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Railroads America - Building The Union Pacific

( Originally Published 1927 )

The Union Pacific Railroad was organized on a different plan from the Central Pacific. The Central Pacific was chartered by the state government to build in California; it was a private company and in that capacity it had sought aid from the national government. When it accepted a loan from the United States government and became a common carrier across the California line it came to an extent under national control.

The Union Pacific was a creation of the United States government; it held a Federal charter and its route as planned lay entirely through the Territories, which were directly under the supervision of the national government. It was answerable there-fore to President and Congress more directly than was its western rival.

Such a gigantic enterprise enlisted many directors and executives, but the bulk of the management presently fell to eight leaders: Oakes Ames and Oliver Ames, of Boston; Dr. Thomas C. Durant, of New York City; John Duff, of Boston; Sidney Dillon, of New York City; General John Stevens Casement and Dan T. Casement, of Ohio; and General Grenville M. Dodge, of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The distance to be covered by the Union Pacific far exceeded that of the Central Pacific; the former was to build 1500 miles and much of that through country where there were no settlements. The en-tire territory of Nebraska held about 35,000 people, and from the centre of Nebraska to the Salt Lake Valley was an unpopulated waste. The citizens of the United States were not enthusiastic over buying government bonds to construct a national railroad through what they considered a desert ; most of them thought that while the road would be of some service to the nation it could never be made to pay. Again it was the dogged perseverance of a few believers that set the project to work.

The company was started in October, 1863, with General John A. Dix as president. General Dix never actually took charge, and Thomas C. Durant, the vice-president, was the chief executive and business manager. General Dodge, who, as early as 1853, had been surveying in the Iowa and Nebraska country, looking for the best route for a railroad, reported in favor of commencing the line at Omaha, a little town on the west bank of the Missouri River, opposite Council Bluffs. Railroads from Chicago were heading to Council Bluffs, and that town asserted loudly that it was the proper point of juncture between the eastern lines and the new Pacific route, but the town across the Missouri won the argument, and at Omaha ground was broken for the transcontinental line on December 2, 1863.

This occasion was celebrated with great pomp, but the track did not march forward. Money was lacking, and the national government did not come to the company's rescue until July, 1864. Then followed lengthy discussions as to the best route across the plains, so wrangled over and debated that only forty miles of track had been laid by the end of 1865. The Central Pacific was already forging out from Colfax when its rival actually began to build from Omaha. For three years the Union Pacific had simply marked time so far as construction was concerned; now, however, it strode forward; locomotives and cars of all types came up by steamboat from St. Louis, machine-shops and saw-mills were buzzing, surveyors were exploring ahead, advance-guards were fighting Indians. The first stage of the journey was from Omaha on the Missouri to the new hamlet of Frémont.

The Central Pacific had, almost from the start, en-countered mountains and gorges, peaks up which it had to crawl laboriously and by difficult grades, chasms across which it had to throw high and often curving bridges. The Union Pacific, on the other hand, had for its terrain a level country, and there-fore had to spend no effort on climbing, tunnelling nor intricate trestle-building. It could march straightaway, and it did.

Surveyors rode ahead through Nebraska into Utah and the Nevada desert. Their reports decided the directors not to strike for Denver—which greatly wanted the railroad—nor to follow the Oregon and California Trail. The route determined on was in general that of the Mormon Trail.

Across Nebraska went the track-builders, past Frémont, past Columbus, ninety miles from Omaha. The Loup River was crossed by a bridge of iron 1500 feet long. Thence extended 400 miles of plains, where there were no settlements nor even cabins along the line and the only trees were in the stream bottoms.

Beyond that were the Black Hills, also bare of white men's habitations, but possessing timber; and still beyond the hills was the waterless Wyoming basin, a great barren tract stretching to the forested Wasatch. The Union Pacific might march, but it had not marched far before it found that its road was beset with as many difficulties, if of a different kind, as that of its Central rival.

