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Chapter 25

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.

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

 p341  Chapter XXVI

Today the people of Chicago enmasse, without distinction of age, sex, business, party, race, nationality or condition, will unite in celebrating the most auspicious and important event which has yet marked the history of our city — the completion of the first Pacific Railroad. Other railroads to the Pacific will follow this, and of one of them — the Northern Pacific — Chicago will also be practically the eastern terminus. But there can never be, in the history of railroad enterprise on this continent, another occasion so full of cause for triumph and mutual congratulation as that we celebrate today. The completion of the present Pacific Railroad is the climax of the railroad enterprises, not only of the past but of the future. . . . Like the printing press, the steam engine and the telegraph, it opens up a new era. . . . Lead editorial, Chicago Tribune (May 10, 1869).

In 1836, when New West destiny poised railroad historymakers at the Hudson-Mohawk junction, the village of Chicago had 3,820 residents. In 1852, when Farnam and Durant's Michigan Southern won the railroad race into Chicago, the city's population was only 30,000. But on Golden Spike Day, 1869, there were 300,000 Chicagoans. And during the next twenty years the population trebled, to pass the 1,000,000 mark in 1890.

 p342  This spectacular surge to "Queen City of the West" and second largest city in the United States was a direct product of the railroads. By 1870, San Francisco newspapers were conceding that "Chicago has captured the manufacturing trade of the West."

Chicago's growth and initiative in the 1860‑1890 period is also symbolic of the Pacific Railway's social and economic influences on the West. As the Chicago Tribune had correctly prophesied in its lead editorial of May 10, 1869 [quoted in part at the head of this chapter], completion of the Great Iron Trail opened a new era for all of the United States.

Economically, Golden Spike Day heralded four massive campaigns:

1. Technologic conquest of all the trans-Missouri West. In 1870, Northern Pacific Railroad began construction of its Duluth-St. Paul-Oregon trackage. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe took new heart in its drive to cross the Rockies via Raton Pass. In 1871, Pennsylvania financiers began construction of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, with Grenville Dodge as chief engineer, along the route that Jefferson Davis and James Gadsden had visualized and plotted about.

2. Exploitation of the West's huge stores of gold, silver, copper, coal, zinc, wood, and petroleum. By 1870 Nevada's new Battle Mountain Mining District had 32 mines and 2 smelters in operation, and was blasting out its first shipments of copper ore for smelters in Wales. Montana copper, first mined at Butte in 1880, became that Territory's most profitable industry before 1885.

3. Development of cattle and sheep ranches, wheat farms, fruit and citrus orchards, and other agricultural crops that became the foundation of foreign trade after 1880. European capital, especially British, began to seek investment in Wyoming rangelands and livestock herds in 1869. By 1886, Wyoming had 8,000,000 cattle and 500,000 sheep on range.

4. Transportation of the machinery and materials that enabled transformation of the Great Desert via reservoirs, irrigation systems, and eventually electric powerlines and transcontinental highways. The United States' first coast-to‑coast road — the Lincoln Highway, U. S. 30 — ploddingly paralleled Union Pacific's  p343 right of way into Salt Lake City, then veered southwest via the Pony Express Trail into San Francisco.

Sociologically, the Pacific Railway triggered at least five basic changes — or innovations — in the American Way:

1. Five-day transportation between the Atlantic and the Pacific was inaugurated with the through trains which operated as "hotel trains" from Omaha to Sacramento in 1869. These included Pullman's Palace sleeping cars and commissary cars.

2. The Hobo was a product of the Union Pacific's ironmen, blasters and graders. These rugged characters followed the technologic frontier across the West and built the Northern Pacific, Denver & Rio Grande, San Francisco, Burlington and Southern Pacific. Coincidentally, the Hobo adapted to such seasonal jobs as the Kansas wheat harvests, Pacific slope fruit harvests, circuses and construction work. Chicago's Skid Row and New York's Bowery became their most famous wintertime headquarters. (The term roots from the greeting "Ho, beau!" "Hi, Dandy!")​a

3. The "butcher boy," peddling candy, sandwiches, pillows, soap, towels, cigars, magazines through the hotel-trains and shoddy immigrant-trains was born in 1869, too. He popularized "the ham san'wich," the dime-novel and "genuine Indian souvenir." Through him developed the national folkway of terminal-shops at railway stations, bus depots and airports.

