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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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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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The Union Pacific
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p11  The Central Pacific

The Central Pacific was first in the field by two years, and had built thirty-eight miles of road, with trains running to Newcastle before the Union Pacific laid a rail.

[image ALT: A photograph of a man in his forties, with a full mustache and beard. It is Theodore D. Judah, a railroad pioneer.]

Theodore D. Judah

Theodore D. Judah, a Connecticut Yankee, son of an Episcopal minister, made the very first move. He had come West in the year 1854 to act as construction engineer for L. L. and J. F. Robinson, who were engaged in building the first railroad in California, the Sacramento Valley. This was completed to Folsom on February 3, 1856, after which, and before the Overland railroad was seriously thought of, Judah had projected schemes, running lines here and there in the endeavor to arrive at something tangible.

The idea of a transcontinental railroad began to take form when he called a meeting to be held at the St. George Hotel in Sacramento. It was attended by A. P. Catlin, his attorney, Charles Marsh of Nevada City, B. F. Leete, one of Judah's surveyors, Robinson brothers, and a few others  p12 whom he had urged to be present, but nothing came of it.

In the year 1859 Dr. D. W. Strong of Dutch Flat in Placer County began a search for a possible wagon road across the summit, with a view to diverting some of the Overland travel from the older routes and bringing it through his home town. He soon found that there was a natural grade down a continuous ridge all the way from the Summit to the Sacramento Valley just where it was needed to serve his purpose.

About this time he heard of Judah, who was surveying in the Tehachapi country in search of a pass for a railroad. Dr. Strong sent word to him at once that he believed he knew such a pass, whereupon Judah took the stage for Dutch Flat to investigate. On his arrival the two men started up the trail on horseback with no road except the track made by the Donner party a dozen years before, which they followed to the summit.

When he met Dr. Strong and began the agitation for a through railroad to the East the Robinsons objected and terminated Judah's connection with their road. However he kept up his study of the mountains, searching for the best pass through which he might reach the Nevada State Line and  p13 the open desert beyond. He had a light wagon drawn by one horse, an aneroid barometer,​a a compass and an odometer. Thus equipped he crossed and recrossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains twenty-three times on foot, on horseback, or with his little one-horse wagon.

[image ALT: A compound of maybe a dozen wooden buildings and houses, some of several stories in a fenced property with a road leading to it, surrounded by pine trees up to 30 meters tall, set at the foot of an almost vertical cliff in the right side of the photograph. It is a mid‑19c photograph of the Strawberry Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.]

Strawberry Valley, Sierra Nevada Mountains,
before the building of the railroad.

By the time the surveys had reached a stage that showed a feasible route Judah became obsessed with the idea of an Overland railroad which grew upon him to the exclusion of everything else. Leete says he was sure to go to Washington every time Congress met if he had money enough to pay his fare, talking "Overland" all the way over and back to every one who would listen.

He prevailed upon the Legislature of California to call a convention to meet in September, 1859, to be composed of delegates from Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, and California to discuss the Overland Railroad question. Nothing can of it so it adjourned to meet again in February, 1860. Huntington attended the convention but said nothing. After another meeting he called Judah in and said to him, "You must first have funds to demonstrate the merits of your scheme and lay a substantial foundation, then the public will support it sufficiently to bring appropriations or bounties from  p14 state, national, county and city bodies as well as private capital." Huntington offered to secure a fund of thirty-five thousand dollars from seven men to enable Judah to make a survey over the mountains to the Nevada State Line. The men he mentioned were himself, Mark Hopkins, Charles Marsh, James Bailey, Lewis A. Booth, Charles Crocker, and Governor Stanford. With this substantial encouragement Judah, on June 27th, 1861, incorporated "The Central Pacific Company of California," with Leland Stanford as President; C. P. Huntington, Vice President; Mark Hopkins, Treasurer; James Bailey, Secretary; T. D. Judah, Chief Engineer; with Charles Crocker, D. W. Strong, Charles Marsh, and L. A. Booth as the other four directors. James Bailey, a jeweler in Sacramento, was the richest man of the whole party and it was he who had financed Judah up to that time. Marsh lived in Nevada City where he had interests in mines and water companies. Lew Booth, who had a large grocery store on J Street, Sacramento, was a cousin of Newton Booth, afterwards Governor of California, and United States Senator. Dr. Strong practiced medicine over a widely extended mining region in the mountains.

 p15  Judah sailed from Sacramento on October 10, 1861, for the city of Washington to secure government aid for the proposed railroad, taking James Bailey with him. He spent the winter and spring actively canvassing for the support of Congress and the administration. He was successful beyond his fondest hopes and telegraphed to his associates in Sacramento, "We have drawn the elephant; now let us see if we can harness him up." He referred to the fact that on July 1, 1862, President Lincoln had signed a bill creating the Union Pacific Railroad Company, to build a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri River to the west line of the State of Nevada; and the Central Pacific Road of California, to build from the head of navigation on the Sacramento River to the eastern boundary of the State, where they were to meet, on or before the end of the year 1874. A subsidy of ten sections of land and of bonds to the amount of sixteen thousand dollars to the mile was granted.