The construction of the Union Pacific from Omaha to the main range of the Rocky Mountains, a distance of 700 miles, appeared to many people a comparatively easy feat, not to be compared in difficulty with the road through the Sierra. The Central Pacific, however, worked forward from a base situated at tidewater and a prosperous town ; the Union Pacific built from the unbridged Missouri, a river where navigation was practicable for not much more than three months in the twelve. Supplies had to be forwarded by steamboat from St. Louis, a haul of 300 miles, or by wagon and ferry to Omaha from the railroad that was being built from Chicago across Iowa. Ties must be shipped as the Union Pacific constructed its tracks, because the only large timber in the country between the Missouri and the Black Hills was cottonwood, and cottonwood, to serve for ties, had to be treated by special zinc process. Iron, feed, pro-visions, these and practically everything that the builders needed must come from Omaha over the single track; the railroad began at a small river settlement and reached out for hundreds of miles through territory that furnished no supplies for its workers.

Oakes Ames said of that part of the road which was under his direction : "To undertake the construction of a railroad, at any price, for a distance of nearly seven hundred miles in a desert and unexplored country, its line crossing three mountain ranges at the highest elevations yet attempted on this continent, extending through a country swarming with hostile Indians, by whom locating engineers and conductors of construction trains were repeatedly killed and scalped at their work; upon a route destitute of water, except as supplied by watertrains, hauled from one to one hundred and fifty miles, to thousands of men and animals engaged in construction ; the immense mass of material, iron, ties, lumber, provisions and supplies necessary to be transported from five hundred to fifteen hundred miles—I admit might well, in the light of subsequent history and the mutations of opinion, be regarded as the freak of a madman if it did not challenge the recognition of a higher motive."

The Indians—the Cheyennes and the Sioux—made the work much more difficult in the buffalo country. Surveyors had to run their lines under the escort of armed guards and many a construction train was stopped and derailed by a hurricane of arrows and bullets. The red men opposed every mile of the way through their hunting grounds and track-laying was often suspended by a pitched battle.

By December 11, 1866 the Union Pacific had built 260 miles of track in eight months, an average of more than a mile to each working day, and could claim to have constructed the longest air-line railroad in the world at that date. Now its terminal base was at North Platte, and surveyors and graders were working ahead. The next dash would be made in the spring and Chief Engineer Dodge fixed his goal 288 miles away across the Black Hills of the "Dakota" Wyoming and at the southern end of the Laramie Plains.

The surmounting of the Black Hills, although their elevation was only some 2000 feet above their base, proved a difficult problem. In railroad engineering it is customary to cross mountain ranges either by following the course of streams or by fol-lowing the divides between these river-courses. Neither alternative served in the Black Hills; the streams were so winding and flowed through such deep canyons that tracks could not follow them, and in the divides rocks thrust forward at such angles as to bar passage and even to defy tunnelling.

Engineers, however, had reported that the route through the South Pass—the Oregon and California Trail—was impracticable, as were also the snow-filled passes from Denver ; so through the Black Hills the railroad must go, if it was to go anywhere. In the spring of 1865 General Dodge, leaving most of his expeditionary party at Lodge Pole Creek, east of the Black Hills, set out with a few engineers to explore the range for himself. The Sioux were on the watch, and, galloping between him and his base-column, drove him to a long ridge that crossed the hills. There the general's party fought the Indians off and made their way along the ridge to signal to the soldiers below on the creek.

By nightfall the troopers came up to the rescue and the whole party rode down the ridge to the plains. To one of his men General Dodge said: "If we save our scalps I believe we have found the crossing of the Black Hills."

The scalps were saved; Dodge marked the foot of the grade he had located from the vantage ground of the ridge by a lone tree ; the next year engineers ran a line up the ridge, and there a ninety-foot grade was established that reached almost unbroken from the plains to the summit ; Lone Tree Pass it was first called, and later rechristened Sherman Summit in honor of General William T. Sherman.

The spring dash of 1867 started. Seventy miles of track were laid in two months the Union Pacific was at Julesburg, 377 miles from Omaha. The advance guard located the next division point at Crow Creek in Wyoming and gave that end of track the name Cheyenne. Here engineers and soldiers had a fight with Cheyennes and Sioux, who were attacking a Mormon grading party. The Indians were driven off, but kept on the warpath, looking for white men's scalps.