4. The Cowboy evolved in the ranching country adjacent to Union Pacific. (Texas claims the credit, but Wyoming, Colorado and Montana did the job.) Owen Wister, Emerson Hough, Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Theodore Roosevelt, Prentiss Ingraham, Ned Buntline and other creators of the Wild West Saga used the Union Pacific's countryside as locale for their books and paintings. Actually the Cowboy was a kind of rural Hobo.

5. Chinese labor contributed much to the unrest of industrial employees during the 1870's, and became a basic factor in the organizational birth of trade unions and the American Labor Movement. The use of $1‑a‑day "coolies" by Central Pacific intrigued Eastern manufacturers and Southern cottongrowers. Between 1870 and 1880, Southerners made a series of unsuccessful efforts to supplant Negro labor with Chinese on Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia plantations. The first Chinese  p344 laborers reached Chicago in 1869‑70. Owners of shoe factories in Massachusetts first used Chinese successfully as strikebreakers in 1873. The Chinatowns of New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco are direct products of the Central Pacific's coolies.

Thus the Great Iron Trail changed both economic and social routines for the entire United States through its realization of Northwest Passage. But so drastic were these changes that their process of envelopment all but obliterated a public awareness of the Pacific Railway as the real conqueror of the New West and as a hero figure in the Old West Saga.

A community of symbolic folk figures developed during the settlement and economic exploitation of the high plains and the Rockies in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. Writers, artists and balladeers of the era followed the formula for all national sagas and shaped their characters of the West into idealizations of Good and Bad. The Scout, the Cowboy, the Sheriff, the Cavalryman and the Settler were given virtues of fearlessness, piety and superman wisdom by Prentiss Ingraham, Ned Buntline and the other score of writers who produced our dime novels. Buffalo Bill's Great Wild West Show — with Major North's Pawnee Scouts as a featured act — enhanced this dime-novel pattern and helped fix the five Good heroes and their virtues into the saga. Cessily Adams' painting of "Custer's Last Stand" — a barroom favorite — ushered in the hundreds of "Nature's Noblemen" paintings and drawings by Remington, Russell, Currier and Ives, and the staff artists of Leslie's Weekly and Harper's. The popularization of cowboy songs and Western fiddle tunes — many of them borrowed from the South's camp-meeting "sings" — gave this new symbolism of the Good heroes another stature puff.

But black emphasizes white. (For decades the moving-picture industry's Westerns drove home this contrast by dressing the hero in a white Stetson and the villain in a black one.) One nucleus of the Bad was ready made. Like any other environment, the West had its juvenile delinquents — the Billy the Kid type. Also the West provided scope for youngsters suffering  p345 from war shock — the James Boys, the Youngers, et al. From this small group the dime-novelists, artists and balladeers perfected the Bad Man. The Western Bad Man was, after all, a poor creature and a victim of circumstances. A Superbad was essential to round out the folklore. And this, between 1869 and 1890, was the need that moved the Railroad out of the Hero class of the Old West. Thanks to Crédit Mobilier, Jim Fisk, Thomas Durant, the Big Four and sundry successors who were neither more nor less than supine Organization Men, the Railroad became the West's first prototype of Superbad.

A Crédit Mobilier scandal flared after a series of exposé articles in the New York Sun during September, 1872. Its obvious purpose was to defeat Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.U. S. Grant for a second term and further the Liberal Republican and Democratic nominations of Horace Greeley. Thus, as a "rigged deal," both the organization and research techniques of the Poland committee created by Congress that fall must be viewed with bias. It found Oakes Ames and James Brooks guilty of malfeasance and recommended their expulsion from the House. But the House, in a roll-call vote on February 18, 1873, rejected the Poland committee's recommendation by adopting a resolution of censure against Ames and Brooks. Ames died during a heart attack less than a month later.

