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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

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.
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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p123  Section Three
The Promoters

I don't think any man knows exactly what he would do until he is tempted — or any woman. A great many people live honest and virtuous lives that are not entitled to very much credit for it.
— Frederick Low, successor to Leland Stanford as Governor of California, in an interview about Central Pacific's "Associates" (1891)

 p125  Chapter X
The Commissioners

We shall naturally take up our grand journey at Chicago. This is just one third of the way across the continent, and the beginning of the New West, whose spirit is nowhere so proudly rampant, into whose growth no other city so intimately enters. The pulse of the Pacific beats with electric sympathy on the southern shore of Lake Michigan; and if Chicago does not hear every blow of the pick in the depths of the gold mines of Colorado and Montana, she at least has made sure to furnish the pick, and to have a claim on the gold it brings to light. . . . Samuel Bowles, The Pacific Railroad — Open (1869).

National crises seemed to be the most faithful ally of the Pacific Railroad. The Louisiana Purchase and the claims to Oregon Territory evolved the dream about it. The War with Mexico and the California Gold Rush made it inevitable. The first Congress during the Civil War pledged a $50,000,000 loan and millions of acres of the Great Desert toward its completion. Now, in the gloomiest week of the Republic's 86 years, hundreds of the Union's most important leaders came to Chicago to argue the Union Pacific Railroad & Telegraph Company into being.

The troops of Generals Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pope and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McDowell were still slinking  p126 back into Washington from the second Battle of Bull Run. Washington is in danger, the Chicago Tribune's correspondent wired on September 1: . . . really in greater danger than ever before. The crisis through which the capital, Maryland and the country are passing is even yet upon us . . . that Washington will or will not be taken we will not undertake to prophesy.

And 400 miles to the north, Minnesota was still in the throes of the Sioux Rebellion. More than 300 settlers had been murdered there, and scores of women and girls enslaved. Every community on the upper Mississippi was under martial law. Confederate agents, the rumors said, were in the Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas back countries, urging the tribes to insurrection and promising them, "The Great Plains shall be the red man's forever when our Confederacy wins the war." Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois might be raided.

Nevertheless, Chicago's Bryan Hall was crowded at eleven o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, September 2, 1862, when "the Board of Federal Commissioners for Construction of a Railroad and Telegraph Line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean" opened its sessions. The Pacific Railway Act had named 158 commissioners. More than 75 of them came to Chicago to argue about procedures for a corporation that might take 10 — and the gloomier prophesied 50 — years to link the Union with its Pacific States.

The project attracted many of the great engineers too. John B. Jervis, now sixty-three years old, rode in with the Pennsylvania delegation. Silas Seymour arrived with the New Yorkers. Henry Farnam, president of the Rock Island, was part of the Illinois delegation.

In all, twenty states and territories had delegates. The largest representation came from New York. Utah, pointedly snubbed by the 1862 Act, did not send an observer.

The convention's attendance and its profound deliberations were extraordinary in view of the task assigned to the commissioners by the 1862 Act. Congress had ruled that the commissioners  p127 were to elect a president, secretary and treasurer for the Union Pacific Railroad & Telegraph Company, and then determine where and when the company's $1,000 bonds would be offered for public sale. When $2,000,000 worth of these bonds were sod (10 per cent cash with purchase), the president, secretary and treasurer would supervise an election, by the new stockholders, for a 13‑man Board of Directors. Thereupon the President of the United States was to appoint two additional company directors who would act as direct representatives of the Federal Government, so were expressly forbidden to own any of the company's stock. When this election had been fulfilled, the 158 commissioners would automatically pass out of office. Thereafter the obligations of the Act became the responsibility of the stockholders and their directors, under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior and the half-dozen engineers he would appoint as construction-inspection commissioners.

