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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

by
Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p48 Chapter IV
The Headlights Point West

Come, my tan-faced children,

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?

. . . . "Pioneers! O Pioneers!"

— Walt Whitman.

Thirty miles north of Boston on the white-pine and granite knolls framing the harbor, cobblestone wharves, and shipmaster mansions of Salem, the Widow Lander and her sons, Charles and Frederick, operated a dairy farm. During the spring of 1845 the Landers decided to add "pond ice" to the provisions they peddled at the summer-cottage colonies along the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay. They bought an abandoned church, teamed it to the edge of their fresh-water pond, and began to insulate it for ice storage. That June, Frederick Lander received his degree as a civil engineer from Norwich University in Norwich, Vermont. Soon Charles and Mrs. Lander broached another idea. The ice pond was only a few hundred yards from the track of the Boston & Eastern Railroad. Would it be worthwhile to build a spur track to the icehouse, then expand the pond-ice distribution to Boston greengrocers and butchers? If Frederick agreed with the idea, would he survey p49and build the spur track? They had just hired one of Sylvanus Dodge's sons, from down Danvers way, to help with milking, egg candling, apple sorting and similar chores. The boy seemed bright and quite willing. He might be able to help on the survey and grading too. His parents had certainly given him unusual names: Grenville Mellen Dodge. ("Grenville" honored Sir Richard Grenville, the English naval hero who had brought the first Virginia Colonists to Roanoke. The middle name was subtler. Pure Saxon, it meant "to mingle" or "be a good mixer." "Dodge," in its original form, indicated "alacrity." The belief persisted in many New England families that a child's given names influenced his destiny.)

Grenville Dodge, at fourteen, was long legged and big shouldered. His eyes were brown and deep-set, with a stare that matched the belligerent pride of his broad lips, Grecian nose and jet-black hair. He listened stolidly the first afternoon while Frederick Lander explained the surveyor's telescope and spirit level, the hundred links of the engineer's chain, and the applications of trigonometry enabling these instruments to reveal the land contours that must be followed or changed to provide that gradient of "not more than 2 per cent" demanded by the steam locomotive.

The boy's hands possessed the deft sureness of the farm bred. Within a week his questions indicated that the family-name implication of nimbleness was appropriate. By fall, Gren Dodge could read a theodolite, plot data on a chart, tamp ties and line up T‑rail. Frederick Lander loaned him textbooks on geometry and geography and began urging him to enroll in a classical school and prepare for the Civil Engineering course at Norwich.

A delightful new vista opened for Grenville's father Sylvanus during the summer of 1846. Sylvanus had wandered from job to job in towns along the North Shore since his marriage to Julia Theresa Phillips of Salem. By 1844 he was back in his father's profession of pig farmer and butcher. The Dodges were Democrats; the Salem-Beverly-Danvers area was overwhelmingly p50high-tariff Whig. Nevertheless, Sylvanus turned the pig feeding over to his family during the summer and early fall of 1844 in order to argue North Shore farmers and sailors into votes for James K. Polk and the Democrats' platform of New West expansion. The reward came in 1846 in the form of Sylvanus' appointment as United States Postmaster of South Danvers. He sold his butcher tools, sows and boars to finance the payments on a stock of books and stationery, then opened a book-store, with his post-office equipment at the far end. As a dedicated Democrat and Expansionist, Dodge harangued customers to invest in Washington Irving's trilogy about "our New West": A Tour on the Prairies, Astoria and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U. S. A. Nathaniel Hawthorne had just moved back to Salem as surveyor of the port. His Mosses From An Old Manse was published in 1846. He called at the Dodge bookstore one afternoon, offered to autograph the copies of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses From An Old Manse in stock, stayed for tea, then became a frequent caller and family-friend.

The post-office fees, plus Sylvanus' discovery that he was an instinctive book salesman, enabled Grenville's enrollment at New Hampshire's Durham Academy. In September, 1848 six months after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded New Mexico and Alta California to the United States, and four months after "the miracle of the gulls" saved the Mormons' first crops in Great Salt Lake Valley — he enrolled at Norwich University as a candidate for the degree in Civil Engineering.

Like a bright-eyed hawk, Enoch Train had perched for a quarter century in the mercantile aeries of Faneuil Hall market in Boston. He had specialized, initially, in financing trade ventures to Scandinavia and to Baltic Sea ports. His 1843 profits were so pleasing that the Democratic pledges for territorial expansion and low tariffs persuaded him to organize a Boston-Liverpool ship line. The few friends he exposed to the notion p51pointed out that the British Cunards were running a highly successful line of packets into New York. Train beamed back at them and continued negotiations with shipbuilder Donald McKay.

