Skip to main content


Biggest Of The Four

May 2024
4min read

A couple of years ago I visited the Stanford campus at PaIo Alto, and as I stood with a university official under a long cloister that rimmed a bright green lawn, I said what a very handsome place it was. “Oh yes,” he replied instantly. “It’s the loveliest college campus in America.”

The remark has the ring of absurd provincialism, but as I walked through the courtyards and past the plantings, I realized there was nothing silly about it. Stanford is a surprisingly lovely campus, and it is odd to think that it should be the legacy of a hard-handed and not particularly imaginative battler in the ruthless arena of post-Civil War finance capitalism. But it is. Stanford University is as pretty as it is, and as good as it is, because that is what Leland Stanford wanted, and he went after it with the same stubborn singleness of purpose he brought to everything else he ever did. There was little in Stanford’s early career to suggest that such a project would interest him. When he said once, “I have so planned that long after I shall have crumbled into dust the … establishment founded by me at PaIo Alto shall endure,” he was speaking of a horse-breeding farm. But tragedy touched his life, and it changed him.

Leland Stanford was born in upstate New York in 1824, fourth in a family of seven. He received a reasonable amount of schooling by the standards of the day, married an Albany merchant’s daughter named Jane Lathrop, and brought her to Wisconsin, where he practiced law with no particular success. In the early 185Os, California seemed the place to go to get rich, and he headed west to join his brothers, who had already gone before him. From the start he saw that the surer money lay not in looking for gold but in selling supplies to the men who were. In a few years he was a wealthy man.

With the Civil War looming, he went to work organizing the California Republican party, and when the storm broke in 1861, he was elected governor of the state. This was good for the Union, and it was good for Leland Stanford, for he had gotten interested in building a railroad.

In the summer of 1862 Lincoln signed an act pledging the government to underwrite a transcontinental railroad; the Union Pacific would push west from Omaha, the Central Pacific east from Sacramento. Governor Stanford was president of the Central Pacific. He joined forces with three other men in what proved to be about as successful a monopoly as any in our history—the Big Four, as they will forever be known. Mark Hopkins kept the books; Collis P. Huntington was the financier (“Of the modern forty thieves,” said Ambrose Bierce, “Mr. Huntington is the surviving thirty-six”); Charles Crocker was construction boss; and Stanford handled legal and governmental matters.

Stanford did not live to see his college fulfill its initial promise, but he had no doubt it would.

The deal was that the railroad companies got five miles of land on either side of the track they laid, and up to forty-eight thousand dollars per mile. Stanford was a vain man, a bit plodding and platitudinous in his speech, but he knew there’d never be another chance like this one, and he drove himself with vigorous skill, persuading the state leg- islature to give more than three-quarters of a million dollars to the cash-starved Central Pacific.

And he served in the front lines too. The Union Pacific was hard work; the Central Pacific was murder. The builders were chewing their way through the high passes of the Sierra Nevada in winter, the mute, heroic Chinese laborers struggling under snowsheds, the blasting teams pecking away at rock so hard that a new explosive—nitroglycerin—had to be manufactured to cope with it. Crocker raged and shouted at head of track, and Stanford was there with him, sleeping wrapped in buffalo robes on flatcars, waking in the searing cold mornings covered with fresh snow.

At last they broke through into the plains beyond, and the road roared along: in a small epic of furious activity, Crocker’s men once laid ten miles of track in a single day. The rails met at Promontory, Utah, in 1869, and on May 10 Stanford swung his sledge at the golden spike and the great work was done. Then it was time for taking stock: the Big Four got fifty-four million dollars in clear profit. At least, that’s what Stanford admitted to: the books were “lost.”

From then on the Big Four set about sewing up the rest of California’s transportation, and Stanford bought a huge parcel of PaIo Alto land where he built a horse-breeeding farm. His conviction that a horse lifted all its hooves off the ground at the same time while trotting led to his getting the photographer Eadweard Muybridge to set up a battery of cameras triggered by trip wires. The horse trotted past, the pictures confirmed Stanford’s belief—and when Muybridge put the images on a glass disk and projected them rapidly in the Stanfords’ home so they seemed actually to move, there was the germ of an industry that would mean more to California than any railroad.

The Stanfords had a son now, Leland, Jr., and they adored him. He was a sweetnatured, precocious boy, and Stanford gave him everything from elaborate optical toys to a miniature railroad. When he was fifteen, Leland and Jane took him on the grand tour. He fell ill of typhus, and died in Florence on March 14,1884.

For a while it looked as though Stanford would lose his sanity, and even his life. But a month later, he told an American minister in Paris: “I have been successful in the accumulation of property, and all of my thoughts of the future were associated with my dear son. I was living for him and his future. That is what brought us abroad for his education. Now, I was thinking in the night, since Leland is gone what my wealth could do. I was thinking that since I could do no more for my boy I might do something for other people’s boys in Leland’s name.”

A few weeks later Leland and Jane were sitting in front of Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard. What, Stanford wanted to know, would it cost to duplicate Harvard’s physical plant. Five or six million dollars, said Eliot. Stanford thought for a while, then smiled. “Well, Jane, we could manage that, couldn’t we?”

As it turned out, the physical plant was superb, a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, with Charles A. Coolidge’s warm, muscular, Romanesque buildings spreading majestically but not overpoweringly out across it. But Stanford knew there was more to a college than plant, and he begged Andrew D. White, the retired president of Cornell, to head his new school. Too old, said White; try David Starr Jordan out at Indiana University. Stanford went to see him, and Jordan thought the railroad baron “revealed an unusually attractive personality.” He took the job—and kept it for twenty years.

Leland Stanford Junior University opened in 1891. Stanford, his health damaged by those winter nights in the Sierras and broken by his son’s death, died just two years later. He did not live to see his college fulfill its initial promise, but he had no doubt that it would, and today Leland Stanford is remembered as the founder of one of the finest schools in the nation. His old Big Four partners have some San Francisco hotels named after them.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.