These details are critical to an understanding of the promoter juggling that took place during the next thirteen months. Since the Pacific Railway Act limited the holdings by any one person to 200 shares of stock, it said — by implication — that for a down-payment of $200,000, an organization of ten or more investors could control the Union Pacific Railroad & Telegraph Company, its Government bonds and its land grants. It is appropriate to report, at this point, that Dr. Thomas C. Durant was not one of the 158 commissioners appointed by the Act, nor is he mentioned in the excellently detailed reports of the convention carried by Chicago newspapers.

While Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Robert E. Lee's army crossed the Potomac for the Confederacy's first invasion of Maryland, the commissioners created the railroad. William B. Ogden was elected president. The shortcomings of the Act and the necessity for amendments before "capitalists will be glad to take hold of it," themed Ogden's acceptance speech. "This project must be carried through, he said "by even-handed wise consideration  p128 and a patriotic course of policy which shall inspire capitalists of the country with confidence. Speculation is as fatal to it as Secession is to the Union. Whoever speculates will damn this project." After citing six technical changes that should be made in the Act — all in the interest of dividends for the investors and an operating fund for the railroad — he turned to the Whitney-Benton theme of Road to India. "Every New York merchant," he prophesied, "will prefer to get his goods in thirty days upon a bank discount rather than to run the risks of a nine-month Cape voyage. This route must command the travel of Europe to India and be the route for the conveyance of goods thence to England. The road will be without competition, with regular rates of tariff, and can easily earn enough to make a profitable compensation. It can be easily built and will cost less than many Eastern roads."

Governor Evans of Colorado assured the delegates that the Pacific Railroad could grade to the 11,400‑foot elevation of Berthoud Pass, then "as soon as you get over the Snowy Range you strike a level, well-watered valley all the way to Salt Lake."

Delegate Monell of Nebraska rose to "dispel the Great American Desert Myth for the Eastern capitalists." The South and especially Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis were, he charged, perpetrators of the myth:

Formerly, under the administration when Jeff Davis was Secretary [he said] we had to depend on the South for our information. He said the Pacific Railroad could not pass over this route. Jeff Davis then knew that behind these hills Brigham Young had settled; that Utah was surrounded by a circle of civilization which had passed over those hills. He knew that the whole trade and commerce of Utah passed over them, and in the face of this he sent forth his garbled report.

The railroad is behind the times. While the discussion of this project has been going on, Iowa has built a network of railroads. Although we are poor enough now, if you do not build this road soon, we will build it for you in five or six years. Kansas and Nebraska have sprung from the desert and are pouring their  p129 riches into the bosom of the country. We used to think once, in sailing up our rivers, there was nothing but a desert a few miles beyond the green trees which skirted the river bank. Utah sprang up and now no man can estimate the great tide of travel across those plains. Daily 100 wagon trains pass over them for weeks and weeks. A new-born State [Nevada] has sprung up and the greater part of its mining provision goes over this overland route, which Jeff Davis said could never be constructed.

There is no desert upon that route. In the earlier maps published, which are studied at school, the region of the Platte Valley was laid down as the Great American Desert, and unfit for cultivation. I have traveled on foot from the mouth of the Platte to its forks, a distance of 400 miles, and I can say from actual personal knowledge, that every foot of this land is cultivable. It is a mistaken idea that this is poor land. The valley of the Platte is fertile.

In the evenings the Pacific Railway commissioners convention was like any other before or since. The most realistic discussions took place in the hotel bedrooms. Here the alliances for future action were sniffed out, with bourbon and cigars on the commodes and feet on the window sills. Most of the delegates roomed at the Tremont House. The realities of the Pacific Railroad were unveiled in full gloom.

Observe, mused these conversationalists, the advances being made between the Pennsylvanians and Missourians . . . Illinois' brazen courtship of the New Yorkers . . . the eagerness of the Iowans. Power politics was limbering up, and fancy knifework promised. Odds on an alliance of Philadelphia-St. Louis fighting an alliance of New York-Boston-Chicago!

Congress had said the railroad would start at the 100th meridian. And where is the 100th meridian? Way up the Platte Valley — more than 50 miles west of Fort Kearney. Obviously, the musings rumbled on, whoever gets to that 100th meridian first will win the West's trade, plus commissions on everything going through to and from the Orient.

