came to California during the Gold Rush years. They didn't even strike gold, at least not in the traditional sense. Their gold came from mining the miners, that is, supplying the miners with dry goods, hardware, tools, firearms, and the other necessities of life on the frontier. From this modest beginning, they rose to dominate life in California to a degree not seen before or since.

This is their story. Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker are born in New York State in Collis Huntington in Connecticut. Three of the four grow up on farms.

All spend their childhoods in humble circumstances and work hard. The Gold Rush brings them to California as young men. All soon turn from digging for gold to establishing businesses in Sacramento. They become fast friends and are soon a force to be reckoned with in Sacramento, the new state capital.

Crocker becomes a city councilman. Stanford will later become governor. They are alert to every new business opportunity, especially the possibility of building a railroad across the continent to California. Talk of building a railroad to the Pacific Coast begins in 1845 when Ezel Whitney, a New York businessman, proposes the idea to Congress. Whitney suggests the government grant a 60-mile wide strip of land between Lake Superior and the Oregon coast to any company willing to risk construction.

In 1845, Whitney's plan is far ahead of its time. Nonetheless, Whitney launches a campaign to convince both congressmen and the general public that the railroad not only can be built, but is a necessity. Well, within a few years, most people are convinced a transcontinental railroad can be built, but is it a necessity?

There's a small population of Americans in Oregon's Willamette Valley, and businessmen who trade with the Orient will be able to avoid the voyage around Cape Horn, but is that enough to justify such a project? The California Gold Rush puts an end to the necessity question. Tens of thousands of Americans rush into California, and it becomes a state in 1850, so suddenly that California skips the territorial stage.

Within a few years, there are 400,000 Americans in California. Without question, there is now a need to connect California with the rest of the United States. Now the question becomes, which route to California should the railroad take? Northerners argue for a northern route, and southerners for a southern one. Unfortunately, this is the antebellum decade, and north-south antagonism is at a fever pitch.

Congress cannot decide upon a route. The Big Four are following the debates over the railroad closely. They are astute businessmen, and they know they will profit handsomely from a railroad connection with the east. They take an interest in Theodore Judah, a young railroad engineer and promoter who is building the Sacramento Valley Railroad, a short line that runs from Sacramento into the gold country.

At the same time, Judah is thinking he needs partners with money and political influence. Even before he finishes with the Sacramento Valley Railroad, Judah is thinking of a transcontinental railroad. He wants to build the far western end of the railroad, from Sacramento over the Sierras to Nevada.

He will need partners and money. Judah and the Big Four join forces and charter the Central Pacific Railroad, announcing plans to build over the Sierras to Nevada. They want both federal support and the promise of a rail line to connect their railroad with the Mississippi Valley.

The Big Four send Judah to Washington to lobby Congress. Judah proves an effective lobbyist, and in 1862, Congress passes the Pacific Railroad Act, which provides for the first transcontinental railroad. The Pacific Railroad Act decrees that two companies will build the rail line. A Central Pacific Railroad will build eastward from Sacramento across the Sierras to Nevada. The Union Pacific Railroad will build westward from Omaha, Nebraska, climb the Rockies near South Pass, Wyoming, and follow the Humboldt River to the California-Nevada line. Each road is granted a 400-foot-wide right-of-way, together with 10 alternate sections of land for each mile of track laid.

A section of land is 640 acres, or one square mile. In addition to the land the railroads will receive, the government agrees to loan the companies on a first mortgage basis $16,000 for each mile of track built in level country, 32,000 a mile in the foothills, and 48,000 a mile in the mountains. With the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act, Theodore Judah returns to California. Almost immediately, disagreements erupt with the Big Four. Judah presents his construction plans for the railroad.

They are too grandiose for his partners, who are in this to turn a profit, not build an engineering marvel. Judah is terribly upset that he will have to compromise his vision for a monumental project, and heads east to see if he can attract investors who will buy out the Big Four. Judah takes a steamer from San Francisco to Panama, and then crosses overland to the Caribbean coast of Panama to catch another steamer to New York. Like thousands who take this route, he contracts yellow fever in Panama. He arrives in New York in poor condition.

Within days, he is dead. This leaves the Central Pacific Company in the hands of the Big Four. The Big Four are very much alike.