[image ALT: A photograph of an old man, mostly bald but with a neatly trimmed beard, and an intense expression. It is Benjamin Franklin Leete, a railroad pioneer.]

B. F. Leete

Returning to California in August, 1862, with this, as he termed it, unexpectedly favorable bill Judah went immediately to work making careful surveys for the road. And now in this year of grace, 1920, the sole survivor of this party is Benjamin  p16 Franklin Leete, whom I have known intimately for many years and who has given me free access to his library containing pamphlets and papers, maps and records of the most interesting character.

For the last fifty years he has made his home in Reno, Nevada, and now at the age of ninety recalls Mr. Judah perfectly, whom he describes as a very slight man not over five-feet-five or six and never weighing a hundred and fifty pounds. The two men were friends in their youth, working on adjoining divisions of the New York Central Railroad. Leete specialized on bridges and has some notable structures to his credit.

Ground was broken at Sacramento on January 8, 1863, Governor Stanford throwing the first spadeful while Turton & Knox began unloading big four-horse wagon loads of dirt to make the grade.

The first locomotive came from the shop of Richard Norris & Sons of Lancaster, Pa., and was unloaded from the ship on March 10. She was named "Governor Stanford" and is now in the museum of Stanford University at Palo Alto.​b

As soon as the road showed signs of real life people already entrenched foresaw the danger  p17 threatening them. It required no prophet to convince business men of California that a railroad connection with the East would immediately and permanently revolutionize in many ways the commerce of the Coast, eliminating many profitable enterprises, crippling others and bringing in many new ones. Those most directly to be affected took alarm, opening war on the new company in the effort to cripple it financially, so as to defeat or at least delay the building of the road. Money commanded from two to three per cent per month interest, and capitalists declined to invest in what promised to be a doubtful scheme which even if carried through would not pay so well. Violent attacks were made upon the men promoting it and the credit of the road was assailed before a rail was laid. It was called the Dutch Flat Swindle by men who declared that there was no possibility of its ever reaching further than the snow line, or getting anything except the local Washoe travel. The Sierras were declared to be impassable, the snowfall prohibitory, and the directors crazy.

The telegraph company foresaw a rival, the Sitka Ice Company, the California Steam Navigation Company, the Pacific Mail, Wells Fargo & Company, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, and all  p18 the big stage lines read their doom. They set to work making combinations, influencing the press, coercing the banks and trying to prove the undertaking either a fraud or a farce. Men in the bank parlors said to customers, "Don't have anything to do with those men, Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, and Crocker. Don't put your money into their schemes. They are bound to come to grief. Nobody in the world can put that road through." The effect was to make it impossible to raise money on the Coast, even to get a start. Huntington went to New York and trudged the streets begging men to listen to him and for a year he almost lived on the tenders between New York, Washington, and Boston, while his associates combed the Coast from end to end for any little subscription they could get.

Their financial affairs were described about this time by Governor Stanford as being very uncertain. He said: "We were compelled to rely entirely upon our own resources until we had built the first thirty-one miles, when we could use funds pledged by different branches of government. The State of California had guaranteed the interest but not the principal on a million and a half of our seven-per‑cent bonds and we had subscriptions  p19 from Placer County for $200,000 in bonds. Sacramento County gave us $400,000, while San Francisco pledged us $600,000. Her citizens took none of our stock, but on the contrary opposed the subscription so strenuously that we were forced to apply to the courts before they would recognize it at all, and even then we compromised for $400,000 after a delay which crippled us seriously. If we could have saved the year they kept us back we would have built the road to Cheyenne instead of only to Ogden, and that would have given San Francisco control of the trade of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and part of that of Colorado and Montana. The fact is that Virginia City, the little mining town in Nevada, bought more of our stock than did the whole city of San Francisco."

[image ALT: A small wooden building in the countryside, more of a shack really, about 5 meters tall though apparently single-story, fronting on a railroad track. It is built of long boards vertically set, and has an off-center door and a very small window somewhat balancing it; another similar window can be seen on the side, by which two men are standing and talking; a third man is doing something with a long pole to an hourglass-shaped item made of metal tubing. It is an engraving of the first office of the Central Pacific Railroad.]

The first office
of the Central Pacific Railroad

From an old print.

The only hope left was that additional subsidies from the general government might be secured, and as a last resort Judah started again for Washington in an endeavor to promote legislation to that end.

B. F. Leete, who was chief assistant to Judah at that time, says an appropriation of $200,000 made by the State of California was far from sufficient to carry the enterprise through the first stage. The directors adopted an astute plan to make it immediately  p20 effective in a much greater volume. They calculated the amount of bonds on which this $200,000 would pay good interest and found that it would amount to a million and a half dollars. So they induced the State of California to modify the contribution and make a guarantee of the interest of a million and a half dollars of the company's bond in lieu of paying them the $200,000. With this guarantee the bonds were placed in New York and the proceeds carried them to the end of the first thirty-one miles on which the fate of the road depended. When this was gone and no more subscriptions could be secured the board agreed with Judah that he should go East and make the attempt to secure additional subsidies or in the failure of that to get up a company of financiers able to build from the East to the California coast. The bargain was that if Judah succeeded each one of his associates would receive $100,000 in cash in exchange for all their rights and interests and retire. If, however Judah should fail, then the company would go as far as it was able, working up the Nevada traffic, and give Judah $100,000 in their bonds.