Concurrent with the Crédit Mobilier scandal, the Granger movement swept the farming areas of the nation. On April 7, 1871, the Grangers achieved their first legislative victory by pushing a Railroad act through the Illinois Legislature; it empowered the State to create a "Railroad and Warehouse commission" to establish maximum freight and passenger rates and "prohibit discrimination." The railroads became the favorite "Big Trust" bogeyman for the Grangers and other grass-roots movements.

The monopolies achieved by the Big Four in their Southern Pacific Company . . . the raffish feuds of Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, Jay Cooke, J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jim Hill, Ben Holladay, Henry Villard and the other "railroad  p346 kings" . . . the highhandedness of the railroad police and land agents . . . the exaggerations of the artists and copywriters employed to "dazzle up" the 1870‑1900 promotions of railroads' grant-land sales all gave plausible logic for a national image of the Railroad as the Superbad Man in the West's saga.

Symbols of the New West achieved their folklore pedestals. Buffalo Bill, Tom Mix, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid became household familiars. As the Railroad itself became the Superbad character, railroad men like Judah, Dodge, the Casements, Reed, Montague, Dey — and even the ironmen and the coolies — ebbed toward the shadows.

Here the saga-makers distorted history. The Superbad figure in the saga of the American West was undoubtedly a composite of Federal office holders. Officials in the Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln and Johnson Administrations were responsible for the bumbling, unrealistic mandates of the Pacific Railroad surveys during the 1850's and the Railway Acts of 1862, 1864 and 1866. The inability of the 1862‑70 Federal loans to finance more than one-third of the construction costs for the Pacific Railway was obvious to bankers and engineers; why wasn't it obvious to Federal officials? Even during the Civil War the Federal government borrowed money at 5 to 7 per cent; why did it charge 6 per cent interest on its too meager 30‑year loans to Union Pacific and Central Pacific?

Similarly, the clumsy procedure dictated for the creation of Union Pacific begged for the type of trickery that Thomas Durant used in 1863‑64 to launch the organization and to invent Crédit Mobilier. And the perpetuation of Crédit Mobilier . . . the Ames-Durant, Dodge-Durant, Dodge-Seymour and other power feuds . . . the lusts of Hell on Wheels . . . the yellow-slavery conditions in Central Pacific's camps . . . Collis Huntington's scheme to obtain Federal bonds for the trans-Utah right of way . . . Crédit Mobilier's delinquencies in the Brigham Young-Latter‑day Saints contracts . . . Oakes Ames's gifts of Crédit Mobilier stock to fellow Congressmen could not have been maneuvered without the passive approval and administrative  p347 inefficiencies of Congress, the Department of the Interior and numerous Cabinet members. Historically, the bumbling Politician and Office Holder must wear the black Stetson.

The full truth may never be revealed. The railroad's dreamers and builders were not status seekers — or even skilled publicists. No memoirs or diaries were published by Durant, the Ames Brothers, Dillon, Judah, Asa Whitney or the Big Four. The best source of material extant is in the series of interviews conducted by H. H. Bancroft during the 1880's on Huntington, Crocker, Stanford and Hopkins. The letters of Judah, the Casements and Reed are unfound, scattered or unresearched. Grenville Dodge's memoirs and official biography were, for various reasons, too little and too late.

The records indicate that Thomas C. Durant was voted out as Union Pacific's Vice-President and general manager at a board meeting during late May, 1869. He voluntarily came to Washington in 1872 to testify before the Poland Committee. But there, as always, he answered questions sparsely and made no effort to expound on the maze of circumstance that had caused him to be such a lone wolf in his twenty years as a railroad promoter. He lost most of his fortune during the "Black Friday" stock-market crash of 1873, and spent the last decade of his life trying to promote an Albany-Canada railroad. His grave in a Brooklyn cemetery should be a shrine of the American West's saga, because — irrespective of his motives or techniques — Thomas Durant did wrest Union Pacific from the political shilly-shallying of the 1862 Pacific Railway Act; did launch the technologic pioneering of the Casements' work train, Sam Reed's relays and Grenville Dodge's engineering genius; and did badger and cajole the Union Pacific Railway out across the Chicago-Platte Valley's "Central Route."