The grade to Cheyenne had not exceeded thirty-five feet to the mile; from there the rails could climb to Sherman Summit in the Black Hills, thirty-two miles, by a grade of ninety feet. Here coal was to be obtained for fuel, timber for ties and bridges, the rock of the hills for grading. By mid-August the track was out 430 miles from Omaha; 125 miles had been built in four months ; the work could now progress as fast as materials could be supplied.

On that march across the plains an army had been employed ; 3500 men made up the grading gangs, 450 laid the tracks, and the crews that ran the construction trains numbered 300. Along the line as it pushed forward towns sprang up overnight, towns with machine shops to supply the railroad and with shops of various other sorts to accommodate the settlers, boomers, gamblers, speculators, who followed the builders. World's records were made; two and one-half miles of track were constructed in one day, and 150 miles in 100 consecutive days. General John Stevens Casement, known familiarly as "Jack" Casement, was acclaimed as "the champion track-layer of the continent," and earned the title by working like a Trojan with his Irish crews. The work was carried on with military precision; it was said that General Casement's track train "could arm a thou-sand men at a word ; and from him, as a head, down to his chief spiker it could be commanded by experienced officers of every rank, from general to captain."

The rails entered Cheyenne November 13, 1867, and the Union Pacific was 517 miles west from Omaha. Cheyenne was to be an important town, the junction point for Denver, from which another rail-road, the Denver Pacific, was afterwards to build north. The Black Hills beckoned; but winter storms set in early and track-laying was halted. The total march for 1867 stood at 240 miles.

Across the Rocky Mountains went the boast of the Union Pacific builders that they would reach the California border before the Central Pacific reached the Nevada line. To this Charles Crocker of the Central responded with the announcement of what his company would do : "A mile a day for every working day in 1868."

That declaration roused the Union builders. From Sherman Summit in the Black Hills stretched some 500 miles of desert and mountains to the Salt Lake Valley. The Central Pacific had still some 600 miles to go, the most of it over a desert. The Central had won through the mountains, but the Union had steep ranges yet to conquer; it looked as if the Central would win the race.

Another difficulty confronted the -Union Pacific, the question raised by the Mormons. The surveys the railroad engineers had made west of the Rockies had decided that it would be impracticable to build the road by the route south of the Salt Lake, by- Salt Lake City, to the Humboldt country and the California boundary. The best route lay north of the lake. But to take this road would antagonize Brigham Young, ruler of the Mormons, who wanted the rail-road to enter his city, the centre of the only thriving and rich community between the Missouri and the Sierra.

The Union Pacific was in a dilemma; should they risk Brigham Young's displeasure ? His hostility could do much to impede the progress of the rail-road through Utah ; on the other hand, to the railroad that entered Salt Lake City he would give great material assistance and the backing of the Mormon power.

To secure the railroad for his city President Brigham Young announced that he would furnish labor to grade 200 miles east and west of the Salt Lake. Would the Central Pacific take advantage of the offer? That was what the Union directors wondered. Great was their satisfaction when the engineers of the Central filed their report favoring the route by the north end of the lake.

Brigham Young protested for the Mormons, declared that it had been the people of Salt Lake City who had been among the first advocates of a trans-continental railroad which should put them in communication with the east and west. Mormons urged their cause in Washington. The national government, however, accepted the northern route recommended by both the Union and the Central; and, that matter decided, Brigham Young, making the best of the situation, turned his attention to earning profit by furnishing workmen and supplies to the Union Pacific.

During the winter the Union Pacific made their plans for the great dash to be started with early spring. They must build their track to Ogden; their ambition was to get so near the California boundary that when the two lines met they would control the traffic and shut the Central out from the Salt Lake Valley. An immense army of laborers was collected; there were 10,000 graders and track-layers in Cheyenne and 1000 men were at work in the Black Hills cutting timber for ties and bridges. From Sherman to Ogden 480 miles of rails were to be built at top speed.

With the opening of spring in 1868 the rival rail-roads girded their loins for the final dash.

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