Crossing the American Divide

EDWARD HO recounts one of the greatest shared accomplishments of the 19th century: the first transcontinental railway.

The building of the first transcontinental railway across North America was one of the greatest accomplishments of the 19th century.

Prior to completion of the railway, early settlers and gold seekers from the east had three options to access western territories: one was by wagon train through forest, across rivers and over mountains occupied by hostile natives, the second a six-month voyage circumnavigating South America around Cape Horn, and the third involved two voyages interrupted by a train trip through the jungles of Panama. Completion of the transcontinental railway facilitated the rapid growth and development of virgin land which redistributed the massive influx of new immigrants and unemployed Civil War veterans westward, harnessing the untapped potential of the western territories. But who really deserves the credit for building North America’s first transcontinental railway – those who actually toiled to build it or the unscrupulous contractors who manipulated and defrauded the government and the public to profit from the enterprise?

In 1862, the federal government offered land grant contracts for the building of a transcontinental railroad. The land would encompass 10 miles of land on each side of the laid track and in 1864 was later extended to 20 miles. The government contracts implemented a checkerboard pattern of land grants in which every second square was awarded to the contractor. Mineral and timber rights were included and if completion deadlines were not made, the land grants would be forfeited. A race for land grants resulted between the Central Pacific which was awarded the contract to lay tracks eastward from Sacramento, and the Union Pacific which was awarded the path westward from Omaha, Nebraska. Speed in construction was essential for the two rivals. The idea was for both to meet somewhere in the middle. The faster each company built tracks the more land they would accumulate. Under the terms of the government contract, the railway companies would be paid from $16,000 to $48,000 for each mile of track laid depending on the terrain.

The Union Pacific Railroad was created by the US Congress in 1862. President Lincoln designated John A. Dix as president and Thomas C. Durant as vice-president. Dix was Secretary of the US Treasury, Governor of New York and later became a major general for the Union during the Civil War. Durant was a ruthless financier and railroad promoter who assumed the burden of management and money-raising for the Union Pacific. With the help of political allies, Durant secured increased government land grants and special privileges for the railway. He received favorable legislation by compromising politicians who he persuaded to become stockholders. When the Civil War ended, thousands of Irish veterans who had been conscripted by the Enrollment Act of 1863 could not find employment. As a result of the Potato Famine in Ireland 1845-52 a massive influx of Irish immigrants arrived on the east coast. The new arrivals were badly discriminated against and treated with contempt. “Irish need not apply” signs were posted on the front doors and windows of business establishments. Durant seized the opportunity to enlist the Irish to become the main component of the labor force for the Union Pacific Railroad. The Irish railway workers were forced to work under harsh conditions and the constant threat of attacks by the native inhabitants. Besides being involved with smuggling contraband and applying questionable engineering practices to increase profits for the Union Pacific, Durant set up a new company, the Credit Mobilier which illegally subcontracted back to the Union Pacific. This insured risk-free profits for himself and a select group of investors. Durant was later fired by President Ulysses Grant after a congressional investigation and spent the latter part of his life embroiled in lawsuits.

The Central Pacific Railway Company was formed by four partners: Leland Stanford, the president, Collis Huntington the vice-president, Mark Hopkins the treasurer, and Charles Crocker who was in charge of construction. Two were dry goods merchants and two were hardware dealers. These men were inspired by Theodore Dehone Judah, an eastern engineer who they met in Sacramento during his promotion for a transcontinental railway. Judah had conducted a preliminary survey establishing a feasible route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He tried to persuade the wealthy elite in Sacramento to support his plans. The four storekeepers who are now referred to as the “Big Four” stole his ideas then excluded him. Judah died of yellow fever crossing the Isthmus of Panama in a frantic attempt to find new backers in New York. He left the fruits of his labor with the four men in Sacramento who knew absolutely nothing about the construction railways but risked everything on a wild-ass gamble. When they started out, laborers were hard to find because mining jobs were much more lucrative. When the Comstock Silver Mine in Nevada opened up, the Central Pacific lost sixty percent of their labor force. They were in desperate trouble and almost went broke a few times during the building of the railway. By 1864, the company had only 600 men working on the line when they had advertised for 5000. Only white laborers had been hired up to then, and only fifty miles of track had been laid. Chinese workers were used successfully on the Central California Railroad in 1858 and the San Jose Railway in 1860. Despite the objection of James Strobridge, the Central Pacific’s superintendent of construction, Charles Crocker hired fifty Chinese. It worked out so well they decided to recruit more, to the chagrin of their president. Stanford suffered the embarrassment of reversing his previous stance on advocating the expulsion of Chinese from California. He had once described the Chinese as the “dregs of Asia” and a degraded people. The company executives then lobbied the government to open the doors to Chinese immigration, which resulted in the Burlingame Treaty in 1868. The Central Pacific imported labor from China using Crocker’s brother’s company, Sisson & Wallace, and a Dutch merchant Cornelius Koopmanschap of San Francisco to recruit workers from China.

The company dispatched recruiters to China with callous promotion and promises. They negotiated for discount rates with shipping lines. The Central Pacific Railway paid Chinese laborers $26 a month but they had to supply all their own food, equipment and tents while white workers got $35 a month with meals and board included. An American foreman was put in charge of each Chinese team of 20 workers, kept track of their hours and distributed all the wages. Management preferred to hire Chinese laborers over others because they didn’t drink, fight or strike except once, but their strike for better working conditions was very brief and averted by denying the protesters water. Working conditions were extremely harsh & dangerous, runaway Chinese laborers were hunted down by native trackers and whipped. When the railway was completed, many Chinese workers attended the celebration hoping to receive recognition for their contribution, but before the photo to commemorate the historical event was taken, all Chinese workers were ushered out of the background. After the celebration, the Central Pacific immediately laid off their Chinese workers, many who had even been promised return passage to China by their recruiters, were stranded in Utah, after sending all their earnings back home. Some remained in small towns along the route of the railway, others lived in abandoned boxcars. According to 1867 railway statistics, of the 13,500 workers on the Central Pacific payroll, over 12,000 were Chinese. The arrival of the Chinese had averted corporate disaster for the Central Pacific that could not have otherwise made the deadlines set in government contracts. The Central Pacific also finagled funds from other public sources through subsidies, loans, bonds and gifts from federal, state, county and city governments. Congress awarded them a cash bonus of $18,000 that soared to $48,000 for each mile of track for mountain construction. When the two lines finally met in Utah, the Central Pacific had laid 690 miles of track and the Union Pacific 1,086 miles of track.

A congressional investigation later revealed that both Union Pacific and the Central Pacific had made unjustified profits by grossly overcharging the government. Three years after the completion of the railway, the Union Pacific declared bankruptcy in the midst of the Credit Mobilier investigation. In contrast the Big Four of the Central Pacific gained ownership of most of their Central Pacific stock which rose in value to approximately $100 million based on their success. They had also received 9 million acres of land grants. With their newborn wealth and power, the Big Four were able to control the fate of every business enterprise, every town, and every city in the western states.

The construction of the first transcontinental railway was a collaborative effort by many individuals, groups and government. Even without the participation of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific the construction of a transcontinental railway was ultimately a matter of time, but who knows what alternate routes would have been taken or how long or when it would have been accomplished? Other transcontinental lines followed inspired by the success of the first. Were either of the railway companies essential to perform the task? Probably not, but without access to a desperate labor force willing to risk their lives to work under adverse conditions, the development of the western states would not have progressed to its current status.

Edward Ho is the author of Yut Di: One Earth. He can be contacted via Facebook or LinkedIn.