The idea for a Transcontinental Railroad had been suggested as early as the 1830’s, but real planning did not begin until the 1850’s. Then, a little over a year after the start of the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act.
The Iron Road, produced by Neil Goodwin of Peace River Films, is the story of the building of the first railroad link connecting the East to the West.
Even before the Civil War, the nation had been divided. In the West, the rich and expansive territory of California was a continent's-length away from the existing United States. To reach California's fabled gold mines meant months of dangerous sailing around Cape Horn, or traveling 2,000 miles overland across mountains and deserts through Indian territories. Many believed that a railroad to the Pacific would be the key to westward expansion and the future of the country.
Regional tensions that would soon erupt in the Civil War complicated the congressional agreement on the location of the railroad-- southerners wanted a southern route and northerners a northern one. The outbreak of the war solved the problem. The South pulled out of the government, and the North was free to make the decision. In 1862, the Congress passed the first of several Railroad Acts, choosing a route which went from Omaha to Sacramento-- much of it an old pioneer trail-- and naming the two companies to be responsible for the construction of the railroad: the Central Pacific, building from the West, and the Union Pacific, building from the East.
The Central Pacific was founded by Theodore Judah, a brilliant young civil engineer who found a way to lay tracks across the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the traditional stumbling block to a transcontinental railroad. For financing, Judah teamed up with four shrewd Sacramento businessmen-- Charley Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Collis Huntington-- otherwise known as the "Big Four".
"The real sharp money man, Huntington, began to sense that it was conceivable that there could be some big money-- not from investing in it, not from dividends, not from hauling any freight-- but just by constructing the darn thing, or trying to, because they could be paid so much a mile for its construction," says railroad photographer and historian Richard Steinheimer in the film.
The Union Pacific was run by Thomas C. Durant, who got involved for the glory and the easy money. When the operation began, he was already accepting kickbacks from construction subcontractors. After three years under Durant, the Union Pacific had laid only 40 miles of track. To salvage the fortunes of the Union Pacific, Durant brought in Grenville Dodge, a civil engineer who, during the Civil War, had built railroads so fast they used to say of him, "We don't know where he is, but we can see where he has been."
The real heroes of the railroad, however, were the 20,000 men who labored to build the iron road with their bare hands. Most of the workers were immigrants. The Central Pacific employed almost 10,000 Chinese workers; Union Pacific laborers were mainly from Europe-- Irishmen, Germans, Dutch, and Czechoslovakians. Thousands of Civil War veterans also worked on the Union Pacific.
Conditions were harsh for employees of both companies. Union Pacific laborers endured brutal 12-hour shifts, searing summer heat, Indian attacks, and most dangerous of all, the lawless and violent end-of-the-track towns called "hell-on-wheels".
The Central Pacific Chinese crews endured equally long shifts made worse by extremely dangerous conditions: avalanches striking without warning throughout winter-- carrying whole crews over the mountainsides-- and premature explosions of black powder and nitroglycerine.
"One of the strongest images the Chinese-Americans have of working on the railroad is Chinese workers being hung over cliffs in baskets which they wove themselves," says writer and historian Connie Yu in the film. "They planted charges and had to scramble up the lines if the charges were short, or be pulled up very quickly by their comrades. Then they were lowered down to drill again. But when they were pulled up, frequently the explosions would be right under them."
Courtesy of WGBH
Biography: Thomas Clark Durant (1820-1885)
Thomas Clark Durant
Thomas Durant was a born manipulator. Educated in medicine, Durant kept the honorific "Doctor" in front of his name but abandoned the pursuit for business, the only enterprise that could satiate his rapacious appetite for profit.
