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Bill Thayer

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R. L. Fulton

This webpage reproduces a section of
Epic of the Overland

Robert Lardin Fulton

A. M. Robertson
San Francisco, 1924

The text is in the public domain.

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The Central Pacific

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p3  Foreword

In the year eighteen hundred and sixty-eight I made my way to the Far West where two great armies of men were engaged in building the first Overland Railroad through the Rocky Mountains and across the Salt Lake Desert. They were driving ahead with all possible speed, one east from California, the other west from the Missouri River, each one trying to lay as many miles of track as possible before their rails should meet.

The history of this great enterprise has been written so often and so well that the most any one can hope to do at this late day is to throw side-lights upon the times or upon individuals, but even these are too precious to be lost.

No attempt will be made by me to supplant or discredit any of the accounts already current, nor to make a complete historical record. Rather will I endeavor to rescue from the scrap heap materials hitherto unpublished, and to preserve personal reminiscences more or less pertinent. Coming to the new West at its magic hour I spent the exciting years of construction in the Union Pacific service,  p4 crossing to the Pacific side when the heroics ended and the daily, dull routine began, and serving with the Central in California, Nevada, and Utah until the weight of years retired me to the Veteran Corps. Too late to rank with the pioneers I arrived in the height of their activities early enough to know them and to have a share in their work. I had been thrown into the mill about the time when I should have entered high school and had been telegraph operator, station agent, brakeman, conductor, and train dispatcher before I could vote, and in the new field I fell naturally into my place in the ranks, soon being in position to know everybody and see everything.

It would be almost impossible for this generation to picture the Western America of the days just preceding the civil war, the period when the agitation for an Overland railroad began. It was an open, empty, undeveloped empire, without an organized state or a mile of railroad, and with hardly a permanent settlement outside of the Mormon Church, between Iowa and California. Nebraska Territory stretched from the Missouri River to Utah with a scant population scattered along its eastern border. Dakota and Washington extended from the head-waters of the Mississippi to the  p5 Pacific Ocean, the two with a population of eleven thousand souls. Nevada was then Carson County, Utah, and the surveyors who in the year 1859 ran the line upon which the Central Pacific Railroad was built ten years later, found only seven settlers between the Truckee River and Great Salt Lake, a distance of five hundred miles. The existence of the hundreds of bonanza mines scattered so generously by nature in every part of the vast domain was not even dreamed of. The rich pastures, covering untold millions of acres, had only the wild deer, the antelope, and the buffalo for tenants. A scanty thousand trappers gathered the harvest of furs that found no buyers nearer than St. Louis, a thousand miles away.

Across this block of no-man's-land, fifteen hundred miles square, the statesmen, railroad kings and merchant princes of the fifties cast longing eyes, and there were those who prophesied that, some day, a railroad would be built through it. Their dream came true sooner than they hoped when within a few years building began on both ends of the line, and in the spring of 1869 the tracks of the Union Pacific and of the Central Pacific met in Utah, making the Overland railroad an accomplished fact.

 p6  The Pacific Railroad was mentioned as in a class with the flying machine, perpetual motion, and a trip to the moon until in the year 1836 John Plumbe, a civil engineer of Dubuque, Iowa, called a public meeting to consider the subject and it was never again entirely lost sight of. All through the next decade, A. C. Whitney, a tea merchant who had lived many years in China agitated the question, making many suggestions of more or less merit, one of which was that Congress donate seventy-eight million acres of public land. Another party asked for a bonus of a hundred million dollars, another for a right of way ten miles wide, the railroad to be built through the center, and still another for a right of way one mile wide with money to build the road.

The first practical measure was the bill of Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, passed in 1853, making an appropriation for the examination of three different routes under the direction of the Secretary of War, who at the time happened to be Jefferson Davis, afterwards President of the Southern Confederacy. About this time the government paid Mexico ten million dollars for the Gadsenº Purchase, a tract of land along the southern border of Arizona, giving the United States a route  p7 to California entirely within her own borders, open winter and summer. Secretary Davis was a violent partisan of the Southern Route as against one farther north. His enemies have charged that he foresaw the civil war and conceived the idea that a railroad to the Pacific Coast would unite California with the South in case a conflict came about. He imported a cargo of camels with their dragomen to hurry the surveys across the Arizona deserts. Many of them died while others scattered out, some of them reaching the mines where they were used to pack wood from the hills, or hay from the ranches.​a A caravan of camels each with a haystack on its back created havoc among the big mule teams whenever they met on the grades, so the council of Virginia City, Nevada, passed a law that no camel train should come into town by daylight.

It is significant that with all the surveys made by the war department no mention was made of the great central route which offered by far the shortest and cheapest line. It was found by the buffalo eons ago, used by the Indians for centuries, by the Mormons, and later by the thousands of trains of California and Oregon pioneers. It was the great Platte Valley-Salt Lake Trail, on or near  p8 which the first Overland railroad was built and which promises to be forever the principal highway across the continent. The persistence of two determined men, Judah of the Pacific Coast and Dodge of Iowa, demonstrated its superiority and secured its adoption.

Thayer's Note:

a A very tendentious view of Davis's camels, more a sample of what was said about the experiment after the War between the States than a reflection of reality: the details are given in "The Government Importation of Camels, a Historical Sketch", in 20th Annual Report Bureau of Animal Industry (Washington, 1904); "Jefferson Davis's Camel Experiment" (PopSciM 174:141‑152); "Operation Camel: An Experiment in Animal Transportation in Texas, 1857‑1860" (SWHistQ 17:20‑50); "Uncle Sam's Camel Corps" (NMHR, 1:434‑444).

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