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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p110  Chapter IX
Gift of the West

Laboring Men! Remember that the Republican is the only national party committed to the policy of making the public lands free in quartersections to actual settlers, whereby every worker will be enabled to hew out for his family a home from the virgin soil of the Great West. . . . Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune (1859).

Theodore Judah first visited Washington in 1857 as an engineer imbued with an idealistic plan. When he and Anna embarked for Panama in July, 1860, he was also a skilled lobbyist. This is the law of Washington's social jungle. As the nation's capital it is, per se, the nation's headquarters for political tipsters and rumormongers, a sprawl of clerks, subdeputies' deputies, bureau chiefs, attorneys and careerists engaged in the everlasting game of guessing election odds, Congress maneuvers and White House moods. Judah was exposed to this during 1857 and again in the critical winter of 1859‑60.

By July 1, 1860, four facts were partly obvious to any Capitol Hill dopester:

1. As the Republican's first Presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, in 1856, polled only 500,000 fewer votes than James C. Buchanan and won 114 electoral seats to Buchanan's 174.

 p111  2. In 1858, the Republicans won control of the House, thanks to the pro-Abolition Germans, Swedes, Finns and Irish in the north and north central states.

3. The Democratic National Convention at Charleston in April, 1860, split on platform issues. Reconvening at Baltimore on June 18, it stayed split. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas for President. The next week the Southern Democrats named their own ticket with John D. Breckenridge of Kentucky as Presidential candidate.​a

4. On May 4 the Constitutional Union party, another "splinter," met at Baltimore and nominated John Bell of Tennessee for the White House race.

The Republican nomination of Abraham Lincoln, in view of the ground swell for Republican platforms, looked like a walk-away.

Several other developments peculiarly meaningful to land speculators and Pacific Railroad lobbyists were building up odds on Capitol Hill during the spring of 1860:

The admission of Kansas, Oregon and Minnesota as free states, plus the creation of Colorado, Nebraska and Nevada as territories, promised stronger political support for a Pacific railroad via a northern, free-soil route.

The spectacular success of the Pony Express' 10‑day deliveries brought the Pacific slope 20 travel days closer to the Union.

The Federal policy of giving warrants for free homestead sites to Army and Navy veterans had been lobbied by Horace Greeley and other Republican "liberals" into a campaign to offer a 160‑acre homestead in the West to any citizen who would develop it. The Republicans were pledged to this Homestead Act. The Act passed the House and Senate in the spring of 1860, but was vetoed by Buchanan on June 22. It would take Congressional precedence in the 1861‑62 sessions.

In 1860, as in 1856, "liberal support by the national government" for the construction of the Pacific Railroad was planked into the Republican platform.

These prospects would cause any middling fair lobbyist to hurry home and "mend fences." And Theodore Judah had, by necessity, become more than a middling fair lobbyist. Obviously  p112 the next Presidency would offer the best prospects yet for the enactment of a Pacific railway act. If Lincoln won and the Republicans held their House majority as well, a bill calling for cash loans and land grants to an all-north route might squeak through the Senate, too, and be assured of a White House signature. Then the railroad company with a surveyed route stood the best chance to secure Federal loans, especially in California.

Ted and Anna pursued a planned course that fall and early winter of 1860. Pony Expressmen clattering down the Sierra trail past Lake Tahoe puzzled at the bearded little man stooped over a barometer in the middle of the trail.​b Wagon men travelling the Hennessº Pass road up from the Yuba's headwaters to the Comstock Lode saw the same figure frowning at his barometer there. In the late fall Anna relayed an invitation for Dr. Daniel W. Strong, a druggist at the mining camp of Dutch Flat near the headwaters of Bear River. Midway between Nevada City and Gold Run, and fifty-five miles northeast of Sacramento, Dutch Flat lay on the approach to Emigrant Pass and Donner Pass. Dr. Strong's primary interest was a home-town business boom; it could be instigated by a good wagon road over the Sierra Nevada via Donner.