An unsigned story in the annual report of the Territorial Pioneers Society says in substance that  p21 the bitter opposition encountered by the company led the board of directors away from Judah's vision of an Overland Railroad and caused them to concentrate on building to the snow line on the western slope of the Sierras with a stage road to the new mines in Nevada, which were developing wonderfully, with a vast freight and passenger business carried at fabulously high rates. Judah opposed the move with all his power and refused to join them, so they bought his stock for a hundred thousand dollars and he retired. Then he opened negotiations with eastern parties, presumably Dr. Durant and others of the Union Pacific for the continuation of their road from the East.

[image ALT: A trail — not much more than a wide rut in the landscape — from the foreground of the photo almost directly to the background, between two gigantic masses of flat stone, on each of which stands a man. The trail is traveled by a convoy of horse- and man-drawn carts tilting at awkward angles. It is a mid‑19c photograph of freighting thru the Sierra Nevada Mountains.]

Summit of the Sierra Nevada.
Freighting supplies into Nevada before the day of the railroad.

From an old photograph.

[image ALT: A forest of tall pines — the tops of the trees not seen, and many denude — thru which a straight road rises at a gradient of about 5% from the left middleground to the right background of the photo. A caravan of several dozen horses and at least three covered wagons is climbing the road. It is a mid‑19c photograph of freighting thru the Sierra Nevada Mountains.]

Freighting over the Sierra before the building of the railroad
along the Truckee River.

From an old print.º

Whether this anonymous writer told the truth or not the Central Pacific Company did take over the Donner Lake wagon road which Dr. Strong had begun and they took his engineer, Sam S. Montague and made him chief engineer of their road as successor to Judah. R. H. Pratt was put in charge and made a magnificent highway from Dutch Flat to the Nevada State line, stocking it with blooded horses that dashed across the mountains on the run, with fine stages that carried the passengers from the end of the railroad to Virginia City. It developed a business of a million a year with  p22 freight teams in an unbroken line three and four miles long at a stretch. The road was abandoned after the track was laid and Mr. Pratt made one of the managing officers of the railroad.

[image ALT: A wooden plank sidewalk and a railroad track receding from center foreground to the left background; the track completely obscured by a train of boxcars. On the right, a line of telegraph poles, although with no wire yet strung recedes parallel to the track. Boxcars off the track, sheds, stacks of lumber, carts and several dozen men complete the busy scene. It is an 1869 photograph of a construction camp on the Central Pacific Railroad.]

Central Pacific construction camp, 1869.
Chief Engineer Montague is the bearded man in center.

By this time there was a change in public sentiment in the East, as the people began to realize the great importance of building the road, which was to unite the nation. A bill was passed doubling the subsidies granted two years before, and at the same time permitting the companies to issue first mortgage bonds which should take precedence over the bonds of the United States, making it a first mortgage and the lien of the government a second mortgage. It was signed July 2, 1864.

The same law fixed the subsidy for the first 150 miles across the Sierra Nevada mountains at $48,000 per mile and for the 600 miles across the desert at $32,000 per mile in bonds. These provisions set the enterprise on its feet and money was obtained to meet all its needs.

In the meantime four members of the board had dropped out leaving Stanford, Huntington, Crocker, Hopkins, and Judah to bear the burden.

It would have been impossible to get together five men better fitted for the parts they were destined to play. All were from a long line of  p23 sturdy American ancestry and each one threw his entire energies into the work.

Theodore D. Judah was the outstanding figure; his was the organizing genius, the indomitable courage; his the faith that moved mountains and somewhere in that slight body was hidden the immortal spark that makes the empire builder. It was the irony of fate that he should be carried off by disease just at the peak of fortune, when success had become merely a matter of "carry on."

He was stricken with Panama fever while crossing the Isthmus but continued his journey and died alone at the Astor House, in New York City on November 2, 1863. It was a pathetic ending of a life filled to the last hour with the great ambition which only death itself could conquer. He left no heir and not even a railroad station bears his name but today a dozen great American States are largely indebted to him for their prosperity.

Leland Stanford came to the Pacific Coast in the year 1852. Ten years later he took his seat as Governor of the State of California, ranking with the great war governors of Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. He was the friend of Abraham Lincoln and the statesman of the railroad combine. His second great work was the building of the  p24 Leland Stanford, Jr., University, now one of the world's great institutions of learning. In build he resembled Brigham Young, with much the same sturdy, enduring powers of mind and body.

Collis Potter Huntington, who took the company's finances in hand, becoming by his successful management a world figure of no mean size, was a giant in strength, both mentally and physically, retaining his grasp upon the affairs of the company up to the last hour of his long life.

[image ALT: A photograph of a middle-aged man with pomaded receding hair, wearing a bow tie. It is Leland Stanford, a railroad pioneer.]
[image ALT: A photograph of a man in his late middle age, balding in the front, with a full beard and mustache. It is Collis P. Huntington, a railroad pioneer.]

Leland Stanford

Central Pacific Railroad.

