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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 14

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 16
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p189  Section Four
All the Livelong Day

Men of the East! Men at Washington! You have given the toil and even the blood of a million of your brothers and fellows for four years, and spent three thousand million dollars, to rescue one section of the Republic from barbarism and from anarchy; and your triumph makes the cost cheap. Lend now a few thousand of men, and a hundred millions of money, to create a new Republic; to marry to the Nation of the Atlantic an equal if not greater Nation of the Pacific. Anticipate a new sectionalism, a new strife, by a triumph of the arts of Peace, that shall be even prouder and more reaching than the victories of your Arms. Here is payment of your great debt; here is wealth unbounded; here the commerce of the world; here the completion of a Republic that is continental; but you must come and take them with the Locomotive.
— Samuel Bowles, Across The Continent (1865)

 p191  Chapter XV
The Relays

When we started, iron was $62. Before we got across the mountains, iron was sold $150 a ton. Locomotives went from $8,000 to as high as $32,500. We paid 2½ per cent insurance in time of peace and in the time of rebellion, we paid 17 per cent insuring the goods around Cape Horn. Many things went up 200 per cent, and I guess many things 300 per cent advance from the time we commenced the road before we got it completed. . . . Collis P. Huntington in testimony before the Pacific Railway Commission, 1888.

Geographically, the Pacific Railroad began at Omaha and Sacramento. Economically and physically, it began in two offices off lower Broadway in New York City — the shabby hole in the wall occupied by Collis P. Huntington, and the gilt-mirrored suite dominated by Thomas C. Durant. The relay systems evolved there are a significant chapter in the technologic revolution that industrialized the West and veered the United States from an agricultural-rural economy to a factory-urban economy. Construction of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific was a titanic demonstration of Eli Whitney's assembly-line technique; Huntington and Durant were patrons of technology.

 p192  The wrought-iron rail initially specified for each road weighed 50 pounds to the yard. A mile of track, plus side spurs and switches, required 100 tons of rail, approximately 2,500 crossties and 2 or 3 tons of spikes and fishplates (the slotted bars that connect rail ends and permit climatic expansion and contraction of the metal). Grading gangs used wheelbarrows, horse-drawn scrapers, two-wheel dump carts, shovels, axes, crowbars, mattocks and blasting powder. Bridgeworkers required quarry tools and iron rods.

Food stocks of flour, bacon, ham, saleratus, "sweetening," beans, rice and dried fruit were equally essential, since the crews of both lines worked as self-sufficient armies in the wilderness. Locomotives, wheel trucks and switch mechanisms, plus foundry tools for the repair and assembly shops at Omaha and Sacramento, increased the New York purchase and relay task to shipments averaging more than 10,000 tons per month.

Huntington's country-storekeeper skill and boasted miserliness got him through a routine delivery schedule during 1863‑5, despite the priority claims of Army and Navy buyers. A few experiences with the surcharge rates via the Isthmus of Panama (four handlings by stevedores as against two on the Cape Horn run) urged him to perfect a purchase and shipment timetable that ran eight months to a year ahead of Crocker's railhead needs. By the time Union Pacific moved into the iron, locomotive, blasting-powder and tools markets in the winter of 1865, the wheedling Yankee had the reputation of being the shrewdest buyer in New York. During the spring of 1866 he outmaneuvered Union Pacific's buyers in the purchase of 66,000 tons of rail, then blandly teamed with Durant and McComb in a fight against the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts ironmongers who were attempting to form a "trust" that would boost mill prices.

His strategies in securing low delivery costs on the Cape Horn shipments demonstrate the penny-wise philosophy that developed the multimillionaires and "trusts" in American industry from 1880 on. Huntington told the details of one "smart  p193 trade" episode to H. H. Bancroft's researchers. After a prowl along the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts, Huntington said, he walked into the ship brokerage offices of E. B. Sutton.

"I said, 'Well, I want to get a good ship, a good steady ship — safe. You can go out and run around and give me a list of what you can find.'

"He came in with three or four. He said, 'You can have this one for so much and this one for so much.'

" 'Such a price,' said I, 'is too high. I can't take one of those ships. I am in no hurry,' said I, 'ships are coming in all along.'