Judah and Strong rode up the trail to reaffirm the Army's estimate of 6,690‑foot elevation at the summit. Judah's excitement grew as he discovered that by tunneling here, and blasting a cliff shelf there, a railroad could be twisted through to Nevada. A quick check of data convinced him. The dream of Central Pacific Railroad had been detailed to Strong; he abandoned his wagon-road scheme for the larger plan. A rough draft of corporate articles for a Central Pacific railroad company was composed in Strong's office. Strong and Judah pledged themselves to stock purchases. Then, while Strong began a solicitation of Dutch Flat friends, Judah hurried back to San Francisco, brought Anna up to date on his three  p113 months' wanderings, and set to work on a promotional brochure called "Central Pacific RailRoadº to California."

On November 6, Abraham Lincoln won 180 of the nation's electoral votes — 66 more than Frémont had received in 1856 — against a total of 123 for Breckinridge, Douglas and Bell. On November 10, Judah's pamphlet was ready for mailing to potential stockholders. It said, in part: "Confident of the existence of a practical route across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, nearer and more direct than the proposed line via Madeline Pass and the headwaters of the Sacramento, I have devoted the past few months to an exploration of several routes and passes through Central California, resulting in the discovery of a practicable route from the city of Sacramento upon the divide between Bear River and the North Fork of the American, via Illinoistown, Dutch Flat and Summit Valley to the Truckee River; which gives nearly a direct line to Washoe, with maximum grades of 100 feet per mile." The Donner Pass route, he reported, was 150 miles shorter than the Nevada-Sacramento route used by the Army for the 1853‑54 "Surveys and Explorations."

Dr. Strong wheedled $46,500 worth of stock pledges out of Dutch Flat neighbors. California law called for stock subscriptions of $1,000 per mile before a railroad could be incorporated; the doughty druggist had raised more than a third of it in his home town. Judah began soliciting San Francisco's bankers and shippers for the $70,000 still needed. They listened, asked questions, and declined: The times are too uncertain; Wait awhile and see what happens in Washington; The United States may be falling apart; There is talk of California secession; What about this General Johnston, anyway? Would he go along with Senator Wigstaff and the other Texas "radicals"? "Forget the railroad, young man, until we see what's going to happen to the nation!"

During January, while Secession flamed from the Sea Isles to the Mississippi, Judah shifted his campaign to Sacramento and the Huntington-Hopkins store loft there. Again the facts  p114 point to Judah's astuteness as a lobbyist. He had failed to persuade the financial leaders of San Francisco. In Sacramento he massed his persuasive powers for the Republican leaders of California!

The future Big Four of the Central Pacific-Southern Pacific monopoly were antislavery by heredity and procentral government by conviction. Huntington, Crocker, Hopkins and Stanford had each, with arrogant individualism, pondered the ethical structure of the Wisconsin-spawned Republican Party, brooded over its platform, then judged it more deserving of his citizen responsibilities than the wheezing Whig organization or the evasive, issue-straddling Democrats. At Republican meetings in 1856‑57 the four became nodding acquaintances, and unbent a trifle more when they discovered they were former neighbors from upstate New York. Collis Huntington was a manipulator by instinct and by desire. He had ruthlessly traded the $1,000 worth of groceries purchased in New York in 1849 into an 1861 fortune estimated at "more than a million." His political role would always be: the smoke-filled room . . . the back-stairs . . . cash on the table without any receipts or other incriminating evidence. Mark Hopkins was, and would remain, an excellent bookkeeper with a two-dram measure of rustic philosopher. Charles Crocker had moods of extrovertive backslapping but left the speechmaking to lawyer brother Edgar; after the 1857 bid for Sacramento's City Council, Bull, too, channeled his political energies to idea man and cash on the table.

