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Railroads America - Building The Central Pacific

( Originally Published 1927 )

A marvellous enterprise this was, a feat worthy to take rank with the greatest engineering projects of history. Two bands of men, starting from opposite directions, were to move across plains and mountains, over arid deserts and blizzard-swept ranges and through a country where Indians were frequently on the war-path, and spin an iron thread that should link the Atlantic Ocean and Europe with the Pacific Ocean and Asia.

The voyage around Cape Horn was 19,000 miles. The journey from New York to San Francisco by the Panama route occupied between four and five weeks under favorable conditions. The Overland Stage line took seventeen days to convey passengers from the Missouri River to California. The Pony Express carried mail in eight days from the railroad end at St. Joseph to Placerville in California. Now the attempt was to be made to supplant ship and stage and horse by a track of iron rails and a steam engine.

The project was gigantic ; many sensible people considered it impossible, but the history of railroads shows how frequently the seemingly impossible has been achieved. Success depends on vision, determination, and grit, and the builders of the first transcontinental railroad possessed these qualities in high degree. Five men were the driving power of the Central Pacific, five remarkable men of diverse abilities. Leland Stanford, Governor of California for two years during the Civil War, had been born on a farm near Albany, New York; his father, Josiah Stanford, had been employed on the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad when the "De Witt Clinton" pulled its trains, and the track of that line ran past the Stanford farm. Collis Potter Huntington, a son of Connecticut, had come to California as a Forty-niner to hunt for gold; Mark Hopkins, of New York State, a pioneer adventurer over one of the northern trails, was a partner of Huntington's in the business of hardware and miners' supplies at Sacramento. Charles Crocker, born at Troy, New York, owned Sacramento's chief dry-goods store. Theodore D. Judah, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was an engineer whose work had led him to survey the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The history of California railroads is closely associated with the names of Leland Stan-ford, Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker. When the Central Pacific Company—a title apparently taken from the "Central" Overland Stage road—was organized on June 28, 1861, Leland Stanford was chosen president, Huntington vice-president, and Hopkins treasurer. Theodore D. Judah was appointed chief engineer.

The road that Judah recommended—known as the "Dutch Flat" route—was a continuation of the trail that had been used by many of the Forty-niners from the Platte River and Salt Lake up the Truckee River and over the Sierra by the Donner Pass to Sacramento. This road would require the building of eighteen tunnels, most of them between 1000 and 1400 feet long, but there would be less difficulty from heavy snows than in other locations. The "Dutch Flat" route was approved, and the first spadeful of earth was turned by Leland Stanford, then Governor of California, at Sacramento on January 8, 1863.

By midsummer of 1864 the Central Pacific had completed thirty-one miles of track to Newcastle, which represented a climb of nearly 1000 feet in the 7000 feet of ascent to the summits of the Sierra. There the work was halted. The outcome of the Civil War was still uncertain and money was not forth-coming. Charles Crocker, the contractor for this part of the line, could neither raise nor borrow funds to pay his laborers. "That was the time," he said, „when I would have been very glad to take a clean shirt and lose all I had, and quit.”

He did not quit, however, nor did Stanford and Huntington and Hopkins, who toiled night and day to get the needed money, and in the following spring the track was pushed on to the emigrant station at Clipper Gap, forty-three miles from Sacramento. Congress granted the company improved conditions for issuing bonds and so obtaining funds, and the work went on more briskly. The road was now reaching into the main foothills of the Sierra and necessitated the building of tremendous trestles.

In two months the eleven miles to Illinois Town -500 feet up above Clipper Gap—was completed. At Illinois Town—rechristened Colfax in honor of Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the National House of Representatives, who visited California in the summer of 1865—the railroad stopped that autumn while the engineers were busy with bridging, tunnelling and trestling the route beyond. Three trains ran every day from Sacramento to Colfax; 5000 men and 600 teams were employed on the advance work in October, by the first of the new year the force was in-creased, there were 7000 Chinamen, paid $30 a month, who kept themselves, and 2500 white work-men, who received $35 a month and their board. The mountain sides were filled with tents, dugouts and all kinds of shacks and the roads were covered with wagons bringing food and supplies from Colfax.

In the spring the rails were thrust forward over the high, winding trestles that bridged the deep ravines as the track mounted towards Cape Horn.

Wonders had been accomplished here, the engineers had cut a roadbed in walls of granite so steep that the workmen had been suspended by ropes 2500 feet above the American River that swirled at the bottom of the cliffs. Up and up the track climbed, reaching and passing the mining camps of Gold Run, Red Dog, You Bet, and Little York. Spring freshets flooded the workings and supply-wagons toiling behind were stuck for weeks in the mud. The rails wound up around Cape Horn, and by the Fourth of July had achieved Dutch Flat.

As the Central Pacific marched through the towering mountains it built stations and water-tanks, established new towns with saw-mills to supply ties and timbers, and supplemented its rails with a telegraph line. In November it reached Cisco, fifteen miles from Dutch Flat, at a height only a little less than 6000 feet. From Colfax the road had ascended 3400 feet in twenty-eight miles. The cost of construction of those twenty-eight miles had been $8,290,790.

Cisco was the terminus of the line for nine months while the engineers fought their way through the summits of the Sierra. The snow remained at Cisco into May; on the summits beyond, fourteen miles distant, at a height of 7042 feet, snow clung to the peaks from year to year. From Colfax to Cisco the work had been prodigiously difficult, but the next stage was an even more herculean feat of railroad building. Ten tunnels had to be constructed to bridge grades that no locomotive could climb and some of these had to be bored through granite that was al-most explosion-proof. Ten thousand men worked through that winter of 1866-1867, half of them engaged in shovelling snow. A passage 200 feet wide had to be made through timber ; "those are not Yankee forests," said one of the engineers, "but forests with trees four, six and eight feet in diameter." Kegs of powder blew up the stumps. It took three hundred men ten days to clear the road of timber for a mile. The expense of supplying powder mounted portentously, became $54,000 in a month. The winter was unusually stormy and the road from the advance camps to Cisco had to be kept open by a procession of snow-plows. Yet the work went on, and by the end of the year the rails stretched sixteen miles eastward from Cisco and were two miles over the divide.

The road was already doing a good freight business between Sacramento and the Nevada mines and the Overland Stage was connecting with the Central Pacific at Cisco. It had been thought by some that when the rails tapped the silver mine country by reaching Dutch Flat the company would be satisfied and go no further. That was not the intention of Leland Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins and their associates, however ; they wanted to secure the business of hauling produce from the fields of Utah to market. From the California-Nevada boundary line they looked eastward and determined to fix their goal in the Salt Lake Valley, six hundred miles from where they stood.

It had cost $23,650,000 to build the railroad across California to the Nevada line. The Sierra had been conquered. In the spring of 1868 the Central Pacific had its tracks at Reno ; now it moved along the lower Truckee towards the Humboldt.

Meantime what of the Union Pacific and its march from east to west ?

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