The Big Road


THE SECOND HALF OF THE 1860S WITNESSED A DRAMA NOT SO VERY DIFFERENT IN SCALE AND CONSEQUENCE from the great struggle that had marked the early years of the decade. The two biggest corporations in America, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, had armies of men at work in mountains and desert, building two lines that, when joined, would become the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. While the CP pushed east from Sacramento through the high passes of the Sierra Nevada, the UP built west from the Missouri River.

This immense project was not only an epic of logistics, organization, muscle, and endurance but also an opportunity to get very, very rich. The government had issued land grants along the right-of-way and low-interest bonds underwriting construction costs of up to $48,000 a mile in mountainous regions; thus encouraged to make a race of it, the lines did, passing each other in the spring of 1869 and keeping right on going, side by side, until the government called a halt to the work and chose a meeting spot.

Almost immediately, charges of fraud came boiling up, and even today the road is seen as perhaps the most lurid example of the excesses of the age of the “robber barons.” Stephen E. Ambrose began his researches into the railroad believing just that. In this article adapted from his book Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869 —just published by Simon & Schuster. The shows us an example of the kind of work that got the tracks built, visits the celebration that marked the end of the task, and reassesses its legacy.

OGDEN WOULD BE THE TERMINUS FOR THE CENTRAL Pacific coming from Sacramento and the Union Pacific coming from Omaha, but the initial meeting point for the two lines would be the basin at Promontory summit. The companies pulled back their men, their tents, their cooking facilities, their equipment, their wagons, horses and mules, everything.

Still, the rivalry between the two railroad lines continued. The competition had become a habit. At the end of April 1869, even though the race had been over for nearly three weeks, that competition captured the attention of the people of the United States.

In 1868 Jack Casement, the UP construction boss, had seen his men lay down four and a half miles of track in a single day. “They bragged of it,” Charles Crocker, who was in charge of CP construction, later said, “and it was heralded all over the country as being the biggest day’s track laying that was ever known.” Crocker told James Strobridge, his burly, profane, supremely capable overseer, that the CP must beat the UP. They got together the material, talked to the men, and did it, spiking down six miles and a few feet in a single day in 1868.

Casement had come back at them later that year, starting at 3:00 A.M. and keeping at the task until midnight. At the end of the day, the UP had advanced the end of track eight and a half miles.

“Now,” Crocker said to Strobridge, “we must take off our coats, but we must not beat them until we get so close together that there is not enough room for them to turn around and outdo us.” Ten miles ought to do it, he figured.

“Mr. Crocker,” Strobridge said, “we cannot get men enough onto the track to lay ten miles.”

Organize, Crocker replied. “I’ve been thinking over this for two weeks, and I have got it all planned out.”

Crocker’s plan was to have the men and the horses ready at first light. He wanted iron cars with rails, spikes, and fishplates, all ready to go. The night before, he wanted five supply trains lined up, the first at the railhead. Each of the five locomotives would pull 16 cars, which contained enough supplies for two miles of track. When the sun rose, his Chinese workers, the men who had punched the line through the Sierra, would leap into the cars of the first train, up at the end of track, and begin throwing down kegs of bolts and spikes, bundles of fishplates, and the rails. That train would then back up to a siding, and while the first two miles were laid, another would come forward. As the first train moved back, six-man gangs of Chinese would lift the small, open flatcars onto the track and begin loading each one with 16 rails plus kegs of bolts, spikes, and fishplates.

As this operation was being mounted, three men with shovels, called “pioneers,” would move out along the grade—that is, the right-of-way prepared to receive the track—aligning the ties that had been placed there the night before. When the loaded cart got to the end of the track, right after the pioneers, a team of Irish workers, one on each side, would grab the rails with their tongs, two men in front, two at the rear, race them forward to their proper position and drop them in their proper place when the foreman called out, “Down!”

The spikes, placed by the Chinese workers atop the rails, would dribble onto the grade as the rails were removed. The bolts and fishplates, which joined the rails together at their ends, were carried in hand buckets to where they were needed. When the cart was empty, it would be tipped off the grade, and the next one brought on. Then the first would be turned around, and the horses would be rehitched, to race back for another load.