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Chapter 4

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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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p59  Chapter V
The Treasure Roads

The scum of Polynesia, desperadoes from Australia, bullies and blackguards from the wild state of Missouri, Spanish cut-throats from the cities of the Pacific Coast, dissolute women and reckless adventurers from the slums of Europe congregated in San Francisco, and there plied their several avocations and followed their devious courses in defiance of the prohibitions of a law which had lost its terrors for them, and in disregard of any other check save the revolver or bowie-knife. At that time, San Francisco was one-half a brothel, and one-half a gaming hell. . . . W. F. Rae, Westward by Rail: The New Route to the East (1871).

President Polk confirmed the California gold strikes in his final message to Congress on December 5, 1848. By February 1, the first shiploads of gold-seekers were at the shantytown of Aspinwall on the Isthmus of Panama, preparing for the twenty-four mile jungle trip over the Chagres River Trail to the new docks at Panama City on the Pacific. That same week, Thomas Hart Benton introduced his bill for federal financing of a "Buffalo Trail" highway west from St. Louis to a pass in the central Rockies and on "down a central valley" to Great Salt Lake and the Bartleson-Bidwell route into California.

 p60  The Buffalo Trail should be built, he urged, as a year-round gravel road, with bridges across the rivers and a network of Army posts to provide protection against Indians. Tollgates, staffed by the Army, would collect fees from pack trains and wagons, just as the states obtained maintenance funds from traffic over the National Road. Within a decade or two, Benton believed, the Buffalo Trail's profits would enable construction of a paralleling railroad. This trackage, too, would remain a Federal property, controlled by a commission of managers. The various railroads operating into St. Louis from the east, and into Sutter's Fort from the west, by 1860 or 1870 would pay tolls to the Buffalo Trail Railroad for each trans-Rockies trip by a freight or passenger train.

The bill merely reflamed Congress' arguments about the route. The South stood firm for an extension of the Santa Fe Trail through El Paso to Los Angeles. A contingent led by New York's Senator William H. Seward orated, again, for Asa Whitney's Chicago-South Pass route. Benton's backers organized a railroad convention at St. Louis in October, with Stephen A. Douglas as chairman. But, like the Senate hearing, it ended in an argument. The Buffalo Trail plan died in committee.

Benton lost the election for a sixth term in 1850, and passed from the United States' Senate scene. New champions for the Pacific railway would not appear in Congress until the eve of the Civil War. In 1852, even Asa Whitney bowed to the South's inflexible bloc by offering to build the Pacific Railway via an all-slavery route from Memphis through Arkansas and Texas. His proposal was referred to the Committee on Roads and Canals — and tabled.

But while Congress dallied, the Argonauts of the 1849 Gold Rush gritted through the two overland treasure roads to California that would serve as tenuous links between the Union's Atlantic and Pacific coasts for exactly twenty years: the all-South Ox Bow Trail followed Gadsden's South and Pacific Railroad route through El Paso; the California Trail used  p61 South Pass and the Bartleson-Bidwell route via the Humboldt. Charles Crocker helped pioneer the California Trail and gained experiences that would prove invaluable to the Central Pacific Railroad. But eager Collis P. Huntington took the Panama Isthmus route and sharpened his instinctive trader's sense for the future task of outwitting the United States Army and Navy and Thomas C. Durant while maintaining a flow of supplies to "Cholley" Crocker and 15,000 "coolie" heroes through the desperate last years of the Civil War.

Collis Huntington, at twenty-seven, was as keen in ferreting out a profitable "swap" as Senator Benton was in detecting New West destiny. The Oneonta general store provided a comfortable living, but the excitement about "gold for the picking up in California" convinced him that the picking up would be far simpler for a wholesale grocer. The California adventurers would want three massive meals a day. When they hit pay dirt their appetites would go "on up the hog"; whisky, sugar, smoked meats, spices and white flour should bring high prices. Collis stashed $2,000 in a money belt, hurried to New York, and engaged the largest stateroom available on the Pacific Mail's S. S. Crescent City. He filled it, ceiling high, with kegs of bourbon and French brandy, sacks of sugar and white flour, chests of spices and wholesaler tins of saleratus.