Collis P. Huntington

Central Pacific Railroad.

At the time of his death he was president of twenty-six corporations owning over nine thousand miles of railroad, besides five thousand miles of steamship lines. His partner, Mark Hopkins, "Uncle Mark" the men called him, was the oldest of the five. Like Huntington he was a '49er and had come from the Eastern States. He combined a rare talent for organization, with the broad vision which made him the balance wheel in all the vast operations of his associates.

Charles Crocker was invaluable to the company, stepping to the front as the managing man in the field, remaining there from the turning of the first earth at Sacramento, until the last spike was driven at Promontory. He bore more than  p25 one man's burden, so heavy that many times it almost broke even his Herculean courage.

His son, William H., in a speech to the pioneers once said he had heard his father say that there had been several times when he would have sold out and given up the struggle for a clean shirt. However, he had a personal attendant who looked after the shirt and did what else he could to protect his master from the importunities of the multitude. For many years Ah Ling was on guard, saluting callers who asked to see Mr. Crocker with a bold inquiry, "You want to see Chollie Clocker? What you want? Me allee same Chollie Clocker." Mr. Crocker was a native of Troy, New York, and had learned the blacksmith trade but followed it only a few years. In 1850 he crossed the plains to California, taking up merchandising, but finding his true vocation when the Central Pacific Railroad engaged his attention.

[image ALT: A photograph of an old man with a longish forked beard. It is Mark Hopkins, a railroad pioneer.]
[image ALT: A photograph of an old man with a very rectangular face and a long squarish brush-like goatee. It is Charles Crocker, a railroad pioneer.]

Mark Hopkins

Central Pacific Railroad.

Charles Crocker

Superintendent Construction
Central Pacific Railroad.

None of the men was rich. Governor Stanford in a sworn statement to Congress said that in 1862 the fortunes of the four men combined footed up less than one hundred and twenty thousand dollars, but with the Yankee grit that has immortalized so many of their kind they undertook the job of the century, and grit carried them through.

 p26  As the rolling stock began to arrive, it proved no small task to man the trains. A few skilled men were found, but the main force of engineers was recruited from the saw mills, with stage drivers for conductors and brakemen. The experienced men on the great Eastern systems, hesitated a long time before making so great a change. It became an adage that a man discharged from Central Pacific was obliged to travel two thousand miles before he could even ask for a new job. Partly because of the isolation and partly because pioneer conditions had brought up a generation of adaptable and capable young men, the company adopted the policy of training its own officials and experts. The wages were the highest paid by any large railroad company in the world, and the results were all that might be expected. The men were like one family, with an esprit de corps and an efficiency which would have been reached by no other means. Even today when there is hardly an employee who has not been offered poisoned propaganda by the deserts of discontent, the vast majority take that pride in their work and have that loyalty to the service which gives nobility to toil. Perhaps no greater compliment could be paid to the custom than the fact that the gentlemanº  p27 who is now its most successful president, Mr. William Sproule, received his railroad education in the Southern Pacific Company's service.

Nothing like the comrade­ship that existed between the railroad officials and the rank and file of the general public was ever found in the East. There the lines were sharply drawn between the magnates and the people. Even with the Union Pacific it was much the same. Its policies were dictated from Boston and New York, a thousand or two miles away, while the headquarters of the Central Pacific were in the little city of Sacramento, the capitol of California, right in the heart of things. Its promoters were pioneers who had partaken of the common fare and shared the common burdens. Men called each other by their first names and valued their neighbors for their real worth and not for social distinction. Contracts, large or small were as often carried out by word of mouth as by written instruments. J. H. Strobridge built thirty miles on a verbal agreement with Stanford while Crocker was absent in Europe. The Governor failed to remember the exact details so Strobridge stated the terms of the contract and Crocker said, "That's all right." Once when they were struggling to get round the first lap, they  p28 reached the end of their resources and Hopkins explained to Ben R. Crocker, a well-to‑do forty-niner, that unless they could get thirty-one miles of track built by a certain time they would have to give up, losing all their work as well as all their means. Without help they could not build another rod. Crocker was not of Charles Crocker's family, but he was their last hope. He threw open the door of his safe and said "Help yourself. I am not interested in the railroad but I am the friend of all you men who are." Hopkins offered his note as security, but Ben said, "I don't want a note. Go on and build your road, then you can pay. If you don't build it your note will not be worth anything." Innumerable instances showed the bonhomie that prevailed. One of the first locomotive engineers lost his life in a wreck at Auburn. His infant son was adopted by Uncle Mark Hopkins and his wife, who gave him all the advantages that belong to wealth and station, so that today he is one of San Francisco's leading financiers and one of California's eminent citizens.

Another case was a large land deal in which I played a small part. Mr. Crocker had financed a stock range at Promontory, for his son and two associates. They very much desired a tract of over  p29 a hundred thousand acres of pasture in the company's grant adjoining theirs. Mr. Crocker parleyed with Governor Stanford over it, off and on for several years, but they failed to agree. One day as they chanced to meet Mr. Crocker brought the subject up, asking for a price. When he did not name one Crocker said, "Send some one to examine it and let us buy it." The Governor said, "All right, suppose we send Fulton out." Crocker said, "All right again. Whatever Fulton says it is worth we will give." The Governor responded, "Whatever Fulton says it is worth we will take," and they did.

