The Iron Spine


Just as the Associates’ manipulations had been the last straw for Ted Judah, so the Hoxie contract was the end for Dey. “I do not approve of the contract for building the first hundred miles from Omaha west,” he noted in a terse resignation, “and I do not care to have my name so connected with the railroad that I shall appear to endorse the contract.” Then to his friend Grenville Dodge he wrote, “I am giving up the best position this country has ever offered any man.”

Durant now began to look for a chief engineer who could lay plenty of track in a hurry, handle huge gangs of hard-handed men in the field, figlit Indians if necessary—and not worry about company finances. Hc didn’t have to look far. In return for a salary of $ 10,000 plus a packet of Crédit Mobilier stock (in his wife’s name), Grenville Dodge had the job. He also had a few tough words for Durant. “I will become chief engineer only on condition that I be given absolute control in the field,” he said. “You are about to build a railroad through a country that has neither law nor order, and whoever heads the work … must be backed up. There must be no divided interests.”

Though mildly set back, Durant was certain Dodge was the right man. Hc had surveyed all through Iowa and Nebraska and knew the land to the west. In 1859 Lincoln himself, visiting Nebraska, had consulted Dodge about a possible route for the western road. “He shelled my woods completely,” Dodge later wrote, “and got all the information I’d collected.”

When the Civil War broke out, Dodge entered the Union army as a colonel, and eventually was promoted to major general on the basis of his fighting abilities and his work in rebuilding war-torn railroads. In Washington in the spring of 1863 he had another talk with Lincoln about western railroading, in particular about the slow sales of Union Pacific stock. Dodge hinted that more government aid was indicated; this, along with some quick-footed lobbying by Durant and Huntington in 1864, produced an amended Pacific Railroad Act. The land grants were doubled, and the government loans were switched from a first-mortgage to a second-mortgage basis. The railroads now could issue their own first-mortgage bonds. Tlie gates were open for private investors. The government assumed all risks. It was the gravy train par excellence.

The stage was set for the actual driving of rails across the western half of the continent. For Dodge and the Union Pacific there were few critical engineering problems between the one-hundredth meridian and the Great Salt Lake. “There was never any very great question, from an engineering point of view,” Dodge wrote, “where the line … going west from the Missouri River should be placed. The Lord had so constructed the country that any engineer who failed to take advantage of that great open road out of the Platte Valley, and then on to Salt Lake, would not have been fit to belong to the profession.” There were, however, two major hazards: distance and Indians.

Dodge conquered distance by hiring a tough construction l)oss named Jack Casement and his brother Dan. The Casements put together an ingenious train that functioned as an assembly line on wheels, and—along with the shanty town that attached itself to the train—was nicknamed Hell on Wheels by the men who worked it.

The leading unit of the Casement train was a rail-laden flatcar. Up ahead of it, grading crews levelled the roadbed and dropped ties, five to the rail-length. Beside the llatcar, ten “iron men,” five for each 500-to-700-pound rail, pulled the iron from the car at the foreman’s command, “Away she goes!” Then, at the word “Down,” the rail boomed onto the ties with such precision that the track liners barely had to move it before the spikers and clampers fastened it into place. The llatcar also carried iron rods, steel bars, cable, rope, switchstands, and the like, as well as a complete blacksmith’s shop at the rear.

The number of cars in the train could vary. A reporter from the Salt Lake City Deseret News described a iweiity-two-iinit version: the flatcar; a feed store and saddler’s shop; a carpenter’s shop and wash-house; two sleeping cars; two eating cars; a combined kitchen, counting room, and telegrapher’s car; a general store; seven more sleeping cars; two private cars (one a kitchen, the other a parlor); another sleeper; a supply car; and two water cars.

So efficient was the Casement train and the supply system backing it up that from the outset, in the spring of 1866, the Union Pacific set a record by laying one mile of track a day. The pace was gradually stepped up to two and three and more in the final, frantic race with the Central.