At Panama he swapped some of the whisky for a string of burros, freighted his grocer supplies over the Chagres Trail, and tripled his investment. Then, as he proudly recalled for H. H. Bancroft's researchers in 1890, "I went down to Estebula and bought a little schooner called the Emma, and filled her up with jerked beef, potatoes, rice, sugar and syrup . . . and brought them up to Panama and sold them." In all, he told, he crossed the Chagres Trail twenty times; "It was only twenty-four miles." Improvements in the road and Panama Mails' belated development of freight and passenger service between Aspinwall and Panama City convinced him that the heyday of "easy pickings" was over on the Isthmus. He shipped on to  p62 San Francisco during the spring of 1850. This cabin, too, was jam-packed with groceries and "gimcrack" trade goods. He had already parlayed the gold eagles in his money belt to $5,000.

Indiana farm life paled on Charles Crocker three years after he moved west from Troy. He left Father Isaac's clearing in 1840 with, he recalled, "a pair of woolen socks, a cotton shirt and a linen dickey tied up in a cotton handkerchief," then wandered across Indiana from job to job for eight years — sawyer, wagonman and ironmonger. When the news about California gold was telegraphed down from Chicago, general-store talk buzzed into plans for a California Miners' Company.

Crocker, too, was twenty-seven years old when he and a brother joined the company. A canvas-topped, boat-bottomed "prairie schooner" required six to twelve oxen to lumber it up the river valleys and over the mountains and cost $5,000. Oxen averaged two miles an hour or, roughly, 1,000 hours of walking from the Missouri to Sacramento. Horses might make it in half that time. But horses gave out on the mighty tug through the Rockies; or died of thirst on the deserts. Moreover, veteran wagonmen and trappers told them, most of the Indian bucks out there were delighted at the prospect of stealing a horse. A good horse meant prestige and wealth and love-songs in the wickiups. Play it safe with oxen, the old men warned; and load up enough flour, saleratus and sweetening for a six months' walk.

From Quincy, Illinois, the Hoosiers rafted down the Mississippi to St. Louis. There they located a steamboat captain who promised to carry them as far as the Iowa village of Council Bluffs on the Upper Missouri. Thirty miles west of the Bluffs, following the two-year-old ruts of the Mormons, their wagon train reached the ridge of the Platte River Valley. Francis Parkman had described the scene in The Oregon Trail:

For league after league, a plain as level as a lake was outspread beneath us; here and there the Platte, dividing into a  p63 dozen thread-like sluices, was traversing it, and an occasional clump of wood, rising in the midst like a shadowy island, relieved the monotony of the waste. No living thing was moving throughout the vast landscape, except the lizards that darted over the sand and through the rank grass and prickly pears at our feet . . . Skulls and whitening bones of buffalo were scattered everywhere; the ground was tracked by myriads of them, and often covered with the circular indentations where the bulls had wallowed in the hot weather. From every gorge and ravine opening from the hills, descended deep, well worn paths, where the buffalo issue twice a day in regular procession to drink from the Platte.

Up four hundred miles of the Platte and North Platte valleys, the route came finally to Fort Laramie — if the skulking Pawnee or Sioux or Blackfeet hadn't caught you at dawn, with guards drowsing and wagons parked helter-skelter. Behind Fort Laramie the Rockies cut the midafternoon sun to a green dusk.

We passed between precipices, sharp and splintering at the top [Parkman had reported]. On our left they rose close to us like a wall, but on the right a winding brook with a narrow strip of marshy soil intervened. The stream was clogged with old beaver dams and spread frequently into wide pools. There were thick bushes and many dead and blasted trees along its course, though frequently nothing remained but stumps cut close to the ground by beaver, and marked with the sharp chisel-like teeth of those indefatigable laborers.

Toward South Pass the trail led up taffy-colored crevices and creek valleys to a desolate land where trees could not grow and the oxen, eyes bloodshot and bulging, made retching noises each time they breathed. Charles Crocker's training as a blacksmith and handy man now made him invaluable to the train. Wooden axles snapped against rock; iron tires ground to wisps of rust; several times the wagons had to be windlassed up hundred-foot bluffs.