When the general offices were moved from Sacramento to San Francisco one fine room was set apart for a private mess or dining room and thirty or forty places were filled daily by heads of departments, their assistants and occasional visitors; a genial company of experts in many lines. Almost any subject might be talked of without reserve and sometimes the freedom was startling. Governor Stanford occupied the seat at the head of the table when present, and questions of grave importance were ventilated as often as lighter ones. The merest chance seemed to turn the conversation and one day Mr. Huntington told how he headed off  p30 Jay Gould's attempt to parallel the Central Pacific from Ogden to San Francisco. As he described it there was a battle royal from start to finish. Sitting not far away I said, "Mr. Huntington, you ought to write a book." Very good naturedly he said, "There are a good many things it would not do to put in a book." Gould often declared that he would not visit California until he could ride across the continent on his own rails. He never visited California. In the contest between the Pennsylvania Company and the Southern Pacific for control of the route to New Orleans, Vice-President Scott's health gave way and an intimate friend said to Mr. Huntington, "You are killing Tom Scott." "You are mistaken," was the answer. "Scott is velvet, while I am gunnysack. He will die and I will live, but I am not killing him." Once he told of standing with Mr. Crocker at the Summit, looking down across the cliffs at Donner Lake, a thousand feet below and up at the cliffs towering far above. That lower level must be reached with the track, and it looked like an impossibility. Huntington said, "I'll tell you what we'll do, Crocker; we will build an enormous elevator right here and run the trains up and down by it." "Oh Lord," said Crocker, "it cannot be done." The level was  p31 finally reached by cutting a shelf in the face of the granite cliffs on which the rails were laid, going a long ways around.

During a violent political campaign in which the "Big Four" were accused of extortion, Governor Stanford expounded his philosophy, disclaiming any ambition except to make the Southern Pacific a success. He declared that he had no desire to add to his own fortune, as no matter how much more he gained he could not live any differently, nor provide for the wants of himself or family any more effectually. But it was different with the five thousand stockholders, many of whom were widows, orphans or aged people with no other means of support. Savings banks, insurance companies, and trusts held stock for estates or customers whom they had advised to make the investment and it would betray them as well as larger owners to neglect any fair means of increasing the revenues.

The man selected to administer the Company's land grant forty miles wide and seven hundred and forty-four miles long, was B. B. Redding, one of the wisest and best of men. He was a pioneer and served as Secretary of the State of California while Stanford was Governor. He became the  p32 prophet of the lunch table, always listened to with delight.

Before the road was one year old a very young man entered the freight department and soon became the greatest expert of his generation. He had been in the army as clerk for his father who was quartermaster of Garfield's regiment, the 42nd Ohio. Mr. Huntington introduced him as "John C. Stubbs, an infant prodigy on traffic." He organized a campaign that literally transferred the ocean freight from the Clipper ships that came around Cape Horn to the cars of the overland railroads. He became traffic director for all the Harriman lines and retired after over forty years of activity. He had returned to his birthplace in Ohio and says that his only connection now with traffic is to sit on his back fence and watch the Erie trains go by.

[image ALT: A photograph of an old man with a large well-trimmed spade-shaped beard and wire-rimmed glasses, wearing a bow tie. It is J. H. Strobridge, a railroad pioneer.]

J. H. Strobridge

Superintendent of Construction
Central Pacific Railroad.

Of all the multitudes who came and went during the building of the Central Pacific, from Sacramento to Promontory, the only man now alive who was with it from start to finish is James Harvey Strobridge, who was in immediate charge of the grading and track-laying. He was born April 21, 1827, and is now spending a green old age under his own vine and fig tree in Castro Valley, near Haywards, California. Although ninety-three  p33 his faculties are acute, his memory wonderful, and many a middle aged man looks older.

At different times I have visited him and spent hours listening to his intimate stories. Like most men of action he is inclined to repulse the interviewer and can hardly be induced to talk about the great work in which he distinguished himself. We know that he was born on a farm near Albany, Vermont, from a long line of good American ancestry. Early in his career he took up railroad building and in 1844 laid the track into Fitchburg, Massachusetts. For a year he was on the Vermont Central, then took a contract for two miles near Waterville, Connecticut. On January 30th, 1849, he started for San Francisco, via Cape Horn on the sailing vessel Orpheus, landing July 8th, 1849. He soon reached the mines at Placerville, digging gold in Coon Hollow. Forty years later he built the railroad into Placerville, crossing this same Coon Hollow on a trestle work 120 feet high.

When the Central Pacific was organized Strobridge became manager of construction, in charge of everything except the department of bridges and buildings, which was under Arthur Brown.

Labor was a serious problem and when the track reached Newcastle, thirty-one miles out  p34 from Sacramento, Chinamen were imported, large numbers being kept busy until the road was finished. As many as eleven thousand of them and three thousand whites with sixteen hundred horses were on the work at one time. The Chinamen never learned to love their Anglo-Saxon overseer. Strobridge was forever rushing them and when a missed hole in a blast at Bloomer Cut caused him to lose an eye the Chinaman said rather regretfully, "Ole man shoot 'em one eye; why no shoot 'em two?"