Each is from what is called old American stock. Each is born and reared in the east in humble circumstances, and comes to California in the gold rush. Each is intelligent, disciplined, and energetic, and is willing to work relentlessly. Each is highly ambitious, and convinced that his goal in life is the pursuit of wealth. With four such hard-charging individuals, one would think that conflict is inevitable.

Fortunately for the Big Four, each proves ideally suited for a different role in the Central Pacific Company. Leland Stanford becomes the company president and the public relations chief in California. He's the company spokesman in seeking subsidies from the state and county governments. Collis Huntington steps into Judah's place as the Washington lobbyist and the chief money raiser in the east. Mark Hopkins manages the money and accounts for every penny spent.

He restrains his partners for making imprudent moves. Charles Crocker supervises construction. In later years, Crocker likes to remind his partners that whatever they had done, he had actually built the railroad. And when we come back, we'll continue with this remarkable story of these four different Easterners who unite the country with the Transcontinental Railroad.

Roger McGrath continues this story here on Our American Stories. Digital currency is helping to form the base layer for a new global commerce infrastructure. And stablecoins like USDC, issued by Circle, help to bring faster payments at internet scale.

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Order now in the app for pickup or delivery. Chipotle, for real. And we continue here with our American stories and with Roger McGrath and the story of the Big Four and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. And by the way, you heard the story of Theodore Judah and this is what happened to so many people trying to get from the West Coast to the East Coast. Taking that long multi-part voyage killed him.

Killed him. And again, we heard what we hear so often as we talk about the building of American enterprises and it's different men and women coming together with different skills and different skill sets. Huddled around a common goal. Now let's return to McGrath and the story of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Forty miles of track has to be laid before the first federal subsidy is collectible. This is difficult. Because of the Civil War, materials are at inflated prices. Round-the-horn shipping charges are sky high. And the labor supply is limited. The Civil War and the booming Nevada silver and gold mines mean full employment. At this time, the Big Four's own resources are modest.

Their Big Four status is years in the future. Moreover, investors are not eager to buy stock in the Central Pacific Company because the federal government holds a first mortgage guarantee on the company. This means, should the company go bankrupt, the government gets first dibs on the company's assets.

Leland Stanford scores the first victory. In 1862, he begins serving as governor of California. He convinces the state government to buy 1.5 million worth of stock in the Central Pacific Company. Now this would be considered a conflict of interest today, but in 1862 it's considered a good move by the state. California desperately needs a railroad to connect it with the East, and the Central Pacific Company is the one designated to build the California portion of the railroad by Congress. Most people at the time think Stanford and its partners will benefit from the stock purchase, okay, but California will benefit far more if a railroad is built.

Collins Huntington then scores a second victory. In 1864, Congress amends the Pacific Railroad Act. The land grant is doubled, and most importantly, the government reduces the security for its loans from a first to a second mortgage.

Now, private investors are willing to risk their money with a first mortgage guarantee. Finally, Crocker solves the labor problem. At first, Crocker relies upon white Californians, mostly immigrant Irish and Germans. The wage scale has to be relatively high, and many of the men look upon railroad work as a way to earn a grub stake and then go off to gold and silver strikes in Nevada.

The labor turnover is excessive. Crocker now decides to try the Chinese. The Chinese are already a familiar figure in California, comprising about 5% of the general population and some 10% of the mining population. There are several powerful Chinese businessmen in San Francisco and in Sacramento who act as labor contractors. Crocker negotiates with them, and they supply him with workers. By the end of 1865, Crocker has some 6,000 Chinese workers, and doubled that number by 1868. It's important to understand that white railroad workers are not fired and replaced by cheaper Chinese laborers. The construction crews are being expanded so rapidly that no one loses his job. With the financial and labor problems solved, the pace of construction accelerates, and the big four, all astute businessmen, begin thinking of not stopping at the California-Nevada state line, but laying track across Nevada.

Collis Huntington's lobbying efforts pay off again. In 1866, he convinces Congress to again amend the Pacific Railroad Act and allow the Central Pacific Company to continue building eastward until the Central Pacific meets the Union Pacific, wherever that may be. By 1868, the Central Pacific is building across Nevada. Compared with building through the Sierras, this is a piece of cake. Tracks are laid for half the amount of the government subsidy. This more than makes up for losses in the Sierras. Nonetheless, there are difficulties. The cost of rails, locomotives, cars, blasting powder, and round-the-horn shipping are sky high.

