The Iron Spine


Whenever they came to rivers or ravines, both Central and U.P. gangs threw up flimsy trestles, promising to finish the job later. At the few remaining short tunnel sites, they carved out hasty bypasses and rushed on. Through the final winter of 1868–69, they flung down track on snow and even across river ice. At one point Dodge laid rail on a frozen stream bank so narrow and precarious that the track, together with an entire train, slid off into the water.

When the tracks finally approached each other on the great curve around the northern end of Great Salt Lake, the grading crews—working as much as 150 miles ahead of the ironmen—began to carve parallel roadbeds within sight of each other. The directors of both lines gleefully collected their separate fees of $32,000 per mile for duplicate work that proceeded for nearly two hundred miles.

In early April of 1869 President Grant informed Dodge that he had had enough of the nonsense and would do his best to withhold future bonds if the U.P. and the Central could not agree on a junction point. Dodge, Durant, and Huntington conferred. The Central agreed to stop at Promontory if the Union Pacific would sell its trackage thence east to Ogden. That was mutually acceptable, and Congress approved the agreement by joint resolution.

Even with the meeting place set and the money virtually counted, the rivals seemed unable to stop battling. U.P. crews had, at one point, set a one-day’s trackage record of eight and a half miles. Crocker, who could not stand to be beaten, boasted that the Central could lay ten. Durant bet $10,000 against it. On April 29 a handpicked gang of Crocker’s men did indeed lay 3,520 rails, with 55,000 spikes and 14,080 bolts, from sunup to sundown (including a brief lunch break) for ten miles and two hundred feet. The rewards, however, were slight: there is no evidence that Durant ever paid off.

Besides, the two U.P. officials had more to worry about than wagering. The day before the record was set Durant was kidnapped from his special train by workers striking for back pay. Dodge had to scramble to obtain nearly a million dollars from the East to placate the angry track hands.

On May 7 it began to rain, and for the next two and a half days it poured. Officers from each company squished through the mud to champagne parties in the various rail cars that had pulled in for the spikedriving ceremony. The track hands, meanwhile, were getting drunk in Promontory’s ramshackle saloons.

And then, on the tenth, the rails met, and Stanford swung his futile swing. In San Francisco young Bret Harte, editor of the Overland Monthly , jotted down a poem for use in his next editorial:

What was it the engines said, Pilots touching, head to head, Facing on a single track, Half a world behind each back?

What they may have said was that this was one hell of a way to build a railroad. For in addition to all the haste, waste, and thievery, two of the reasons for rushing ahead with the road had evaporated—and a third was yet to come into being. In 1869 the Suez Canal opened, scrapping the European-Oriental trade route scheme. The Civil War had ended long since, and with it the serious North-South rivalry for political domination of the West. Third, although a railroad had indeed crossed the great American desert, there was precious little freight and passenger traffic. “Building railroads from nowhere to nowhere at public expense is not a legitimate enterprise,” rumbled Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Within a few years the Union Pacific was sometimes hauling one lone passenger a day; it was soon on its way to receivership, where it duly landed. By 1872 the stench from Crédit Mobilier had finally become too much even for Congress; an investigation led to a vote of censure for Oakes Ames, and left spatterings of mud that could never be expunged from the coattails of the others involved.

But despite everything—the financial flop, the congressional scandal, the misplaced hopes for an Oriental trade route, the travail of the building work, the blizzards, raids, gunfights, and interminable wrangling—two decades after the line was completed, a continent had been transformed. The Indians, pushed back and hemmed in now by rail-borne troops carrying repeating rifles and Catling guns, began to sink into the despair of their impoverished reservations. The buffalo, too, were doomed by the railroad. Forever after the high plains and mountains would belong to the white man.

By 1880 three more lines had crossed to the Pacific, and parts of the prairie bloomed into food-growing regions as lush as any in the world. Desert shanty towns touched by track were transformed into shining cities. Boston and Philadelphia now dined on Colorado beef, and fresh-caught Pacific salmon became a delicacy in Minneapolis. Chicago grew to be the world’s busiest railhead, and America was becoming the most powerful industrial nation the world had ever seen. As one Gilded Age President put it for an audience at Hudson College in New York: “The railway is the greatest centralizing force of modern times.” And President James Garfield was something of an authority on the value of railroads.