Beyond South Pass the Oregon Trail blurred north toward the Valley of the Snake, but the scuff marks and litter of the  p64 Argonauts veered southwest across sagebrush, desert, and alkali-poisoned pools to Jim Bridger's trading post in the Green River Valley on the Wasatch Mountains east slope. Another Mountain Man veteran, Bridger had directed the Mormons through the Wasatch red canyons to the valley of Great Salt Lake. Through the summer and fall of 1849 he guided California Trail wagon trains over the same route. Farther west, veterans of the Mormon Battalion charged $5 a day "and keep" to guide companies through the desert north of Great Salt Lake and over the Nevada passes to the Humboldt.

Crocker's wagon train teetered across the Sierra during April, 1850; that same month Collis Huntington landed in San Francisco. After a few futile "digs" in sand bars and gravel pits along the American River, the Crocker Brothers opened a hardware store at Sacramento City — the brawling trade center being developed by John Sutter's son a mile north of the Fort.

Before midsummer, 1850, more than 55,000 men, women, and children survived the overland trail crossings to California; another 25,000 arrived by sea. Totting up the census figures that winter, statisticians discovered that more than 1,500,000 whites and Negroes had migrated west of the Mississippi — about 8 per cent of the nation's total. Missouri, with 682,044 citizens, had almost as many residents as New Hampshire and Connecticut combined. Now there were 212,592 Texans, 209,897 Arkansans, 192,214 Iowans, 61,547 New Mexicans, 13,294 Oregonians and 6,077 Minnesotans. In brief, there were 55 per cent as many New Westerners as there were New Englanders. Oregon, despite the exhortations of Whitman and Benton, had won only a little more than 13,000 settlers in fourteen years; the zany stories about "free gold" drew 80,000 to California in one year.

Then add the trans-Allegheny populace. Illinois was now "the home place" for 851,470. There were 988,416 Hoosiers, 397,564 Michiganders, 1,980,329 Buckeyes. From Alabama's  p65 771,623 and Mississippi's 606,526, north through Wisconsin's 305,391, more than 10,000,000 Americans lived west of the Alleghenies. The mother states of the Atlantic seaboard, including the giant throughway "funnel" of New York, now held only 57 per cent of the population.

These statistics, plus the Yankees' success in barring slavery in California, the popularity of the all-north California Trail, the railroads racing toward Chicago and St. Louis, worried the leaders of the Old South bloc in Congress. Their anxiety grew when the Legislature of the Mormons' Territory of Deseret presented an official "Memorial" to Congress. More than 5,000 immigrants had needlessly died from starvation, accident, and Indian attacks on the overland trails to California in 1849‑50‑51, the Mormons pointed out, then added: "There is no great obstacle to a railroad route from Salt Lake to San Diego. A national central railroad from the Mississippi or Missouri rivers to San Diego or San Francisco would [end the needless suffering and open the high plains to settlement] . . . On completion of the line the entire trade of China and the East Indies will pass through the United States."

That summer of 1852 the Democrats lured ex‑Senator Franklin Pierce away from his New Hampshire law office and drilled him as a "compromise candidate." He beat Winfield Scott, 254 electoral votes to 42. The cabinet imposed on him in 1853 was a hopeless compromise too. William L. Marcy, former governor of New York, became Secretary of State. Jefferson Davis, a Mississippian by adoption, went in as Secretary of War. Marcy and Davis were devoted enemies.

Davis soon became the mouthpiece for a plan to win the New West's trade and allegiance for the South via the Gadsden-Calhoun vision of a South & Pacific Railroad. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave only vague descriptions of the permanent boundary between the Republic of Mexico and New Mexico Territory. Furthermore, army surveys indicated that the best route for the South & Pacific Railroad veered up the Rio Grande Valley from El Paso, then cut west through the  p66 desert to the Gila River Valley. Who, Davis suggested, would be a better ambassador than James Gadsden to negotiate permanent boundaries with Mexico and obtain the Upper Rio Grande and Gila Valleys for the United States? The matter was brought to President Pierce's attention with testimony of its "dire importance to national defense." The President agreed.