The Chinamen were paid at the rate of thirty-five dollars per month, the same as the white laborers, but they boarded themselves while the whites lived in the Company's houses without expense.

In the fall of 1866 the snow was very heavy, inquiries convinced the management that the road could not be kept open by any ordinary means. The Sierra Nevada mountains are in a belt that receives one of the heaviest snowfalls on the globe, seventy feet and even more having been known. It was decided to build sheds over the track in exposed places and in the summer of 1867 Arthur Brown planned a system nearly forty miles long. Sawed lumber could not be had in sufficient quantities,  p35 so round and hewn timbers were used, the whole work costing two million dollars. Brown was a genius in his line. He built all the bridges, stations, water tanks, snow sheds, section houses, the Oakland terminals, the Stanford, Crocker, and Hopkins mansions in San Francisco; and put up the famous Del Monte Hotel ready for occupancy in ninety days. He had full command and not even the general manager of the road could order over a hundred dollars worth of work in improvements without his approval.

[image ALT: A forest of pines some 25 meters tall, with a large road-like gash of cleared land forming an embankment about 10 meters high receding into the left background. It is an 1864 photograph of the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad thru the Sierra Nevada Mountains.]

Building through the forest.
Central Pacific Railroad, Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1864.

Hardly had the sheds been built before fires broke out, inflicting heavy losses. The long open galleries acted like chimneys, producing a draft of such tremendous force that the flames leaped forward with race horse speed. It became necessary to hold fire trains, stationed one at each end and one at Summit station. Opposite Cisco rises Red Mountain and on the brow, at an elevation of eight thousand feet, a signal station was established where a watchman by neither and one by day are constantly on duty, training a powerful telescope on the whole length of the sheds. Any smoke or blaze, brush fire or stroke of lightning is detected instantly, and word sent by telephone to the fire trains.

 p36  On a bright summer's day the snow sheds display as fine an illumination as can be seen anywhere. Through chance openings in the sides or roof the sunbeams play upon the smoke left by the passing engines until the big beams and massive sides are beautified and glorified beyond description. The whole space between the walls becomes a twisting, whirling mass of vivid blue, purple, yellow, and white.

Strobridge told in graphic phrase of the five years' work. He said, "It took three years to build the road across the Sierras. If the country had been level the road could have been built to Omaha in less time, and for less money, while if built with ordinary exertion the cost would have been seventy per cent less. The orders were to rush construction as fast as men and money would do it. Graders were sent far ahead of the tracklayers as the heavy snows in winter stopped all work except in the tunnels. The men who had been digging on the roadbed were sent across the mountains and even into Nevada Territory where there was not sufficient snow to interfere. Three locomotives were loaded on big sleds at Cisco in the winter of 1867, by W. L. Pritchard, known all over the West as 'Nick of the Woods,' which his teams hauled  p37 over the summit to Truckee. Twenty flat cars and forty miles of iron were taken over in the same way, so that by the time the Summit tunnel was finished the road was graded to Wadsworth and forty miles of iron laid. The work of digging the Summit tunnel occupied thirteen months and it would have taken much longer but for the fact that a Scotch scientist named Howden came to camp to make nitroglycerine, the first made in America. It was ninety-six per cent pure and he made it as fast as it was needed.

"The act of Congress gave free rights to all timber and lumbermen to cut any trees on government forest land to be used in building the railroad. The same privilege was given woodmen cutting ties, fuel, bridges, timbers for snow sheds, etc. The fuel agent urged the company to secure a supply of wood in advance, large enough to give the engines dry fuel across the desert, but Mr. Huntington objected as the money could not be had at the time. Subsequent events showed the wisdom of the plan. When the road was crossing Nevada the trainmen were at times forced to pull up sagebrush to fire the engines. If there was a wreck that damaged the freight cars they were cut up for engine wood instead of being repaired.

[image ALT: A wide dirt road along the edge of a pine forest in a flat landscape, with a ridge of hills in the background. The road seems to end here, in a camp of about half a dozen large wooden A‑frame-type shacks or buildings. Telegraph poles and a dozen or more men and their wagons or carts complete the scene. It is a photograph, ca. 1868, of a stage and freighters' headquarters near Lake Tahoe, Nevada.]

Yanks Station.
Stage and freighters' headquarters near Lake Tahoe.

 p38  "In 1868‑9 we rushed the track through from Wadsworth to Promontory," continued Mr. Strobridge, "a distance of five hundred and fifty-five miles, in ten months with five thousand men. From April, 1868, until May, 1869, eleven hundred miles of iron was laid by the two companies. In crossing the desert water for men and animals was hauled in places for forty miles, while grain, fuel and all supplies came from California. There was not a tree big enough to make a board for five hundred miles. Supplies cost enormously. I sent a wagon load of tools from Wadsworth to Promontory, and the expenses for the team and trip were fifty-four hundred dollars. I found a stack of hay on the river near Mill City, for which the owner asked sixty dollars a ton. He said I must buy it as there was no other hay to be had. The stack was still standing in his field when we moved camp and it may be there now for all I know. Another settler had a stack of rough stuff, willows, wiregrass, tules and weeds, cut in a slough. I asked him what he expected to do with it. Not knowing that he had a prospective buyer, the man answered, 'Oh! I am going to take it up to the railroad camp. If hay is high I will sell it for hay. If wood is high I'll sell it for wood.'

