The Iron Spine

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On July 26, 1868, at Fort Sanders in Wyoming Territory, Grant heard the two men out. Durant charged that Dodge had selected a poor route, had wasted money, and had failed to get the line to Salt Lake. Grant said, “What about it, Dodge?”

“Just this,” said Dodge. “If Durant or anybody connected with the Union Pacific, or anybody connected with the government changes my lines I’ll quit the road.”

Grant pondered, then spoke again, slowly. “The government expects the railroad company to meet its obligations. And the government expects General Dodge to remain with the road as its chief engineer until it is completed.”

That was plain enough. Durant leaped up, stuck out his hand to his chief engineer, and said heartily, “I withdraw my objections. We all want Dodge to stay with the road.”

Out in California the Central Pacific had had an entirely different set of problems. Once Judah was out of the way there was little but harmony within the line’s management. The Indians were no trouble at all—Crocker kept them happy by handing the chiefs passes to ride the day coaches and by letting the braves hitchhike on freight cars. The terrain, however, was another matter. The rugged defiles of the Sierras had killed off hundreds of pioneers; they claimed hundreds of railroad laborers before the Central got through.

The man chosen to lead the assault on the Sierras was Charley Crocker, who noted modestly that he “grew up as a sort of leader.” (Later he would boast, “I built the Central Pacific.”) Of all the people who had a hand in its building, Crocker certainly was the most colorful. Roaring up and down the grade ceaselessly, bragging, bullying, paying the men from a bag of gold coins slung from his saddle, Crocker drove the track layers toward the summit passes. Yet, amid all this energy would come sudden lapses into complete torpor. Flat on his back, with a Chinese manservant fanning him with a branch, he would not speak, get up, or even do paper work. Then, just as abruptly, he would be back in the saddle, full of bombast and shouting profane orders.

But the Central was having labor troubles. In the spring and summer of 1865, roughly ninety per cent of the white workers who had signed on in San Francisco deserted after a week or so at railhead—they had been looking for a free ride toward the gold and silver mines of the Sierras. Crocker considered replacing them with Mexican peons but finally brought in a trial batch of fifty Chinese from San Francisco. The other Central directors protested the scheme, and the remaining American laborers hooted at the tiny, pig-tailed coolies, most of them under five feet in height and averaging 110 pounds, padding along in their floppy blue cotton trousers.

The Chinese ignored the jibes, silently pecking at the grade with their shovels and wheeling away earth in modest barrowloads. At the end of the first day, to the embarrassment of the regular hands, the Chinese grade was smoother and the work-line farther advanced than any of the others. Better yet, instead of getting drunk, fighting, and generally disrupting the camp in the evening, the Chinese carefully bathed with buckets of hot water, boiled their tea and rice, and then retired to pray, read, or smoke opium.

Crocker ordered up another group of Chinese, then another; by the winter of 1866–67 there were more than 2,000 Orientals in the Central’s work force. As the going got tougher so did the Chinese. These men were, as Crocker had pointed out from the start, descended from the people who built the Great Wall; the matter of building a rail line over the Sierras, at the cost of a few hundred lives, was barely to be noticed in the great scheme of things.

When the line hit a sheer wall of rock thirteen miles from the summit, the Chinese wove baskets of reeds, lowered themselves down the sides of the precipice to plant nitroglycerin charges, and then hauled quickly up the rock face while the nitro blew.

Crocker decided against using a steam drill on the summit tunnel because his one steam-power machine was already being used to hoist blasted rock. So the coolies stoically burrowed down through twenty-foot snowdrifts to chip away with hand chisels. They worked week after week in the frozen gloom of the shafts; sometimes progress was no more than eight inches a day through the solid granite.

In the fall of 1866 Crocker had come to feel that the Central’s slow progress was giving the U.P. a big advantage in the race for mileage (and government subsidies), so he decided to bypass the unfinished summit tunnel and try to lay track down the eastern slope of the Sierras before spring. Teams of five hundred Chinese hitched themselves to enormous log sleds and hauled three locomotives, forty cars, and enough iron for forty miles of track through the blizzards of the High Sierra. Avalanches swept through the work camps, carrying whole bunkhouses full of men to death in canyon bottoms; the Chinese offered quiet prayers, and waited for spring to retrieve their dead. The phrase “Not a Chinaman’s chance” was coined that terrible winter. It was just as applicable the next.

At last, by May 4, 1868, the Central’s rails reached the Truckee River at the Nevada border. The Sierra ordeal was over. There remained the safe though still arduous business of racing eastward to beat the U.P. out of as many $32,000 miles as possible. Since the government had never bothered to specify a meeting point, Crocker and the Casement boys spurred furiously ahead.