The Atlantic Serial
Preceding Chapters of ’Men against Mountains’ . . .
A VISIONARY began it, as is so often the case. His name was Theodore D. Judah. He came from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and had an engineering turn of mind. Railroads were his ambition and his dream. In his twenty-eighth year he went west to Sacramento to build a twenty-one-mile spur. Then his vision possessed him, and this spur became for him the first unit in a railroad that was to link the oceans. He drew up plans, lobbied at Washington, talked to anyone who would listen. His nickname was ‘Crazy Judah.’
Not until 1862 did Judah succeed in raising the money for his project. At the St. Charles Hotel, in Sacramento, he expanded his plans before a druggist, a jeweler, a lawyer, the owner of a dry-goods store, and two hardware merchants. Among those present were four names destined to go down in California history — Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington — the Big Four, as they later came to be known.
During the preliminary stages, Judah and Crocker were the men who did the taxing physical work. Judah surveyed the line from Sacramento across the foothills to the base of the Sierras, and then — with the optimism of a genius — over and around the towering heights. But early in the construction the engineer was forced out of the partnership.
Storming and bellowing up and down the line, it was Charlie Crocker who carried the work forward, directing the largest force of workmen the country had ever known. It was Crocker who conceived the idea of importing shiploads of Chinese workmen from Canton. By use of a temperamental new substance called nitroglycerine, and with the Chinese crowded shoulder to shoulder chipping and hacking at rock faces, the road advanced — in winter by working against thirty-five-foot snowdrifts and in summer during the sizzling heat and alkali dust. Thus, against tremendous odds, men fought their engineering war against the mountains until in May 1869 the Irish gangs of the Union Pacific and the Chinese gangs of the Central Pacific fitted rails together, driving home the golden spike which spanned the continent with its first railroad.
Building the road had proved fabulously profitable. But by 1870 the partners faced an entirely different task. For the road had to be maintained, its traffic secured, and its credit upheld through years of financial panic and against bitter odds. But, thanks to the sagacity of the partners, bankruptcy was avoided. As dividends piled up, the Big Four began building their impressive mansions on Nob Hill. Such houses they were! When Crocker commissioned his early Renaissance dwelling, a local critic pronounced it a ‘delirium of the wood-carver.’
For years Stanford had been the president of the road, and its spokesman to the public. The Governor, as he liked to be called, lived spaciously. At Palo Alto he laid out a 9000-acre farm suitable for horse breeding. For a million dollars he acquired 55,000 acres in the northern end of the Sacramento Valley. All of this vast empire was to have been inherited by the Stanfords’ only son, young Leland, who was educated with fastidious care but died of typhoid in Florence in his sixteenth year. Heartbroken, the parents returned to California, and there began the building of that enduring memorial to their son, Leland Stanford Junior University.
The deaths of Crocker and Hopkins led to an inevitable conflict between the surviving partners, Stanford and Collis P. Huntington. The original partnership had not been in force three months before Huntington was referred to as the brains of the group. From his office in New York City he determined the strategy of the mighty enterprise. He it was who kept the railroad in good standing at Washington, lobbying with persistence and skill for the subsidies so essential to the construction. It was Huntington who, with iron determination, schemed to control the traffic of the entire Pacific Coast.
Connecticut born, Collis P. Huntington had made his way in a hard school. In business he was cold and crafty. Whatever stood in his way he fought stubbornly and with every evidence of pleasure. Strong as an ox, he was likened to Atlas ‘controlling and guarding the railroad after his associates had died and he himself was an old man.’ From the first he and Stanford had been antagonistic. At the annual stockholders’ meeting in 1890 Huntington forced Stanford out of office. Bitter was the feud that followed.
‘We have served California,’ Huntington once said, ‘better than any other set of men have ever served any other state in the Union.’ He was speaking of transportation, not of philanthropy. But the dollars wrested from the people by the railroad were returned to California in the shape of the magnificent Library and Art Gallery assembled by H. E. Huntington, who inherited his uncle’s fortune.
Now with each twelve months of the Atlantic
THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR
MEN AGAINST MOUNTAINS
BY OSCAR LEWIS
IV. COLTON AND THE IRON HORSE
WHEN the last spike was driven at Promontory, the four partners had already traveled far since the evening in 1861 when they had lent support to Judah’s dubious gamble. They had accomplished the most momentous engineering and financial feat of their generation, to emerge rich and famous. Completion of the transcontinental railroad was celebrated as a milestone in the nation’s progress; the names of the four were conspicuous in a chorus of praise that issued from the newspapers and pulpits of the country.
With such laudation in their ears, the group soon came to regard the operation of the railroad, with its variety of new problems and its uncertain reward, as a dull business. There was a natural reaction — a desire to rest, on laurels already won and to avail themselves of the ease their fortunes put within reach.
Thoughts of selling out were much on the minds of all four during the early ’70s. Crocker withdrew in 1871, and returned again, not altogether willingly, two years later. Huntington’s letters of the period are full of references to his desire to get out, and Hopkins, as usual, was willing to follow his lead. Only Stanford hung back; he was reluctant to surrender the distinction of his office.
Negotiations for the sale of their interests to a group headed by D. O. Mills dragged on for months and finally came to nothing. Huntington, convinced that he was ‘losing his grip,’ cast about for other possible purchasers. But he had little real hope, for the financial skies were darkening steadily, and not many weeks later Black Friday ushered in the most severe money panic the country had ever known. All hope of a favorable sale was swept away. There was no further talk of letting go. The emergency not only kept the three partners together; it brought Crocker back into the fold.
