The Iron Spine


As the construction crews moved west, they found to their considerable joy that they were being accompanied by a movable feast of gamblers, peddlers, and prostitutes, all eager to help them spend their money. These early camp followers posed no serious threat to the road’s progress, but by the time the rails had reached Julesburg, Colorado Territory, the pleasuremongers had been joined by a vicious auxiliary of pimps, bouncers, muggers, thieves, and gun-slingers. “Watchfires gleam over the sea-like expanse of ground outside the city,” wrote one correspondent, “while inside soldiers, herdsmen, teamsters, women, railroad men are dancing, singing, or gambling. I verily believe that there are men here who would murder a fellow creature for five dollars. Nay, there are men who have already done it, and who stalk abroad in daylight unwhipped of justice.”

“These women,” he reported of the Julesburg bawds, “are expensive articles, and come in for a large share of the money wasted. In broad daylight they may be seen gliding through the streets carrying fancy derringers slung to their waists.”

Gambling, wenching, and drinking were one thing, but shooting and knifing would not do: good track hands were too hard to find. Dodge ordered a cleanup, and Jack Casement, passing out rifles to a picked group of his toughest ironmen, walked slowly through town one summer night. Soon afterward General Dodge inquired, “Are the gamblers quiet and behaving?”

“You bet they are, General,” said Casement. “They’re out there in the graveyard.”

Cleanups had to be repeated at Cheyenne and Laramie, and once more at Corinne, Utah.

Farther west, Union Pacific workers ran into Indian trouble. Several small advance parties of grading crews were bushwhacked. In another raid an engine was derailed and the crew trapped, tomahawked, and tossed into the flaming wreckage. Occasionally a lone meat hunter or a careless stroller was scalped. But the Indians didn’t always win. One bold but not particularly bright party of braves tried to capture an iron horse alive. Taking a forty-foot leather rope that their medicine man had infused with magic, two braves lay on either side of the track, the rope slack as an engine approached. When the locomotive was a few yards away the Indians leaped up and strained against the medicine rope. The two Indians closest to the tracks were swept beneath the wheels, and the others limped home with their bruises.

Occasionally Dodge, who had a dramatic flair, issued such ringing pronouncements as, “We’ve got to clean the damn Indians out or give up building the Union Pacific,” but the fact was that the Indian trouble was more terrifying in the telling than in the fighting. The majority of Casement’s more than one thousand men were mustered-out Confederate soldiers—among the best bushfighters the country had ever known. They were supplemented by a force of hamhanded Irish ironmen, freed slaves, and a fair number of just plain tough characters from the slums of eastern cities. On the few occasions when the Indians tried to hit the main work force they were beaten off easily, with little or no damage to the railroad.

While the work of road building continued, the work of money-making more than kept pace. The Hoxie contract remained in effect for the first 247 westward miles of track. It was superseded for the next 667 by the so-called Ames contract. Oakes Ames was a member of the Crédit Mobilier, brother of the president of the Union Pacific—and a United States representative from Massachusetts. Ames was to assign the contract to a group of men (brother Oliver among them) representing the Crédit Mobilier.

Actually, the first 228 miles of trackage under the Ames contract had already been laid, at a per-mile cost of $27,500. Nonetheless, the contract specified per-mile payments —by the Union Pacific to the Crédit Mobilier—of $43,500. The Crédit Mobilier, then, had realized a profit of $3,648,000 on the Ames contract even while the ink on it was drying.

The fact that Oakes Ames was a member of Congress was a great help, since it allowed him to distribute juicy chunks of Crédit Mobilier securities “where they will do the most good”—among his legislative peers. The securities went to such friends of the Union Pacific as Speaker of the House (and Vice President-to-be under Grant) Schuyler Colfax, to Representative (and future presidental nominee) James G. Blaine, and to Representative (and future President) James A. Garfield. A score of others were implicated.

The kited profits from the Ames contract and succeeding arrangements have been estimated at anywhere from fourteen to fifty million dollars. Durant should have been content to let more than enough alone. But he began tampering with Dodge’s road building, trying to make the route longer to get even more subsidy money. Dodge would have none of it, and one day shouted down Durant in front of the men. “You are now going to learn,” Dodge bellowed, “that the men working for the Union Pacific will take orders from me and not from you. If you interfere there will be trouble—trouble from the government, from the Army, and from the men themselves.”

Scraping up a pile of evidence on what he considered incompetence and nonfeasance, Durant gambled on an official showdown. The referee was none other than General U. S. Grant, Republican nominee for President.