But Leland Stanford, the Albany wood peddler, had become a wealthy merchant with an itching law degree, a hungry ego and an ambitious wife. After five frustrating years as an attorney in New York and Wisconsin he migrated to California in 1852. His brothers had established a mining supply and wholesale grocery in Sacramento, then branched out into the Mother Lode Towns. Leland opened another branch at Michigan Bluff, made a lucky investment in a quartz mine, and by 1854 was estimated to be worth $300,000. His dream was to return to  p115 Jane in Albany, reopen his law-office, and settle into the comforts of a mansion on Rose Hill. He sold out and went East. But Albany was too sedate, and Jane wanted to experience life in California. In 1855, Leland brought Jane to Sacramento and re-entered the wholesale grocery business. Consequently, when he embraced Republicanism in 1856 he considered it carefully. Possessed of all the suavity of a lawyer, plus cash, he became the Republican candidate for State Treasurer in 1857 and for Governor in 1861.

By February 10, 1861, the Pony Express dispatches enabled any lobbyist to realize that the two-party system had vanished from the Union's politics. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas all followed South Carolina in secession. Coincidentally, a vote for the Republicans became a vote for the Union, while a vote for the Democrats or the splinter parties came perilously close to anti-Union. It followed, then, that the Central Pacific Railroad, even though it built no further than the Nevada line, would become a link in an all-Union transcontinental route. Its fate was tied to the fate of the Republican party. The Republican candidates for the 1861 elections in California would be captives of this same pro-Union and pro-Secession struggle. Votes would be cast for the cause, rather than for the candidates. California's future as a partner in the Unitedº States of America hinged on the outcome.

Perhaps the San Francisco bankers had been right; it would be more discreet to "wait awhile and see what happens." But Judah was a Yankee too. His astuteness, however, prevented his adopting this realism. Instead he hammered away, in the store-loft lectures and successive individual interviews, on the opportunity for a wagon road as well as a railroad via Donner. The wagon road built at once, he urged, would yield heavy tolls on the machinery, tools and foodstuffs needed for the Nevada mines; the wagons could haul pay loads of minerals and lumber back on westbound trips.

The rest of Central Pacific's shares were pledged. At the organization meeting of stockholders on April 30 — three days  p116 before Lincoln's first call for three-year volunteers — Leland Stanford was elected president, Collis P. Huntington vice-president, James Bailey secretary, and Mark Hopkins treasurer. The corporation papers were granted on June 27. Judah had his field crews selected and began running the survey from downtown Sacramento toward Bear River. The job was finished before mid-September, plus barometric reconnaissance of alternate routes via Feather River and Yuba Pass. In his October 1 report Judah estimated construction costs of $12,380,000 to the Nevada line, and $41,415,000 for the 733 miles to Salt Lake City. He pointed out that the Donner-Humboldt route into Salt Lake was 184 miles shorter than the one surveyed in 1853‑1854 for Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. The Central Pacific board meeting on October 9 approved Judah's report. Then, true to the little engineer's course of political logic, the group nodded toward some Federal plums and passed the following resolution:

Resolved: That Mr. T. D. Judah, the Chief Engineer of this Company, proceed to Washington on the steamer of the 11th Oct. inst. as the accredited agent of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, for the purpose of procuring appropriations of land and U. S. Bonds from the Government, to aid in the construction of this road.

Anna had become as deft about packing cases as a Methodist preacher's wife. The luggage was on the pier on the 11th. Her bundle of drawings of Sierra landscapes was heavier. The directors had judged some of them "excellent." Her pen sketches of Donner Lake and Donner Pass were used as illustrations on the Central Pacific's first stock certificates.

Again there is evidence of political strategy in the sailing date. A. A. Sargent was aboard, heading for his first term in Congress. As with Burch two years before, Judah went deftly to work while Anna exuded her charm. Congressman Sargent was a Central Pacific captive before the Pacific mail connection veered east past Cuba and Bermuda to avoid the new  p117 Confederate "ironclads" rumored to be prowling off Albemarle and the Chesapeake.

Washington was digging in for its grimmest winter since the British raid during the War of 1812. Baltimore, still a Secessionist hotbed, threatened to cut off rail and highway connections from the North. A Union army had been beaten again in the Potomac Battle of Ball's Bluff. Winfield Scott finally doddered off to retirement, and was replaced by a strutting midget named Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George B. McClellan, the boy general who had been one of the lieutenants assigned to Jefferson Davis' "Surveys and Explorations" in 1853.