Moreover, in the Nevada deserts, there is no timber for ties and trestles. The needed lumber must be brought in from the Sierras. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific is well underway. Like the Central Pacific, construction is slow at first, as the company struggles to obtain workers and material from a nation consumed by the Civil War.

By the close of 1865, only 40 miles of track stretches westward from Omaha. During the next two years, though, conditions improve rapidly. First, Grenville Dodge, a U.S. Army general who campaigned against Indians on the Great Plains and knows the country well, gets a leave of absence from the Army and is hired as the Union Pacific's chief engineer. Second, Irish Civil War veterans begin to drift westward with the close of the war.

Grenville quickly hires these hard-drinking, hard-fighting Irish War veterans to fill the construction crews. All is still not smooth sailing on the Great Plains. All materials have to be brought into that barren country. Ties from the forests of Minnesota, stone from the quarries of Wisconsin, and rails from the mills of Pennsylvania. Moreover, several different tribes of Plains Indians are on the warpath.

Work is frequently halted while construction crews grab rifles to beat off attacks. By the spring of 1868, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific realize they are engaged in the greatest race in history. The Central Pacific is winging its way across the deserts of Nevada. The Union Pacific is working its way across the High Plains of Wyoming and through Lone Tree Pass in the Rockies. Between the two railroads lay Utah, which the federal government has defined as mountain country, although much of the route the railroad will take is perfectly flat. In Utah, the railroads are thus entitled to subsidies of $48,000 a mile while building over relatively flat terrain.

Each company spurs its men on relentlessly in hopes of grabbing off a major share of the Utah prize. The Central Pacific builds 360 miles of road in 1868. The Union Pacific 425.

The pace of construction becomes feverish in 1869. The Union Pacific lays six miles of track in one day. The Central Pacific counters with seven. The Union Pacific lays seven and a half miles and the Central Pacific matches it. Then the Union Pacific lays an astounding eight and a half miles of track in one day. At this point, Thomas Durant, the president of the Union Pacific, asks Charles Crocker if he thinks the Central Pacific can top that eight and a half miles.

The two wager $10,000, equal to a million dollars in today's money. And when we come back, we continue with this remarkable story. And my goodness, the story of the Chinese workers and the former Civil War vets who just happened to be Irish. We hear that story told by Stephen Ambrose. Go to our American stories dot com. And that's the transcontinental railroad from the workers point of view.

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Order now in the app for pickup or delivery Chipotle for real. And we continue here with our American stories. And now let's continue with the story of the big four and the transcontinental railroad. Crocker assembles his best men and then waits for several days until the railroads are approaching Promontory Summit. And so close together that should the Central Pacific break the track lane record, the Union Pacific will have no opportunity to respond. With newspaper correspondence present and one of the journalists acting as the official timer, Crocker's boys swing into action. The first rail is laid and others follow at the rate of 240 feet of rail every one minute and 20 seconds.

A pace is fantastic. But can the Central Pacific crew maintain it for hours on end? The crew doesn't slacken its pace or stop until a break for lunch. After resting and eating, the crew springs back into action again at the same record breaking pace.

At the end of the workday, time is called and the distance carefully measured. The Central Pacific crew has laid 10 miles and 56 feet of track. The Union Pacific record is broken and Charles Crocker is $10,000 richer. Now it's the general impression of most today that the track lane must have been done by a cast of thousands and that since this was the Central Pacific, those laying the track must have been Chinese.

Not true on either count. The newspaper reporter who was timing the event said, quote, it may seem incredible, but nevertheless, it is a fact that the whole 10 miles of rail were handled and laid down this day by eight white men. These men were Michael Shea, Michael Kennedy, Michael Sullivan, Patrick Joyce, Thomas Daly, George Eliot, Edward Killeen and Fred McNamara.

These eight Irishmen in one day handled more than 3,500 rails, 1,000 tons of iron. On May 10th, 1869, a group of workers and company officials gather at Promontory Summit, Utah, and watch the placing of the last tie, the fixing of the last rail and the presentation of the various precious metal spikes, including the golden spike from California. Hats off signals a telegraph operator to all the listening nation. Prayer is being offered. Several minutes later, telegraph wires hum again.