"Well, he came back. He went out three times and he came back with twenty-three ships. I got them down whilst talking. 'Well,' said I suddenly, 'I'll take them.'

" 'Take them?' said he, 'take what?'

"Said I, 'I will take those ships if they are A‑Number One.'

" 'Well,' said he, 'I can't let you have them. I thought you wanted only one.' Said he, 'I will have to have two or three of them myself.'

"Said I, 'Not those, you won't.'

"Well, those ships took about forty-five thousand tons of rail. Mr. Sutton told me afterward, 'Huntington, you would have had to pay ten dollars a ton at least more if I had known you wanted all those ships.'

"That would have been four hundred and fifty thousand dollars."

Union Pacific's relay problems were as awesome as the 18,000mile sail around Cape Horn — and more complex. Three delivery routes were available from East Coast iron foundries and locomotive plants to the Nebraska shore. The first required a 3,000‑mile sail to New Orleans, a reloading on Mississippi River steamers, and a second reload at St. Louis for the trip up the shallow Missouri. Rail deliveries, via Chicago, involved terminal transfers at Pittsburgh and Fort Wayne via the Pennsylvania route, or at Albany, Buffalo and Cleveland via the Hudson Valley, New York City and Lake Shore route. From Chicago, materials could be shipped by rail  p194 to central Iowa, then transferred to wagon trains for the 150‑mile creak to Council Bluffs; or they could be routed via the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy to Quincy, ferried across the Mississippi to the Hannibal & St. Joseph railhead, then loaded on steamboats at St. Joseph for the final haul up "the Big Muddy" to the Nebraska shore. Any of these relays entailed stevedore charges that doubled the freight bills.

[image ALT: A mid-19c printed railroad timetable covering about 30 stations served by 10 trains.]

Timetable for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, 1864.
A version large enough to be fully readable (2.3 MB) is also available.

The first supplies delivered to Peter Dey used the New Orleans route. Presumably Union Pacific's first locomotive, landed at Omaha on July 8, 1865, took the Chicago-St. Joseph route. Although Durant decided on major use of the Chicago-St. Joseph relay, development of an efficient commissariat and routing system were the achievements of Samuel B. Reed and Crédit Mobilier's "stooge," Herbert Hoxie.

Durant promoted Sam Reed to superintendent of construction during Christmas week, 1865. The Missouri would be frozen tight through February, at least, and churning with spring floods for another month. He and Durant had three months, then, to perfect the "hardware" relay via Chicago and St. Joseph. But timber was an immediate crisis.

Although two or three of the Pennsylvania roads paid heed to Congressman Scranton's arguments and began experimentation with coal firing, all of the locomotives built for Union Pacific before 1870 used chunk-wood fuel. Cottonwood was plentiful in the Platte and Missouri Valleys. It gave a fair flame. Indeed, if worst came to worst, baled hay could be used. (Some of the spur lines in New England and New York fired it during years of farm surplus, and won the nickname of "Hay burners" for their trains.)

But cottonwood logs were too porous for the massive pounding that a crosstie must sustain. With the exception of the stands of swamp cedar used on the Seymour trackage, the hardwood forests nearest Omaha were 400 miles east in Wisconsin and 450 miles northwest in the Rockies' foothills. The Rockies' timber might as well be on the moon as long as the Indian wars were raging. Reed did experiment with a few orders for hardwood  p195 ties out of Wisconsin and Michigan. But cartage and stevedore charges brought their costs up to $4.50 (one source claims $10) a tie at the Omaha wharf. Trackage averaged 2,500 ties to the mile. Use of Eastern ties would cost $11,250 a mile, or $2,250,000 for the remaining 200 miles to the 100th meridian.