A neat trick could be played. Illinois and New York interests just might try it. The Act had also stated that President  p130 Lincoln had the authority to specify the Pacific Railroad's trackage width. Most of the lines coming into Chicago were 4 feet, 8 inches.​a But some graduate of the Erie must have built the Missouri Pacific between St. Louis and Kansas City; its rail bed was 5 feet, 6 inches wide. Let some smart fellow get to the White House and influence the thinking there toward a 4‑foot, 8‑inch width for Union Pacific. Then Missouri Pacific would have to be rerailed and regraded before it could carry through traffic. That just might give a New York-Boston-Chicago combine enough to beat a Philadelphia-St. Louis clique to the 100th meridian and get them a firm grip on that throughway handle. Lincoln was an Illinois man. He'd be reasonable.

There were still the Indians. Why should an Indian believe any white man's treaty, Union or Secesh? Gold rush to Colorado. Silver rush to Nevada. Gold rush to Montana. Just let rumor of gold in the Dacotahs get around. Off they'll go again. The Indians won't stand for any railroad, either. It would ruin their whole setup. No, sir. Union Pacific won't get built until the war's over.

This was the gloom surrounding each mealtime and evening at the Tremont, causing parlor lamps to burn late in the Ogden mansion, drawing engineers and politicians into knots of whispers, nods and back pats along the Bryan Hall vestibules. But the dazzle of Passage to India, an iron link to the Union's Pacific Coast, and real-estate booms across the Great Desert prevailed.

And what clearer harbinger of the West's future was there than Chicago herself? What the railroads had done for Chicago they could do for the West, especially if — as the Nebraskans and Coloradans alleged — the Great American Desert was a myth that had been carefully nourished by Jefferson Davis and the South's leaders.

When the Michigan Southern's ironmen had raced in over the Calumet swamp, Chicago was 18 years old. Despite the ship traffic down Lake Michigan and the hubbub about the  p131 Illinois-Michigan Canal, Chicago had grown to only 30,000 population during those 18 years.

But in 1862, after 11 years as a railroad center, Chicago was sprawled out over muck and meadow to a population of 125,000. It was larger than Nauvoo, Galena, Joliet, Milwaukee, and all its other early rivals combined. It challenged venerable St. Louis as Queen City of the West. The railroads had done that.

Cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, pneumonia and tuberculosis writhed through the tenements; the Chicago River was a cesspool so foul with sludge that the spring runs of whitefish choked to death by the thousands; the cemeteries received so many coffins that they were stacked atop one another and "laid bare by the blowing away of their coverings of sand."

But the Chicago Flyers disgorged four immigrants on Water Street platforms for every one that rode the plumed black coach to a cemetery. Grain elevators and cattle pens barricaded the water front for miles.

On September 4, the Board of Trade gave the commissioners a tugboat tour through the Illinois-Michigan Canal and down the lake front. City engineers were working on a new, deeper channel that would reverse the flow of the Chicago River, thus enabling its sewage to empty west into the Illinois River. That artificial island two miles out in Lake Michigan would house pumps and crews for a tunnel that would bring in comparatively clean drinking water.

The guides pointed out a half-dozen buildings being jacked to the approved city level, 6 feet above the boardwalk. A young contractor named George Pullman, they explained, had undertaken a series of these store- and home-hoisting jobs. The fact should be of interest to the Pacific Railroad gentlemen because young Pullman had turned "muckjacker" in order to earn funds to continue his experiments with railroad sleeping cars. In 1859, he built one for the Chicago & Alton that had real beds down each side of the center aisle. Now he wanted to build a Palace car in which the beds could be hitched up  p132 against the wall during the day. But the car would cost $30,000. Hence he was one of the contractors pioneering the new Chicago. By raising the entire city 6 feet, both allopathic and homeopathic physicians agreed, Chicago could overcome those "noxious swamp vapors" accredited as the source of much of its disease.