Early Schemes In 1854 Durant founded the Missouri & Mississippi Railroad. Little got built, but ownership poised him to seize the burgeoning Pacific Railroad initiative. By that time he had made a fortune smuggling contraband cotton from the Confederate states with the aid ofGrenville Dodge. Investing his earnings in an underhanded subscription scheme, the Doctor secured control of the Union Pacific. He assumed the vice presidency and named an associate as figurehead. Immediately he disregarded ethics. When Abraham Lincoln named Council Bluffs, Iowa, as the eastern terminus of the railroad, Durant instead sent surveyors across the river to Omaha, where he held property, avoiding the cost of a big river bridge.
Stock Manipulations Durant announced that the Union Pacific would connect to his own M&M line, causing M&M stock to rise sharply. He sold his shares discreetly and bought stock in the competition. A new announcement declared the connection would be the Cedar Rapids & Missouri line. Investors flocked to that company and divested themselves of M&M, which Durant bought back at low cost. "In other words, he gets back home and makes in the roundtrip for him and his friends $5,000,000," wrote Dodge's brother Nathan. "It is the smartest operation ever done in stocks and could never be done again."
An Enormous Scam Credit Mobilier was Durant's next tool for milking the railroad. Durant paid an associate, Herbert M. Hoxie, to submit a construction bid to the Union Pacific. Durant's attorney drafted Hoxie's proposal, which the Union Pacific board then approved under Durant's leadership. Hoxie handed over the contract to Durant, who transferred it to another company, the Credit Mobilier. Having established himself as contractor, Durant was free to divert Union Pacific finances to his gain. It mattered little whether construction ever got underway. But each mile completed represented additional government subsidies, so Durant hired Dodge as chief engineer and Jack Casement as construction boss -- hoping the former would lay long lines and the latter complete them quickly.
The Levi Leonard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries
Appointment document of Durant
Petty Tyrant Durant was a capricious leader. He often squirreled away resources, even as they grew increasingly crucial to the railroad's completion. He repeatedly acted without consultation, renewing contracts or brokering deals without approval. And why not? As far as the Doctor was concerned, he was the Union Pacific. When board members contradicted him by electing investor Oliver Ames president, and later sought to wrest Credit Mobilier from the Doctor, an infuriated Durant paralyzed the railroad with litigation. Calm maneuvering sometimes gave way to explosions of temper; during one episode he physically assaulted a director in the boardroom. But Durant's opponents realized they could not get rid of him, especially when he threatened to ruin them by revealing their unusual corporate procedure to the public. "It is one of the miseries of our Road that we have a man in it who is so desirous of Power and so jealous of every act that does not coincide with his notions," Ames wrote Dodge.
Conflicts with Dodge The general was bound to agree. Once on the line, Dodge found Durant an impediment. The Doctor's pilfering was siphoning money from construction and delaying Dodge's progress. Durant in turn complained about Dodge's slowness. He made erratic decisions about the route, undermining Dodge's studied proposals, and sent underlings to enforce them. It was not unusual for the engineer to return from a survey or from Washington to find the road being graded in a manner contradictory to his instructions. Durant's "General Order No. 1" of 1868 superseded Dodge's authority by ceding it to the consulting engineer in his absence, and it rescinded Dodge's ability to overturn Durant's manipulations upon discovery. It was a blatant attempt to force acquiescence or resignation, and the engineer exploded at the man "who has not an honest drop of Blood in his veins, who is connected with the Co. for the sole purpose of bleeding it and who the Co. say they cannot discharge for fear he will Black Mail it." At times, the manipulation bordered on mania: in 1869, when Dodge was in Washington lobbying fiercely to keep the Union Pacific afloat, Durant threatened to suspend him for his absence.
Slippery Exit The Doctor remained ever slippery. After the lines joined at Promontory Summit, Utah, Oliver and Oakes Ames prepared to oust Durant once and for all. Durant beat them to the punch, however, resigning his position, moving onto new railroad projects and new fields of plunder.
In 1859 young engineer Grenville Dodge met Abraham Lincoln by chance in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Dodge assured the future president that the Platte Valley would one day be the route of the Pacific Railroad. Seven years later he would be the chief engineer of that project.