He persuaded McKay to move his shipyard from Newburyport to Boston and build several of his daring "clippers" for the new White Diamond Line. The newspapers that same summer detailed accounts of Asa Whitney's proposal for the Pacific Railway. Whitney's suggestion that the huge task be performed by workmen "imported from Europe" intrigued Train. He recalled it when the newspapers began to report the devastation caused in Ireland by the loss of the 1845 potato crop. Irish immigrants had dug out the most treacherous portions of the Erie Canal in 1823‑5, and gone on west to build the canals of Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. History could repeat. The westbound United States was veering its enthusiasm from the canal to the railroad. Boston bankers report opened more than 6,000 miles of railroads in operation and construction of at least another 1,000 miles a year for the foreseeable future. Moreover, unless Polk came a cropper in his pledges, there should be endless opportunities for Irish immigrants in the New West and in those New England factories that would supply New West pioneers.

A White Diamond clipper ship veered north off the Liverpool course in 1846 and sailed up the Irish Sea to Dublin and Belfast. The purser and captain went ashore to complete Train's negotiations for permanent agents in each port. The White Diamond Line would not only offer lower rates than the Cunards for passage to America, but was opening a Boston office that would secure a variety of jobs for Irish immigrants. And White Diamond offered a second important service in its Immigrants' Savings Plan. This subsidiary would encourage routine cash savings by all its Irish customers and would act as the agent to deliver any portion of these savings to specified relatives or friends in Ireland.

The plan worked splendidly. The White Diamond's job and p52savings services enticed thousands of Irish to New England and established the tradition of "the Boston Irish."

Enoch Train debated the advisability of assigning his young kinsman, George Francis Train, to Belfast or Liverpool as an assistant agent of the White Diamond Line. It would be excellent experience for the headstrong but brilliant eighteen year old. An orphan, George had run away from his grandmother's home in Waltham two years before and hired out as a grocer's clerk. The grandmother appealed to Enoch, the boy's only uncle, and George went to work as a junior clerk in Enoch Train's offices. The visits down-harbor to help manifest cargoes, the talks with Donald McKay, and the trial-and‑error development of plans for the White Diamond Line, had transformed the lad. He was fluent, although inclined to oratorical expressions, and wrote convincing business letters. He was shrewd. An assignment to Liverpool or Belfast would be an excellent way to test his wings.

That spring was a particularly happy one for Ted Judah. He was to be married. During the eight years since he had left Rensselaer Institute to work on the Schenectady & Troy, Ted had become one of the most promising young railroaders in the Northeast. Sidney Dillon, the ex-foreman of the Rensselaer & Saratoga, had helped Ted's progress through chainman and surveyor to assistant engineer. Dillon had taken his first gamble as a railroad construction contractor about 1840, and made a profit. Between 1841 and 1846 he undertook a series of railroad contracts on the lines beginning to crisscross Vermont and Massachusetts. Ted Judah worked on several of these lines during the same years.

In 1843‑4 Ted had been a surveyor on the line routing up the Connecticut River Valley from Springfield, Massachusetts toward Brattleboro, Vermont. The high iron was trajected to cross the Deerfield River at Greenfield, the village founded in 1686 as eastern terminal of the Berkshire Trail. Attending services at St. James Episcopal Church in Greenfield, Ted had p53met John J. Pierce, senior warden of the church. Then he met the Pierce daughter Anna.

The courtship spanned three difficult years. The Pierces were a distinguished and wealthy New England family. A cousin in the New Hampshire branch was Franklin Pierce, recently resigned as United States Senator and pursuing a law practice at Concord. A Boston cousin — "S. S." — operated one of New England finest grocery stores and was currently financing experiments to develop "Vacuum-canning" processes for corn, beans and succotash so that the plagues of "scurvy" and "rot" might be avoided by ship crews on long voyages. The prospect of entrusting a Pierce daughter to an impoverished young railroader, even though he was an Episcopalian of good blood, had loomed as a crisis.

Yet the young people's devotion had held while Ted moved down-river to Hartford as a location engineer on the New Haven, Hartford & Springfield. He proposed soon after his return to Greenfield as assistant to Colonel Childs, chief engineer of the Connecticut Valley Railroad, and the Pierces finally approved.

Anna's father may have played a part in the move West that opened for Ted soon after the engagement was announced.

