- Historic Sites
The Big Road
Building the transcontinental railroad was the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century. Was it also the biggest swindle?
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
Next would come the men placing and pounding in spikes. Crocker admonished Strobridge to have enough spikes on hand so that “no man stops and no man passes another.” The crew placing the telegraph poles and stringing the wire would keep pace.
Strobridge heard everything Crocker had to say, considered it, and finally said, “We can beat them, but it will cost something.” For example, he insisted on having a fresh team of horses for each car hauling rail, the fresh horses to take over after every two and a half miles.
“Go ahead and do it,” said Crocker.
They waited until April 27, when the CP had only 14 miles to go, the UP 9. Crocker had offered a bet of $10,000 to Thomas Durant, vice president of the UP, saying that the CP would lay 10 miles of track in one day. Reportedly, Durant was sure they couldn’t and accepted the wager.
What the CP crews did that day should be remembered as long as this Republic lasts. White men born in America were there, along with former slaves whose ancestors came from Africa, plus immigrants from all across Europe, and more than 3,000 Chinese. There were some Mexicans with a touch of Native American blood in them, as well as French Indians and at least a few Native Americans. Everyone was excited, ready to get to work, eager to show what he could do. Even the Chinese, usually methodical and a bit scornful of the American way of doing things, were stirred to a fever pitch. They and all the others. They had come together at this desolate place in the middle of western North America to do what had never been done before.
The sun rose at 7:15 A.M. First the Chinese went to work. According to the San Francisco Bulletin ’s correspondent, “In eight minutes, the sixteen cars were cleared, with a noise like the bombardment of an army.”
The Irishmen laying track came on behind the pioneers. Their names were Michael Shay, Patrick Joyce, Michael Kennedy, Thomas Daley, George Elliott, Michael Sullivan, Edward Killeen, and Fred McNamara. Their foreman was George Coley. The two in front on each 30-foot rail would pick it up with their tongs and run forward. The two in the rear picked it up and carried it forward until all four heard “Down.” The rails weighed 560 pounds each.
Next came the men starting the spikes by placing them in position, then the spike drivers, then the bolt threaders, then the straighteners, finally the tampers.
“The scene is a most animated one,” wrote one newspaper reporter. “From the first pioneer to the last tamper, perhaps two miles, there is a thin line of 1,000 men advancing a mile an hour; the iron cars running up and down; mounted men galloping backward and forward. Alongside of the moving force are teams hauling tools, and water-wagons, and Chinamen, with pails strung over their shoulders, moving among the men with water and tea.”
One of the Army officers, the senior man, grabbed Charlie Crocker’s arm and said, “I never saw such organization as this; it is just like an army marching across over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.”
When the whistle blew for the noon meal, at 1:30 P.M. , the CP workers had laid 6 miles of track. Strobridge had a second team of tracklayers in reserve, but the proud men who had put down the first 6 miles insisted on keeping at it throughout the rest of the day. By 7:00 P.M. , the CP was 10 miles and 56 feet farther east than it had been at dawn. Never before done, never matched.
To demonstrate how well the track had been laid, the engineer Jim Campbell ran a locomotive over the new track at 40 miles an hour. Jack Casement turned to Strobridge. “He owned up beaten,” Strobridge later commented. But so far as can be told, Durant never paid Crocker the $10,000 he lost in the bet.
Grenville Dodge, the UP’s chief engineer, sneered at the record. “They took a week preparing for it,” he declared. “I never saw so much needless waste in building railroads.” But Dodge ended with a comment that summed up the triumphs and troubles he had seen, one that put his, the UP’s, and the CP’s achievement in reaching Promontory into perspective. He noted that “everything connected with the construction department is being closed up” and concluded, “Closing the accounts is like the close of the Rebellion.”
In the twenty-first century, everything seems to be in flux, and change is so constant as to be taken for granted. This leads to a popular question: What generation lived through the greatest change? The one that lived through the coming of the automobile and the airplane and the beginning of modern medicine? Or the one that was around for the invention and first use of the atomic bomb and the jet airplane? Or the computer? Or the Internet and e-mail? For me, it is the Americans who lived through the second half of the nineteenth century. They saw slavery abolished and electricity put to use, the development of the telephone and the completion of the telegraph, and most of all the railroad. The locomotive was the first great triumph over time and space. After it came, and after it crossed the continent of North America, nothing could ever again be the same. It brought about the greatest change in the shortest period of time.