Military Experience Dodge joined the Union Army in the Civil War. In combat, he acquitted himself well. His work repairing Southern railroads for the Union ensured promotion to brigadier general under Ulysses S. Grant and won him the friendship of William Tecumseh Sherman. In 1864 Lincoln asked him to help decide the eastern terminus of the Pacific railroad. Dodge's former employer, Union Pacific headThomas Durant, began inviting Dodge to join on as the company's chief engineer. The general repeatedly declined the offer, even when recuperating from a Rebel gunshot wound to the head. He did, however, give Durant classified information that helped Durant earn a tidy penny selling contraband Southern cotton.
War Against the Plains Indians By 1865 Dodge commanded the U.S. Army's campaign against the Plains Indians. His tenacity, coupled with an espionage network in the Native American camps, drove tribes from the plains. The campaign was ultimately a failure; Dodge's subordinates committed atrocities that would ensure harsh reprisals. However, Dodge earned a different success. During a September 1865 expedition in the Black Hills, his men came under fire from a war party. Escaping down an uninterrupted ridge to the plains below, the General made a realization. "If we can save our scalps," Dodge told his guide, "I believe we've found a pass through which the Union Pacific can go." In May 1866 Dodge resigned his post and signed on as the Union Pacific's chief engineer, contingent upon Durant's promise he would be given complete control.
Duties and Conflicts Dodge's hope of control was not to be. His main responsibilities as chief engineer were to examine terrain and draft the Union Pacific's route across it. If an obstacle arose in the route -- a chasm or a rock face -- Dodge designed the solution that would get them over or through it. As he led survey parties westward, Dodge planted division points and divided the land into lots. When the graders -- and then the work crews -- approached behind him, these spots quickly transformed themselves into towns. Durant was a meddler, always looking for a way to make more money, and he needed a finger in all these pies. Inconsistent as a manager and always looking out for himself, Durant had hired one of the best engineers for the job, but he only required a puppet to build cheaply and take foolish or foolhardy shortcuts. Contention between the two men would grow vicious over the years, especially after Durant imposed upon Dodge a consulting engineer named Silas Seymour. Dodge called him "the worst sneak I think I ever met." The reasons for Seymour's presence were espionage, second-guessing, and imposition of Durant's will. When Dodge ignored Seymour's interference, Durant grew furious, threatened to dismiss Dodge, or attempted to force him to resign.
A Second Job in Politics In 1866 Dodge maneuvered his way into an Iowa congressional nomination and won. He would be criticized for neglecting official duties to survey Wyoming Territory for the railroad. Similarly, although Dodge spent much of his time on Capitol Hill lobbying on behalf of the Union Pacific, his absences away from the railroad earned heavy criticism from Durant.
Historic General Dodge House
Ruth Anne Brown Dodge
Shortly after building the Union Pacific track to its famous completion at Promontory Summit, Utah, Dodge resigned his position; he had no taste for a mere desk job. In 1870 he retired for a while to Council Bluffs. The general was a resolute family man who had kept frequent correspondence with wife Anna throughout construction.
Getting Away with a Windfall Although Durant had once promised Dodge stock in his secret scam, the Credit Mobilier, it had never materialized. Dodge had been eager to get in on the windfall, however, and purchased 100 shares in his wife's name. It turned a handsome profit -- 341 percent in just 18 months -- but when the Credit Mobilier scandal erupted in 1872, Dodge would claim that his wife bought the shares from "her own resources," presumably housekeeping money. A congressional committee wanted to know more, but Dodge had no interest in going anywhere near Washington. Federal agents were sent out, but they could not manage to find him. Peter Dey, whom Dodge had once replaced as engineer, told Congress that Dodge was "a man of wonderful resources, and can live in Texas all winter, out of doors, if he wants to, where none of your marshals can go, and if he don't want to come he will not come." Dey proved correct.