Halfway down to the new suburb of Hyde Park the guides pointed to a cottage on a bluff behind the Illinois Central's tracks. This was the summer home built by Stephen A. Douglas. That flower-covered mound near the cottage was The Little Giant's grave. The year before, dying from a complication of typhoid, rheumatism and "infectious throat," Douglas ordered that he be buried there overlooking his Illinois Central's branch line and the city. A fund was being subscribed for a massive brownstone monument at the site.​b

The commissioners leaned silently against the railing as the tug neared Douglas Bluff. A train of freight cars was backing into a siding below. A platoon of soldiers marched single file down the path besides The Little Giant's grave and deployed out alongside the train, muskets under arms. Then, like a great, gray serpent, a double file of Rebel prisoners stumbled past the mound, ebbed down the embankment, and disappeared into the boxcars. Some hobbled on crutches, empty pants' legs flapping. One stood stock-still at the path's head, screamed, and held out his arms until — after a guard's nod — comrades pushed in, cupped their arms in a cradle, and lifted him to trackside. The Rebs were heading home to be exchanged for Union troops captured in the Peninsula Campaign. The Tribune would tell the story in thirteen words tucked at the bottom of one of its city news columns:— "Eleven hundred and eighty-eight prisoners left Camp Douglas yesterday for the South."

Justice, a few of the commissioners reflected, wasn't so blind after all. Douglas had fearlessly argued compromise and popular sovereignty on the slavery issue. But his Kansas-Nebraska Bill and theory of "popular sovereignty" led to the Kansas war, John Brown's raid, and some said the Civil War  p133 itself. Now one of the largest prison camps in the Union festered beside his grave and was named for him.

The railroad was changing war too. Generals were sitting up late trying to adapt high iron to all the rules they'd learned at West Point. A war with railroads was a totally new kind of war. A regiment serving in the Mississippi Valley on Tuesday could be marching against Lee in Virginia on Saturday of the same week. Those Rebs might be back behind their own lines within 48 hours. Guns inspected and packed at an Ohio factory could be firing lead in Tennessee next week. The railroad had changed most of the war strategies used since Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon. Now war was geared to the railroad's 35 miles an hour instead of to the shank's-mare 2 and the cavalry's 8.

If the railroad could build miasmic Chicago into a Queen City and change the ancient rules of war, what could it do to and for the West? The possibilities were staggering.

Next morning the convention reached decisions. Henry V. Poor, editor of the Railroad Journal, was elected secretary of the Union Pacific. Thomas W. Olcott, Albany neighbor of John A. Dix and Thomas Durant's friend, was made treasurer. Union Pacific's $1,000 bonds were ordered placed on sale "in all principal cities of the Union" on November 1. President Ogden announced that the commissioners would be free guests of the railroads on the rides home. The convention adjourned with cheers.

Newspapers of late October and November described the bonds' gracious engravings, and carried editorials urging their purchase as "patriotism and faith in the Union's future." One of the first purchases was for five bonds in the name of "Brigham Young, Esq." Samuel Tilden, Henry Farnam, William Ogden and a few other commissioners, made similar investments. But bankers and Wall Street gamblers said No; the war-supply manufacturers would gobble every dollar they could wangle, and pay them interest rates of 30 per cent a year.

 p134  The newspapers turned to the greater excitements of war news. The public, when it remembered, shrugged. After all, the Pacific Railroad dream was fifty frustrated years old. By March, 1863, only 150 shares of stock were subscribed, giving the Union Pacific Railroad & Telegraph Company total assets of $15,000.

Dr. Thomas Durant beamed at the figures. Plans were developing delightfully.

Thayer's Notes:

a Actually, 4 feet 8½ inches.

b The Douglas Monument — see my pages elsewhere onsite, with photographs — was completed there, on what had been his estate; not until after the War between the States, though, during which the land surrounding it had served as a Union camp for Confederate prisoners of war where many died. The monument is not brownstone, but granite for the most part.

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