Horatio and Silas Seymour were also devout Episcopalians. In 1846‑7, Horatio Seymour was one of the Democratic leaders in the New York Legislature and a "dark-horse" potential for the party's nomination as governor. Brother Silas was prospering as a consulting engineer for the Erie Railroad's push over the Catskill Mountains toward Buffalo. Early in 1847 Ted Judah was offered a position as an associate engineer on the Niagara Gorge Railroad. Both New York's Legislature and the Erie Railroad's backers were involved in this daring project for a rail connection down the canyon of the Niagara Falls' rapids between the ship piers on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Theodore Dehone Judah and Anna Ferona Pierce were married in St. James Episcopal Church, Greenfield, on May p5410, 1847, and rode west to a honeymoon cottage overlooking Niagara Falls.

Thomas Clark Durant possessed the daring, the urge for analysis and the impersonal precision that could have developed him into one of the leading surgeons of the nineteenth century. He graduated cum laude from the Albany College of Medicine in 1840, and was held in such esteem at the dean's office that he was offered an assistant professorship. But the routine of lecturing freshmen soon bored him. One of his uncles was becoming wealthy by the sly process of sitting in the New York Grain Exchange and betting on the future markets for flour and wheat. Dr. Durant resigned from the staff of Albany College and joined his uncle's firm in 1842. He became the firm's specialist in data about the prairie-wheat funneling down the Great Lakes-Erie Canal route from Milwaukee and Chicago. This intrigued him toward stock promotions of a lake Erie-Lake Michigan railroad.

Boat traffic across the lakes and the Mohawk-Hudson throughway was a slave of the weather. Ice began crinkling a barricade across the Mackinac Strait in November; the spring thaws rarely unlocked it before April. Consequently, freight and passenger boats could operate only seven months of the year, with the summerlong prospect of fogs, windstorms and tornadoes.

The railroad offered the prospects of travel twelve months of every year. And in view of the new inventions in freight cars, signal systems and locomotives, a railroad across Michigan's peninsula and the sand plains of northern Indiana should be able to earn a profit. The Rogers Locomotive Works at Paterson, New Jersey, was producing engines that weighed 20 tons and could rattle a train of freight and passenger cars over straightaway T‑rail at 40 miles an hour. These Sandusky types had 8 wheels with 5‑foot drivers and 18‑inch cylinders. Headlights, cowcatchers, sandboxes, steam whistles and windowed cabs for the engine man and fireman were standard p55equipment. Since the Erie Railroad would be the first line to operate through trains from New York City to Lake Erie, development of a system of devices to warn enginemen about traffic conditions was imperative. One of the ideas advanced by its engineers called for a colored iron ball suspended from a pole alongside the track at each station. When a train left the station the station-master cranked the ball down until it was suspended on a level with the locomotive's smokestack. Thus, a "low ball" would mean "stop," and a "high ball" indicated "Clear track ahead." A train-dispatching technique might be developed by coordinating the "high-ball" poles and the new British semaphore lights with a station-to‑station telegraph system.

A telegraph line was building across Indiana toward Chicago. The Michigan Central Railroad was starting construction West out of Kalamazoo toward the Lake Michigan shore. Boston bankers had advanced loans to build the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad across Ohio. In the fall of 1846, the leading bankers and merchants of Hannibal, Missouri, held a series of meetings at the office of John Clemens, a local justice of the peace, to discuss incorporation of a railroad that would cross the state due west 200 miles to the Missouri River's port of St. Joseph. A Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad, they reasoned, would not only provide rapid transit to Fort Leavenworth, Independence, West Port and other terminal villages of the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, but could become the eastern link for that Pacific Railway advocated by Asa Whitney. (Since Justice Clemens' son Samuel possessed a fiendish skill in plotting practical jokes, the founders of the Hannibal & St. Joseph specifically requested that their evening meetings be held at Justice Clemens' chambers in the Pilaster House, rather than in his home parlor, and thus happily avoided any contact with the future Mark Twain.)

These potent developments in western railroading, coupled with Cyrus McCormick's decision to move his reaper factory from Cincinnati to Chicago and the brash offers of free p56farm-and‑dairy homesteads by the new State of Wisconsin, persuaded Thomas Durant to launch promotions for a Michigan-Indiana-Illinois railroad. John Jervis indicated his willingness to become chief engineer of such a project. Henry Farnam and his wealthy backer, Joseph Sheffield, expressed interest in backing a Michigan-Chicago railroad, provided plans included a lobbying operation in Illinois and Wisconsin to secure charters for rights of way on west to Iowa Territory.