The alternative was to call in scientists for development of a chemical technique to strengthen, or reconstruct, cottonwood's water-drunk fibers. This method of "transforming farm crops to industrial uses" would create a decade-long flurry across the corn and wheat belts of the West during the 1930's, using the coined name "Chemurgy." Sam Reed introduced the grandsire of chemurgy to the same area in February, 1866, via a behemoth retort called the "Burnetizer." Sometime during the 1850's the English chemist Sir William Burnett, discovered a method for impregnating softwoods with zinc chloride. Dr. Burnett proclaimed that these zinc intrusions gave the softwood fibers the durability of cedar, oak, chestnut, or walnut. Union Pacific's New York office contacted Dr. Burnett, checked the process with local chemists, then ordered castings for an iron cylinder that would be 5 feet in diameter and 75 feet long. The "Burnetizer" began hissing in April. After it was loaded with 250 cottonwood ties, a steam pump sucked out most of the air in the cylinder. Then the chloride of zinc solution was pumped in; the ties soaked in it for three or four hours.

Meanwhile, Reed brought in lumberjacks from Wisconsin and Michigan, contracted with Missouri Valley landowners and launched a timbering operation that razed woodlands for 200 miles along the valley. Next, he bought the steamboat, Metamora, rigged it with jackchains and derricks, hooked on barges and used it to haul cottonwood from the stacks the loggers were skidding to bluff edge.

The cedar breaks deploy and Seymour had used for the first 45 miles of track stood in gullies upriver toward Sioux City. A few groves of shagbark hickory and chestnut gloried the  p196 creek valleys. There would be enough of these, Reed and the Casements agreed, to use one hardwood tie under each rail joint and three under each spur switch. The rest must be the burnetized cottonwood. The zinc dunking did seem to firm cottonwood up enough to hold a spike; only the spring thaw would reveal whether the wood's lust for moisture had been curbed. (Dr. Burnett's "chemurgy" was literally a washout. During 1870, Union Pacific replaced 300,000 "rotten cottonwood ties" between Elkhorn Creek and Julesburg.)

During January and February, Durant signed contracts for the relay route that would deliver Union Pacific's "hardware." Crédit Mobilier was a Pennsylvania corporation. Pittsburgh was a key supply point for small iron. Business awarded to Pennsylvania carriers might counteract, in political and banking circles, the Philadelphians' support of Eastern Division's route. The contracts were signed with Pennsylvania Central, the Pittsburgh-Fort Wayne & Chicago, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, and the Hannibal & St. Joseph.

A fleet of 100 flatcars shuttled supplies over the four roads to wharfside at St. Joseph. Rail came from mills in Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts; tools for machine shops at Omaha from Philadelphia. Union Pacific spread its orders for locomotives among a half-dozen firms. The first passenger coaches were built at Fort Wayne. George M. Pullman, eager for publicity as well as for Union Pacific contracts for his Palace Sleeping Car, persuaded Durant to buy the satin-draped Palace car that had carried Abraham Lincoln's body from Washington to Springfield; redecorated and named the "Abraham Lincoln," it became Union Pacific's first club on wheels and was available to directors and Federal inspectors for trips to railhead — and for hunting trips.

[image ALT: The interior of a railroad car with sloping overhead baggage compartments given the impression of a gabled roof; simply upholstered two-person seats on either side of the aisle, and rather elaborate multi-pronged brass coathooksev few feet above the seats. It is a Pullman's Palace Car, 1867‑70.]

Interior of Pullman's Palace Car, 1867‑70. Union Pacific Railroad

Herbert Hoxie was still, according to government records, the official contractor for construction of track to the 100th meridian, the installation of machine shops, the operation of trains, and the location and construction of way stations. It was essential to keep Hoxie "on the premises." After assignment  p197 of the contract to Crédit Mobilier, Durant gave him the title of "Superintendent of River Navigation." A month after purchase of the Metamora, Durant and Reed bought the river steamers Colorado and Denver. The three ships, plus scows and the freight ferry operating between Council Bluffs and Omaha, comprised the Railroad Packet Line. Between spring thaw and December freeze-up in 1866, the Colorado and Denver, plus tows, ferried the bulk of Union Pacific's rail, tools, rolling stock, provisions and track gangs from St. Joseph to Omaha.

Durant's stock-juggled profits were in the bank; he made his peace with Omaha. Reed built warehouses on the waterfront and hired masons to construct Union Pacific's first terminal shop and roundhouse there. During March, Herbert Hoxie transferred downstream to supervise relay operations at St. Joseph, with the new title of "Assistant Superintendent of Construction."