Why do you think Lincolnwas able to pursue a TranscontinentalRailroad after the south seceded and the CivilWarbegan?
Whywould the start of theCivilWarmake the TranscontinentalRailroad expedient?
Discussion Question 2
Why would the Central Pacific's line (blue) be shorter than the Union Pacific's line (red)?
Discussion Question 3
Why did people decide not to settle in the interior (middle) of the country? Whay was more attractive about the West Coast? Why would a railroad encourage people to settle down?
Why was the interior of the country unpopulated at this point in time? How would the construction of the railroad populate the interior of the country?
Discussion Question 4
Greneville Dodge was an engineer and a surveyor. He wanted tolay the railroad's track in as straight a line as possible. Thomas Durant was the Vice President of the Union Pacific and owned a lot of stock in the company. He wanted the track to wind and twist as much as possible. Discuss the motivations of each of these men and the conflicts that would have arose as a result of their different goals.
Discussion Question 5
Using the numbered land plot map below for reference, discuss why Congress felt the need to "keep an eye on the railroad's business activities?" Why did Congress select even numbered plots and not entire rows? Each numbered plot is exactly 1 square mile. What difficulties could arise out of such a checkerboard pattern?
·Therewascompetitionbetween the northern(free) and southern(slave)statesforresources andeconomic access. Wherever the railroadwent,economicopportunitieswouldfollow.Thedecision onwhere to place the Transcontinental Railroadwas highly political. Ifthe railroad went in thenorth, northern,freestateswouldbenefit.Congresswasunable to come to a solution.Ifit went inthe south,then southernstateswouldbenefit.When the southseceded from theUnion, the Congressionalrepresentativesfromthe north could placethe railroadwhereverthey wanted.(Seebackground essay 1 formoreinformation – ideal for grade12.)
·TheCentral Pacific had to build over the RockyMountains,whichwas harderand slowerwork.
·Peopleweremorelikelyto settle in thewestbecause ofthe gold rush. Teachers can alsodiscussthe geography ofthe RockyMountains and the GreatPlains.Railroadsrequiremaintenance.
·Passengers need to be serviced on their trip. Buildingthe TranscontinentalRailroadcreatedemployment,whichencouragedpeople to settlein the interior.Additionally,farmers could nowfarmin theplainsand gettheirproduct to cities before it spoiled by shipping it ontherailroad.
·Congresspaid $16,000 per mileforflat land, $32,000 per mileforfoothills, and $48,000 permileformountainous terrain.Themoredifficult the terrain,themore it would costthe companyto build.
GrenvilleDodgewas an engineer.Hisprimarygoalwas to build atrackthatwouldefficientlyand safelygettrainsfrom Point Ato PointB.ThomasDurant,however,was a speculator.Themoretwisted and winding the track,the moremoney he would get fromthe government.Themoremoneythe UnionPacificmade, the more Durant couldpocket. Dodge and Durant’sgoalswere in directconflictwitheachother.Durantundermined Dodge’s work.(Seebackgroundessay 2 and3 formoreinformation – ideal forgrades10-12.)
·Selectingeveryotherplot ofland preventstherailroadcompany frombecoming too powerfuland fromselling big plots ofland toone individual.However, this causes complicationsforbuildingcities,ranches,and other bigenterprises because some land is “off-limits.”Studentscanfind all sorts of complicationsthatstillarise today as a result ofthis arrangement.This is an issuethatlocal governments,individuals,and the Federalgovernmentstillgrapplewithtoday.
Thomas Durant,however,was a speculator.Themoretwisted and winding the track,the moremoney he would get fromthe government.Themoremoneythe UnionPacificmade, the more Durant couldpocket. Dodge and Durant’sgoalswere in directconflictwitheachother.Durantundermined Dodge’s work.(Seebackgroundessay 2 and3 formoreinformation – ideal forgrades10-12.)
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