During the fall of 1848, Durant contacted the directors of the Michigan-Southern Railroad that connected Detroit and Ann Arbor. He proposed that he serve as New York broker on a bonds campaign to build the Michigan-Southern west through Hillsdale to the Indiana port of South Bend, thence over the cactus and pine desert of Lake Michigan's south shore dunes to Chicago.

A few weeks after the Senate approved the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Senator Niles reintroduced his bill for a grant of 75,000,000 acres of New West land to Asa Whitney to finance construction of the Pacific Railway. Newspaper accounts of the terrible deserts encountered by General Kearney's Army of the West, plus lively promotion of John C. Frémont's book, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1842 and to Oregon and North California in 1843‑44, had kept Whitney in demand as a lyceum lecturer.

A score of other railroad plans achieved glory moments too. John Plumbe of Dubuque, Iowa, reminded newspapers of the time and money he had invested between 1838 and 1840 while trying to persuade Congress to appropriate a few thousands of dollars for surveys of a railroad route between Lake Michigan and Oregon. A Massachusetts Congressman dug out the article written by Dr. Samuel B. Barlow in 1834, which proposed Federal subsidies of "from six to fifteen million dollars a year" for construction of a Pacific railway. During 1847, Hartwell Carver of Rochester, New York, offered to finance a Lake Michigan-South Pass-California railroad from a land p57grant of only 8,000,000 acres; he advocated a track gauge of 8 or 10 feet, with the rails "to be laid on felt to lessen the vibration of the cars" and the locomotives on the Rocky Mountain divisions to be equipped with cogwheels that "would engage holes in the rails."a Josiah Perman of Boston proposed the People's Pacific Railroad, to be financed through the sale of a million $100 bonds.

Senator Niles' new bill survived committee hearings in the summer of 1848, and moved on toward a floor vote. The South and North were deadlocked over the issue of slavery in the New West. Obviously the bias would extend to any route for a transcontinental railway. The deciding votes on the Niles bill were controlled by Thomas Hart Benton.

But Benton was staring hard at his prospects for re-election. His decision to edge toward the Abolitionists and favor gradual abolishment of slavery had cost him thousands of votes throughout Missouri. Now, if he voted for a plan to finance a Pacific railway that would be terminated at Chicago, St. Louis merchants would join the slave owners of "Swampeast" and western Missouri in defeating him for a sixth Senate term. Frémont was leading another expedition into the central Rockies to locate passes for a St. Louis-San Francisco railway route. Benton desperately needed that throughway to California via St. Louis and the Missouri Valley. He voted against the Niles bill.

Benton influenced the votes of some of the North's Senators too. They were already worried about Whitney's cost estimates and the huge swathe of land — most of which had been promised to the Indians as "eternal hunting grounds" — that would be turned over to him. The new treaty with Colombia, they pointed out, guaranteed the United States right of transit across the Isthmus of Panama; the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was organizing fleets of steamers to operate in the Atlantic between New York and the Isthmus, and in the Pacific between San Francisco and the Isthmus. Construction of steamship piers and a trans-Panama cart road began in the spring of 1847. p58This route, they believed, could handle freight and passenger services between the East and West Coasts for another decade or so. Meanwhile, exhaustive surveys should be made to determine the best overland route. So the Senate denied Asa Whitney the challenge of building the Pacific Railway.

On August 19, 1848, the New York Herald reported the rumor of a gold strike somewhere in John Sutter's New Helvetia. The War and Interior Departments officially denied it. But on September 16, Lieutenant Edward F. Beale hurried up the War Department steps, carrying a trail-stained knapsack, and an hour or two later was whisked over to the White House through a side door.

The news spread across Capitol Hill during the next week. Lieutenant Beale's knapsack had contained gold nuggets brought across the continent in a record-breaking ride. The gold found in the millrace northeast of Sutter's Fort on January 24 had been picayune. But all through the spring and early summer, prospectors made a series of strikes in the creek valleys toward the Sierra. On July 4 John Bidwell, the patient fruit farmer of the Bartleson-Bidwell pioneer trip across Utah in 1841, started a gold rush of sailors and traders out of San Francisco and Monterey by uncovering a ridge of gold-studded gravel near the South Fork of the Feather River.

Thomas Hart Benton heard Lieutenant Beale's story, considered it, then reread all the notes he had taken during the hearings on the Whitney Plan. Whenever the White House announced the existence of a gold field in California it would be "devil take the hindmost." Then he could launch his 1850 election campaign with the proposal for a National Road — via Missouri, of course.


Thayer's Note:

a For further rather entertaining details, see Galloway, The First Transcontinental Railroad, pp28‑29.


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