St. Joseph's role as a mere transfer point for supplies to the Pacific Railroad was a subject for bitter brooding in the little city. Only seven years before, Mayor Jeff Thompson had driven Hannibal & St. Joseph's Missouri Express over the ridge to make "St. Joe" the railroad terminal for the West. Sometime during 1859, while plans for the Pony Express were shaping, Jeff Thompson and a few friends formed the St. Joseph & Denver City Railroad and surveyed its route as far as Troy, Kansas. Construction began that fall, with rail and ties ferried across the Missouri, then dragged on to railhead by mule-powered handcars. Townsmen recalled that:

The builders could go no further without a locomotive. They purchased the smallest engine they could procure and shipped it to St. Joseph, expecting to take it across the river on a ferry boat. After estimating the weight of the engine, and seeing the action of the boat when loaded with heavy wagons, the engineers concluded the ferry was too small.

There were no railroad bridges across the Missouri River, and no railroad on the west side of the river. It was too late in  p198 the fall to get a larger steamboat that could ferry the engine across. If they waited until the river was free of ice in the spring, valuable time would be lost. The only chance was to take it over on the ice when the river froze up. There was a regular highway across the river for loaded wagons every winter.

They graded on the Missouri side down to the river's edge, and up on the Kansas side, got long telegraph poles to use as ties, and had all material ready for a hard freeze. Finally, in January, 1860, the weather became very cold, and the ice was frozen 18 inches thick. They laid the poles on the ice, spiked the rails on, stripped the engine of all weight that could possibly be spared, fired her up and started.

As they approached the ice the engineer jumped off and let the locomotive go across alone. The ice groaned and cracked until we thought it would surely break through. But it held and when it reached the Kansas side another engineer jumped on and ran it up the bank. It was a tremendously exciting quarter hour.

The tiny locomotive's name has been forgotten, but it is significant in the saga of the New West; it was the first locomotive beyond the Missouri.

The Abolitionist-slaver fighting in Kansas halted construction on the St. Joseph and Denver, but the glorious 18 months of the Pony Express kept St. Joseph's hope bright. Then, just before the Pony Express gave way to the Overland Telegraph, a St. Josephan invented the vehicle that would revolutionize the United States Post Office and make the mail a routine essential in the national economy.

William A. Thompson was, like Jeff Thompson and many northwest Missourians, a native Virginian. Sometime in 1860 the Postmaster General transferred him to St. Joe as assistant postmaster. He caught the local enthusiasm for the Pony Express' relays, but frowned over the 2-, 3- and sometimes 4‑hour delays caused while "Pony Mail" was being sorted out from local mail at the post office. A railroad car could be built, he concluded, that would enable mail to be sorted en route. Thompson drew up plans for a railcoach fitted out with letter racks and sorting tables. There should be protection, too,  p199 against robbers. He specified small, barred windows high up against the roof, and double-thick sliding doors.

The Postmaster General agreed that the idea was worth an experiment. The United States' first railway mail cars were built at the Hannibal & St. Joseph's Hannibal shops in 1862. (One of the mail clerks who worked the run throughout the Civil War was a lanky Englishman whose ambition in life was to operate a good, clean restaurant. His name was Fred Harvey.)​a

But now, Kansas City and Omaha were the boom towns. When the Mississippi & Missouri, or the Chicago & Northwestern, hammered into Council Bluffs, St. Joe would cease to be even a relay on the Pacific Railroad. Jeff Thompson was a refugee Confederate general in Louisiana. Russell, Majors and Waddell were long bankrupt, with Russell a street peddler in New York, Waddell living with sons downriver, and Majors trying to hire on as a subcontractor to wagon supplies up the Platte for Union Pacific. Even the railway mail car had been copied by Chicago's postmaster, who now blithely proclaimed it his own invention.

And now, out of Omaha, the Casement Brothers were breaking every railroad construction record in the books.

Thayer's Note:

a When Howard wrote, his readers would still have recognized the name of a very famous chain of restaurants that had first spread along the railroad lines, and that still existed: the Harvey Houses were a household name. It would be 1968 before the company was bought out and ceased to exist. Historical information and many photographs can be found at R. Friedman's site.

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Page updated: 23 Feb 10