 p39  "Strange to say, in all the grading, digging through hills and tunnelling under ridges, there never was a sign of a gold or silver mine. Nor was there ever found any relic of the Overland tragedies that occurred. No broken wagons, no bones of animals that had perished. No graves or discarded weapons. There were no Indian troubles either, one reason being that General P. E. Connor was sent out with a thousand soldiers a few years before and he cleaned up the country, destroying men, women and children indiscriminately. The Union Pacific was guarded by troops for years and the authorities offered to put some with the Central Pacific forces as guards, but I said, 'No guards,' and there were none. Mr. Huntington suggested that a military man, accustomed to drilling troops should be engaged to put down the rails, but I said, 'Damn the military' and it was damned.

"One reason for our success was the absence of the saloon. Don't ask how we kept them out. It has always been a mystery. We were away out by ourselves, far from courts or sheriffs, and it was remarkable," said Strobridge, with a twinkle in his eye — 'that our men were so orderly and so uniformly opposed to immoral resorts. Saloons were torn down or burned by unknown hands many  p40 times, but the criminals were never discovered. A saloon would spring up in a tent once in a while, when a crowd would rush it and break bottles and heads with pick handles, and the good red liquor ran like rain,' (with Strobridge nowhere in sight).

"There were very few settlers along the line we built. Joe Felnagle and Tom Herman had a ferry and road house at Truckee River Crossing, afterwards a station known as Wadsworth. Daniels and Meacham had a small brick house, or hotel, where Humboldt is now, Ben Gentz, a Frenchman lived at Mill City, and Johnny Thacker lived on the river not far away. Dutch Sam fed people and always had an egg for me, one egg, no more — no less. I think he chased the rooster. There was some town at Winnemucca, and a man named Carpenter went with nine or ten big teams to sixteen mile canyon, above Gravelly Ford, to haul supplies. We took thirty-five hundred men out from Reno to work there and had to feed them. Fairbanks had a dairy on the Humboldt River eight or nine miles above Winnemucca, but there was nobody at Golconda. A man had a stage station at Stone House, nobody at Battle Mountain, nobody at Gravelly Ford or Beowawe, nor Palisade, nor Carlin nor Elko. Captain Smith had a company of  p41 troops at Fort Halleck, but the valley was empty. Nobody at Wells or any place to Promontory.

[image ALT: A board-flat landscape of semi-desertic scrub with a railroad track receding straight into the distant horizon; knots of men are working on the track: a stack of rails is prominent in the foreground. It is an 1868 photograph of the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad telegraph line.]

Laying the Central Pacific track through the Humboldt Desert, 1868.

From an old photograph.

[image ALT: A landscape of scrub with on the right side of the photo a small train of boxcars, and in the left foreground and in the center middleground two telegraph poles about 8 meters tall. The front pole has a tapering wooden ladder leaning against it and a man on the top crossarm of the pole, with another standing at its foot; a couple dozen men, horses and carts are also seen along the railroad track. It is an 1868 photograph of the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad telegraph line.]

Building the telegraph line, Central Pacific Railroad,
Humboldt Desert, 1868.

"There was no game, no deer or antelope or elk that we found. No cattle or sheep had ever come in at that time."

Many interesting stories have floated around for years and when I asked about them Mr. Strobridge pronounced the most attractive ones myths. One was that the railroad cut across the hills east of Wadsworth straight to Humboldt Lake, about thirty-five miles, instead of going around eight miles further over level ground, because a ship loaded with iron and two locomotives went down at sea. "Oh, that's a lie," he shot back, "we never lost a ship at sea nor a bar of iron. All during war times our ships were on the sea and not one was lost. The iron came from New York, and never was disturbed either by the Isthmus or Cape Horn. Our own government took several of our locomotives en route just when we needed them most."

The same rebuff came for the story of the maiden's grave near Beowawe. It was said that Lucille Duncan, one of a large immigrant party, took sick at Gravelly Ford, where she died and was buried near the camp, the train with her parents moving on. When the road was built the grave was right  p42 on the line and the body was moved to where it now lies on a rounded hill close to the track, with a wooden cross to mark the spot. Settlers in the neighborhood have used it as a burying ground and it is now quite a little cemetery. "Another lie," says Strobridge, "the old overland trail was lined with graves but none of them was ever disturbed by any of our work."

It was said that the timbers for the Truckee River bridge at Wadsworth were floated down the river from the saw mills above. "Not so," says Strobridge, "the timbers went down on the cars.'

One report of the ceremonies at Promontory said the last rail laid was polished and shone like silver. "Of course there was nothing of the sort," said Mr. Strobridge, "but there was a polished laurel railroad tie furnished by West Evans, who furnished a great many redwood ties for the railroad company. That tie was still in existence, kept by the railroad company along with the gold spike, until burned by the fire of 1906. There were also several silver spikes contributed by Arizona, Nevada, and the mining companies."