The continuing financial crisis of Union Pacific forced the Ames Brothers out of office in 1871. Thomas A. Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, succeeded Oliver Ames as  p348 Union Pacific president. He brought George M. Pullman and Pullman's not-so‑silent partner Andrew Carnegie into the board. (In 1873, Carnegie's J. Edgar Thomson Works rolled the first steel rail for Union Pacific.)

Sidney Dillon succeeded to the presidency of Crédit Mobilier, became a partner of Jay Gould, neatly sidestepped the Crédit Mobilier scandal, and served two terms (1874‑1884, 1890‑1892) as Union Pacific's president. His memory still echoes along New York City's Park Avenue; one of his firms designed and built the Park Avenue tunnels into Grand Central Station.

Grenville Dodge developed alliances with Jay Gould and Thomas A. Scott. In 1872, with the backing of Scott and J. Edgar Thomason, he became chief engineer for the Texas & Pacific Railroad. (The panic of 1873 closed it down, despite its use of chain-gang labor.)

General Jack and Dan Casement sold their pioneer beef herd to the Colorado cattle king, John Iliff, took their work train back to Cheyenne, and built the Cheyenne-Denver branch of Union Pacific. The work train was auctioned off at Denver in 1873‑4. The Casements spent the rest of their lives on construction jobs for the Erie & Titusville, the Canada Southern, the Nickel Plate, and a score of short lines. In 1897, at the age of sixty-eight, General Jack contracted to build his second Pacific Railroad — a line from San José, Costa Rica, over the Sierra to the Pacific Coast. He finished it in 1903, then spent the last six years of his life developing natural-gas wells in Ohio, the Diamond‑C cattle ranch in Western Colorado, and wheat farms in Kansas.

Sam Reed accepted a bid to Canada and became one of the principal engineers in the construction of the Canadian Pacific. So, like General Jack Casement, he built two Pacific Railroads.

Samuel Montague and J. H. Strobridge devoted the rest of their careers to the development of the Southern Pacific's lines.

So the saga of the Great Iron Trail's construction ended. As  p349 this book is written, the American West is slowly awakening to its heritage. Scholarship succeeds the "bang-bang" novels and movies. The National Cowboy Hall of Fame & Western Heritage Center at Oklahoma City, the National Agricultural Hall of Fame at Kansas City, the Beehive House in Salt Lake City, the splendid State Museums at Lincoln, Denver and Cheyenne, are indicative of eventual causal awareness about the real winners of the West.

In time, too, the New West may have its Parthenon — a massive shrine and enrichment center to those men who visualized, fought for, and built the Union's Pacific Railway. Rearing high above the eternal bleakness of Promontory Point, it would symbolize the realization of Northwest Passage, the end of the Great Desert myth and the birth of the Union and Pacific's United States as a world power.

[image ALT: A squat stone obelisk, about 3.5 meter tall, in a weedy railed-off enclosure against a background of barren landscape with a low ridge rising toward the left. The monument bears a square plaque with an inscription, of which only the larger first line can be made out it. It reads, 'LAST SPIKE'. It is the monument erected at the site of the driving of the Golden Spike of the Transcontinental Railroad.]

The monument erected at the site of the driving of the Golden Spike. Utah State Historical Society

Thayer's Note:

a The derivation of hobo remains firmly unknown, and like many such words, teases out the folk etymologist in everyone; our author's ho, beau, delivered with such a brazen appearance of certainty, is one of the silliest and worst. For a good look at a couple dozen possibilities, see Anatoly Liberman, On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus. Also, On Suffixes as Midwives.

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Page updated: 27 Nov 10