We have got none praying. Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific has the honor of driving in the golden spike, actually tapping in the golden spike with a mallet. It's too soft to be driven with a sledgehammer. After the ceremony all tap in, the golden spike is removed and a steel spike set in its place. Stanford now takes a mighty swing with a sledgehammer and misses. Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific takes a mighty swing and misses. With the count 0 and 2, a crew chief steps forward and drives the spike home.

The Central Pacific locomotive number 119 and the Union Pacific locomotive Jupiter steam forward and touch cowcatchers. Their engineers have the first drinks and then the celebration becomes general. The entire United States celebrates. Chicago makes a procession seven miles long. New York hangs out bunting, fires 100 guns, and holds church services. Philadelphia rings the Liberty Bell.

Hundreds gather in the streets of Buffalo and sing the Star Spangled Banner. In Sacramento and San Francisco, people are celebrating until dawn. And Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker are the heroes of the hour. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad is the greatest engineering and construction project up to that time in American history. California had been isolated from the United States despite the gold rush and the admission of California to the Union. Now the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad shatters that barrier of isolation. Personally, Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, and Crocker are transformed from four middle class Sacramento businessmen into the Big Four. They do not rest on their laurels, but forge ahead and form a second company, the Southern Pacific Railroad. They lay tracks through California and eventually across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Until the mid-1880s and the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad, the Big Four have a monopoly of rail transportation in California. The monopoly and the wealth and power it gives them makes them truly the Big Four.

But with that comes critics and enemies. Though president of both the Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific, Stanford finds time to develop two wineries and a racehorse breeding farm. And to build a mansion on Knob Hill in San Francisco. He also becomes the president of a steamship line.

In 1885, he is elected to the U.S. Senate. Also in 1885, he establishes Stanford University in honor of his son, Leland Stanford Jr., who died the year before of typhoid fever. Stanford donates acreage for the university from his racehorse facility, which explains why Stanford University's nickname, the farm. Stanford also donates about two billion in today's money to fund the university.

Stanford dies at 69 years old in 1893. Collis Huntington continues as lobbyist for the Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads in Washington, D.C. Suspicions abound that he greases the palms of congressmen, but nothing is ever proved. In 1891, he completes the building of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad across Virginia and through West Virginia to the Ohio River. At the Ohio River, he builds Town of Huntington and develops it as an industrial center.

He also builds shipyards at Newport News and several short lines throughout Virginia. Huntington's activities contribute to an economic boom. Huntington donates tens of millions in today's dollars to the building and maintenance of schools, museums, libraries, and parks in Virginia. One of the schools that benefits enormously from Huntington's largess is the Hampton Institute, Virginia's first black college.

Huntington dies at 78 years old in 1900. Most of his vast art collection goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Proceeds from the sale of his Fifth Avenue mansion go to Yale University. Mark Hopkins continues his role managing the financial affairs for the Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific.

His sage advice keeps his partners from making rash moves with their new wealth. He donates to various charities and begins the building of a mansion on Nob Hill, but he dies at age 64 in 1878. His wife, Mary, finishes the mansion and lives there until her death in 1891. The mansion is destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. The Mark Hopkins Hotel is later built on the site. What is the penthouse suite at the top of the hotel is converted in 1939 to a grand cocktail lounge and restaurant called the Top of the Mark.

When World War II erupts, it becomes tradition for couples to have their last dinner, drink and dance together at the top of the mark before the serviceman departs for war in the Pacific. Charles Crocker continues supervising construction for the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific. He founds towns along the Southern Pacific route across Arizona and New Mexico and names one of them Deming in honor of his wife's maiden surname. He serves for a time as president of Wells Fargo. He buys controlling interest in the Woolworth National Bank, reorganizes it and names it Crocker Bank. In 1886, while visiting in New York, his carriage overturns and he is seriously injured.

He never recovers and dies at age 65 in 1888. He leaves behind an estate valued at 400 million, something like six billion in today's dollars. Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker were real life Horatio Alger characters who rose from humble beginnings to power and wealth. They were emblematic of other larger than life figures who arrived in the Old West when it was a wilderness and helped transform it into a modern society. And special thanks to Roger McGrath for telling this story, the Big Four and the Transcontinental Railroad. And as Stephen Ambrose reminded us in his version of the story, that those 30 years in American history brought us the telegraph, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Civil War and the end of slavery. And Ambrose called it the most transformational generation in American history.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-12 04:35:07 / 2023-04-12 04:46:51 / 12

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