Matters were desperate on the frontier. Jeff Thompson, the St. Joseph, Missouri, mayor who sponsored the Pony Express, went into a rage because the Lincoln-appointed United States postmaster insisted on flying the Stars and Stripes from the post office roof. Thompson led a mob to the roof, burned the flag, chopped down the flagpole, and galloped off to Lexington, Missouri, to join Sterling Price's Secesh army. His reasons, in analysis, could be traced as much to Missouri back-country hatred for the St. Louis Germans as they could to sympathy for the Confederacy. Virtual hell erupted along the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. St. Joseph was placed under martial law and patrolled by Iowa and Kansas Abolitionist troops from Fort Leavenworth. Cump Sherman, now a colonel, and his Mexican War friend, Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.U. S. Grant of Galena, were assigned to develop patrol systems for the Hannibal & St. Joseph's bridges. Sterling Price's raiders, after bombing a few bridges and wrecking some trains, succeeded in kidnapping the railroad's president, then sent word he would be shot unless train service was abandoned. Sherman and Grant approved the retaliatory measure of taking the mayor of Hannibal and a few other States' righters into custody and sending back word to Price that there would be another firing squad if anything happened to the president of the Hannibal & St. Joseph. The prisoners were ceremoniously exchanged; the railroad's eight-wheelers  p118 growled on, but with armor plate bolted around their boiler bellies and cabs.

Through it all, somehow, the Pony Express held to schedule until Edward Creighton's crews strung the last mile of trans-Rocky telegraph wire up Salt Lake City's Temple Street to Brigham Young's Lion House. Young dictated a message of greeting to the East that closed with the pledge: "Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the Constitution and the laws of our once happy country." Two days later James Gamble's crews rolled the trans-Sierra wires into Salt Lake. Creighton, Gamble and their crew chiefs were guests at the Lion House to hear a telegrapher relay California's message of greeting to Abraham Lincoln:

"In the temporary absence of the governor of the state, I am requested to send you the first message which will be transmitted over the wires of the line which connects the Pacific with the Atlantic states. The people of California desire to congratulate you upon the completion of the great work. They believe it will be the means of strengthening the attachment which binds both the East and the West to the Union, and they desire in this — the first message across the continent — to express their loyalty to the Union and their determination to stand by its Government on this its day of trial. They regard the government with affection, and will adhere to it under all fortunes.

Stephen J. Field, Chief Justice of California."

By the time the Judahs reached Washington the new telegraph had tapped the news of Stanford's election as governor. This was sequeled by a sparsely worded message from Huntington saying that if matters looked right for the passage of a railroad act he might come East too. Congress was fretting, Judah sensed, toward the realization that the Union needed morale-building legislation just as much as it needed competent generals. The Arkansas and Texas secessions, coupled with Missouri's semiprivate Civil War, threatened the North's hold on all of the New West. Secret invasions there, coinciding with rebellions by the thousands of pro-South miners in California and Nevada, could realize the Calhoun, Gadsden, Wigstaff  p119 and Davis goals of a South and West alliance. Hence there must be legislation that would give Northerners an incentive to fight for the West as well as for the Union. Moreover, the Republican Party was pledged to the Homestead Act and what President Lincoln called "The Union and Pacific Railway Act." A third morale builder shaped up in a bill sponsored by Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, offering Federal lands scrip to each state and territory for endowment of its College of Agriculture & Mechanics. (This had passed both Houses in 1859, but like the Homestead Act, had been whined at and vetoed by Buchanan.)

Illinois' Logan had swapped "Congressman" for "Colonel" and set off on his destiny as founder of the Grand Army of the Republic and an idea man for Memorial Day. But Judah soon had the Pacific Railroad Museum operating in an anteroom. Thomas Durant sniffed the same scent of railroad grants and spent increasing time in Washington too. So did Colonel Silas Seymour, whenever he could wangle leave from Army duties. Colonel Grenville M. Dodge of the 4th Iowa Infantry, recovering from a wound received at the Missouri Battle of Pea Ridge, had recently been elevated to brigadier general and ordered to report to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Halleck in Kentucky. There Dodge's ex-tentmate, Captain Philip Henry Sheridan, told Halleck that Dodge was a genius at building railroads. Dodge was promptly ordered to untwist the havoc wreaked along the Gulf & Mobile Railroad by the Confederates when they retreated — with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Albert Sidney Johnston's corpse — from the Shiloh battlefield. Consequently, Dodge followed the cloakroom deals, speeches and committee hearings of the Pacific Railroad Act via grossly delayed mails.