[image ALT: A photograph of a man in his fifties, clean-shaven except for a small bristly, slightly drooping mustache, with an air of resolution and energy. It is William Hood, a railroad pioneer.]

William Hood

Assistant Engineer
Central Pacific Railroad.

As the two tracks pushed over the desert towards each other men were swarming across the gap in the effort to get to California ahead of the  p43 rush, and the accommodations were very poor. Still there was no let‑up on the work of the road builders, as each was doing his utmost to get as far as possible. The Union Pacific graded a road bed away into Nevada, reaching the town of Wells, while the Central Pacific graded right beside the Union Pacific as far east as Webber, Utah. The Union Pacific engineers made soundings in 1868 across the east arm of Salt Lake to Promontory Point, with a view of building a bridge. Just at that time the waters of Salt Lake were the highest they have ever been known since white men lived in Utah, so it was not done. In the succeeding thirty years the lake fell seventeen feet and in 1902, Mr. Hood, chief engineer, reported to President Huntington that it would be good engineering to build a bridge across it, not the east arm only, but clear over to the west shore. Mr. Huntington said, "Build it." At that time Mr. Hood was rebuilding the main line of the Central Pacific from Ogden to Reno and parts in California, at a cost of more than a hundred million dollars. His plan included a tunnel under the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains that would have cost twenty-five millions more, and have lowered the track to the shores of Donner Lake, a thousand feet below its present location,  p44 but that work has been indefinitely postponed. It would have been a grand climax for his half a century of brilliant service. Before the bridge was fairly started Mr. Huntington died, but under the Harriman administration it was pushed ahead and proved a complete success.

I drew from Mr. Strobridge the story of the famous day in which he laid ten miles of rails between sunrise and sunset. He said: "In the rush to make distance, Casement brothers had laid in one day seven miles and eighteen hundred feet on the Union Pacific end, a feat which T. C. Durant, vice president of the Union Pacific, offered to bet ten thousand dollars could not be beaten. I said to Mr. Crocker, "we can beat them but it will cost something." "Go ahead and do it," said Crocker and this is how we did it. "The two lines," he said, "were only twenty-five miles apart in April, 1869, so I knew if I beat them Casement would have no room to come back, even if he tried. I had five trains with five thousand men at my command, as well as plenty of iron, ties, spikes, and material, and I got everything ready just in time. Tuesday was the 27th, so I picked my men, arranged my plans and got them properly placed to start at the foot of Promontory mountain. I took two miles of material  p45 loaded on a train with a double header to push it up ahead of the engines, so it could be unloaded close to the end of the last rail laid in the track. On Wednesday the whistle blew right on time, the two engines gave a lurch, the push bar broke and we were laid up for the day, helpless. We waited a day and on Thursday, the 29th, I put the two engines in front to pull instead of to push the train. With a will the men went to work, laying six miles in six hours and a quarter, two miles at a time. We changed horses every two and a half miles, but they were all tired and we gave them a good rest after that. We had kept them on the run, and at six o'clock we quit with a record of ten miles and two hundred feet. Every bolt was screwed up, every spike driven home so that we backed down over that sixty-six foot of grade at the rate of twenty-five miles an hour, twelve hundred men riding on the empty flat cars. Two Union Pacific engineers were there with their surveying chains, so there was no guess work and no contradictions. Our organization was as well drilled as any military company. Each rail was handled by eight men, four on a side. They ran it out to the edge of the car, dropping it into place for the spikes to be driven, a man for each spike. When it  p46 was down the men walked to the same spike on the next rail, drove it and on to the next, all day. Thus there were a thousand tons of rails, thirty-five hundred in number in the ten miles. H. H. Minkler was the foreman laying rails, and the men who handled them were Mike Shay, Mike Kennedy, Mike Sullivan, Pat Joyce, Tom Daily, George Wyatt, E. W. Killeen and Fred McNamara. There were men following up the trains, surfacing the track, filling in the dirt and making it ready for business. Nobody was crowded, nobody was hurt, nobody lost a minute. General Casement, who laid the Union Pacific iron, told me that they had laid every rail they could under their system and he owned up beaten. But he said he would beat me on the Northern Pacific. I said, 'then I'll beat you on the Southern Pacific.' This record stands unparalleled in railroad building anywhere in the world."

Following the completion of the roads, the development of western America was wonderful. A remarkable era of prosperity spread over the Pacific Coast which lasted for many years, and in fact promises to continue throughout all future time. California was the chief beneficiary, of course. Here in a State given to change, change has been  p47 complete. Wealth beyond the imagination of man has been created and it has been shared by all. The men who built the roads made large fortunes, it is true, but for every dollar that came to them thousands of dollars came to their compatriots living in that and other States. Best of all the benefits are not such as can disappear but will bless all future generations so long as time shall last.

Thayer's Notes:

a For the barometric determination of altitudes; the details of the (theoretically straightforward) procedure can be found in Florian Cajori, "History of Determinations of the Heights of Mountains".

b The locomotive is now in the California State Railroad Museum at Sacramento (photo); see also the illustrated discussion at Central Pacific R. R. Discussion Group.

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Page updated: 24 Aug 13