On December 30, 1853, James Gadsden and President Santa Anna of Mexico signed a treaty for the United States' purchase of 45,535 square miles of land south of the Gila River and east to El Paso del Norte. Thus, to the future delight of battalions of Western novelists and movie scriptmen, the strongholds of the Apache, the pueblo of Tucson, the sites of Tombstone, the O. K. Corral and the Lincoln County War​a all became part of the United States at a cost of $10,000,000.

The Gadsden Purchase, Secretary Davis reasoned, assured the future. What the South & Pacific route now needed was a demonstration to convince California immigrants of its superiority over the California-Mormon Trail. A United States Army Camel corps,​b he recommended to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations, would provide splendid transportation for "troops moving rapidly across the country." A camel corps could patrol the New Mexico and California Deserts effortlessly, rescue immigrants stranded there, and follow Apache and Navaho raiders into the most desolate hideaways. Moreover, the grotesque beasts might frighten the Indians as thoroughly as Cortez' horses had terrified Montezuma and his subjects.

Congress voted to take the idea "under advisement." First steps must be taken to placate California on this matter of a Pacific railroad. A delegation had just presented an angry petition signed by leading California businessmen. The route from San Francisco to the East Coast via Cape Horn, the petition said, was longer than the entire circumference of earth at San Francisco's latitude of 38 degrees; the route via Panama was as long as the trip from Chesapeake Bay to Hong Kong.  p67 Canada was building a railroad that would run west from Halifax for 1,600 miles. "Shall we who have beaten them in clipper ships, swift steamers, and other useful notions," the petition challenged, "yield to them the plan of building the longest railroad on the American continent? Never!"

The Secretary of War, Congress ordered, would immediately take steps to survey the likeliest railroad routes between the Mississippi River and the Pacific and prepare reports on their respective merits. Davis purred; the surveys would undoubtedly prove the superiorities of the South & Pacific route. Five expeditions left for the West that fall. They were led by promising young officers and engineers including Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George B. McClellan, Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John Pope, and Frederick Lander, the Massachusetts engineer who eight summers before had persuaded his mother's farmhand, Grenville Dodge, to enroll at Norwich University.

Government surveys were one thing. Action was something else. By 1853, the gold rush brought 200,000 adventurers to California. The sand bars and gravel pits between Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada yielded $50,000,000 in gold each year. But the entire economy depended on mule teams, stages and steamboats. California needed railroads. In January, 1854, C. L. Wilson of Sacramento requested an appointment with New York's new governor, Horatio Seymour. His organization, he explained, planned to build a railroad between Sacramento and the gold fields. No engineer then in California had experience in this type of construction. In view of New York's network of rails, plus the splendid comments he heard about the governor's brother, would Governor Seymour help him locate a competent youngster who might be interested in building the first railroad on the Pacific Coast?

Governor Seymour suggested a luncheon meeting with brother Silas. Selection of a young man devoted to Northern interests could prove most useful, he observed. Silas knew of just such a young man. His name was Theodore Dehone Judah.  p68 Although he was still under thirty, he had shown amazing skill as a location engineer on both the Niagara Gorge and Erie lines. A telegram went off to Buffalo, asking Judah to come downstate at once for conference.

A week later Anna Judah stared speechless at another telegram. It read: Be home tonight. We sail for California April 2. Love. Ted.

Thayer's Notes:

a As a 1963 reviewer of this book points out, Lincoln County is not within the territory of the Gadsden Purchase; it's well to the northeast of it.

b See Charles C. Carroll, "The Government Importation of Camels, a Historical Sketch", in 20th Annual Report Bureau of Animal Industry (Washington, 1904); "Jefferson Davis's Camel Experiment" (PopSciM 174:141‑152); and "Operation Camel: An Experiment in Animal Transportation in Texas, 1857‑1860" (SWHistQ 17:20‑50).

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