Senators McDougall of California and Harlan of Iowa resurrected the act sponsored in the 1859‑60 Congress by Iowa's Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Samuel R. Curtis (now the "Victor of Pea Ridge"). Judah was named Secretary of the Senate Committee on the act. In the House, "Freshman" Sargent interrupted an afternoon's drone on the State of the Union with a stirring speech for action on  p120 "Federal aid to the Pacific Railroad." His bill was referred to committee; Judah was appointed clerk of this committee too.

Through May and June, while McClellan fretted into the Peninsula campaign, Congress readied the three bills that were to be its gift of the New West for both Northern and Pacific Coast morale. A preliminary step was the creation of an independent United States Department of Agriculture, under a commissioner, and the transfer of its experimental gardens, seed testers, agronomists and plant hunters from the jurisdiction of the Patent Office. This May 15th act was followed by enactment on May 20 of the Homestead Act offering a Federal warrant for 160 acres of New West land to any citizen who would erect a sod house or shack on it, plow a few furrows, and make some semblance of residency over a five-year period.

Finally the Pacific Railway Act reached the floor of the Senate on June 20, won its majority, moved on to the House, and passed easily on the 24th. Next day the armies of McClellan and Lee locked in the grim Seven Days' Battles.

Collis Huntington had reached town via a two weeks' jolt in Ben Holladay's Overland Stage. He huddled with Durant and Judah over the final bill, grumbling at its control clauses. The Federal Government — if it survived — granted the railroad's builders "vacant lands with 10 miles on either side of the lines for five alternate sections per mile — mineral lands excepted." Federal loans to the contractors, not to exceed $50,000,000, were allocated at: $48,000 per mile on 150 miles of mountain construction; $16,000 per mile on construction to the base of the mountains; and $32,000 per mile for trackage across the desert high plain of Nevada and Utah. The loans would be 30‑year Federal bonds with 6 per cent annual interest to be paid to the United States Treasury.

The Act stipulated that the Central Pacific Railroad would build the Pacific Railway east from Sacramento to the California-Nevada border. Senate amendments moved the "eastern terminus of the Union and Pacific Railway" to the 100th  p121 meridian line, sixty miles west of Fort Kearney on the Platte. This, the Senators pointed out, would enable St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Joseph, Council Bluffs and Omaha to project numerous connecting roads. Creation of the Union and Pacific Railway as a westbound builder was placed under the jurisdiction of a 158‑man board of commissioners. All of these were dutifully named in the Act; Judah, Huntington, Farnam, Ogden and Samuel Curtis were included. But so were Ben Holladay, Louis McLane of Wells, Fargo, and a score of stage-line and rival-route promoters who, quietly unified, could throw monkey wrenches into the complicated agenda for creation of The Union Pacific Railroad & Telegraph Company specified by the Act.

Yet there it was — thirty-one years almost to the month since the Mohawk & Hudson's De Witt Clinton had taken one hour and forty-five minutes to pull two stagecoaches from Albany to Schenectady. On July 1, the very day that 1,000 Union youngsters gave their lives at Malvern Hill to end McClellan's rout, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. Huntington and Judah sent a telegram of congratulation to Governor Stanford and closed it with the challenge: We have drawn the elephant. Now let us see if we can harness it up.

Thayer's Notes:

a Detailed coverage of the conventions and their contribution to the outbreak of the War between the States forms the subject of one of the better books onsite, Dwight Lowell Dumond's The Secession Movement 1860‑1861.

b He was using his barometer to determine his altitude; the details of the (theoretically straightforward) procedure can be found in Florian Cajori, "History of Determinations of the Heights of Mountains".

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