That the road was carried safely through this most critical phase of its existence was of course due mainly to Huntington. With a leader of only average resourcefulness and tenacity, disaster could hardly have been avoided. Both on Wall Street and on the Coast rumor said the Central and the Southern Pacific were going into receivership. By his energy and stubbornness and a native adroitness in money matters, Huntington eventually carried them through, a fact that he was never slow to point out to the others. His letters harped on one theme: too much was falling on his shoulders, and his strength was not equal to it. The others were not doing their share. Stanford wasted his time on ranches and such nonsense; Crocker wandered aimlessly about the Coast and seldom went near his office; Hopkins was ill; ‘while I was working every day in the year almost, and about fourteen hours a day . . . I was not satisfied with the hours they put in.’
Partly because of dissatisfaction, partly because Huntington needed someone in California who could be depended on not only to be on the job but to understand it, a fifth member was presently admitted to limited partnership.
The newcomer was General David Douty Colton. Forty-two years of age, a native of Maine, and a resident of California since gold-rush days, the General already had his finger in many local pies. He was red-haired, shrewd, industrious, and aggressive. A driving desire to get ahead, to associate on terms of equality with the leading men of the Coast, was his chief characteristic. While still under twenty-five, he became a useful cog in the political organization built up by David C. Broderick, the wily ex-fireman from New York. On the morning in 1859 when Senator Broderick and Judge Terry settled their differences in the famous duel on the sand hills south of San Francisco, Colton was one of his chief’s seconds; later he helped keep the dead man’s organization together. Certain parcels of San Francisco real estate owned by Broderick passed into his possession, and these later became valuable.
Like many another politician, Colton was mainly interested in organization and manipulation; one term as sheriff in the mountain county of Siskiyou ended his desire for office. His liking for his military title, however, persisted. He was universally called ‘the General,’ not always without irony, for the title dated from an early connection with the state militia and he had never seen service. After the Civil War he went east, studied law at Albany, then returned and formed a partnership with an Albany classmate, Ralph C. Harrison.
The firm of Colton and Harrison remained in existence for years, but the General’s talents lay in other directions and he soon gave up practice. ‘Why sit around waiting for a fifty-dollar fee when a smart trader can go out and make five hundred in half the time?’ He recognized that the judicious exercise of his political influence would most quickly gain what he wanted. Accordingly he extended his party connections, always making himself useful to anyone who needed favors at the city hall or in Sacramento. In return he was given opportunity to participate in promising speculations.
Most of these ventures proved lucrative, and one seemed to be the opportunity of a lifetime. In 1871, gambling-mad San Francisco was stirred by news of immensely rich diamond fields in northern Colorado. A group of the Coast’s shrewdest financiers formed a tenmillion-dollar corporation to exploit this bonanza, with Colton as its manager. The General believed himself the owner of an incipient fortune of millions. Presently came proof that the field had been salted with a few thousand dollars’ worth of low-quality diamonds bought in Antwerp and London; two ‘honest prospectors’ disappeared with the $600,000 they had received for their interests in the ‘discovery,’ and General Manager Colton’s corporation dissolved before he had completed fitting up its handsome offices. With the other dupes, the General shared the ridicule of the nation as he turned to more prosaic means of making money.
Notwithstanding this setback, the red-haired General rapidly became prominent. By 1872, five years after his return from Albany, he had a house on Nob Hill, a ranch on the slopes of Mount Diablo, and the distinction of a three months’ tour of Europe. His wife and pretty daughters were named in local society columns, and his advice on the more practical phases of state politics was sought by men of the first importance.
The General’s ego grew with his prosperity: an acquaintance recalled that ‘he made money fast and enemies faster.’
His brashness and self-esteem alienated many. When Alfred Cohen made his famous defense against the charge of embezzlement filed against him by the Big Four, the vitriolic attorney aimed some of his most telling blasts at Colton, then the Central Pacific’s financial director : —
When I had business relations with the plaintiff and its officers and agents, I was compelled to come in constant contact with many men whose manners, whose habits, whose modes of thought and whose conversation were not calculated to advance me either in my own esteem or that of my fellow citizens, but I thank God . . . that I was not required to coöperate with ‘General’ David D. Colton.
He sketched Colton’s rise to local importance, hinted that he had made away with part of Broderick’s estate, and continued: —
The inflation of his fortunes has brought with it inflation of vanity, until to-day there dwells on this peninsula no man so able or so important as is ‘General’ David D. Colton — in his own estimation.
Cohen was not content to dwell merely on his victim’s past and present; he also predicted his end: —
‘General’ David D. Colton will never go from among us by the ordinary processes of nature. When that dread hour arrives wherein a mourning community can hope to contain him no longer, it will only be necessary to cut the thread that binds him to this cold earth, when, like one of the painted, transparent bags of gas sold by toy venders on the street corners, he will sail quietly away through the clouds and be seen no more.
These aspersions of Cohen, however, were not made until some years later, when the General was at the height of his career. He was to attain his greatest prominence through his connection with the railroad, and this was made possible mainly because of his friendship with Charles Crocker. In 1873, Crocker bought a residential site near the western edge of Nob Hill, directly across Taylor Street from Colton’s house. The General wrote Crocker at once: ‘I am delighted to learn that you have acquired those lots. I now feel . . . with you my next door neighbor my future good conduct is assured.’ The two were presently inseparable; they addressed each other as ‘Dave’ and ‘Charlie,’ exchanged advice on business deals, and traveled about the Coast looking over possible investments in mines and ranches. ‘To the House of Crocker the House of Colton sends love and greetings,’ wrote the General as the year 1875 opened. The Coltons had passes over the Central and Southern Pacific lines, and the General was permitted to invest moderately in the railroad’s Rocky Mountain Coal and Iron Company, of which he was made manager.
This brought the General into closer contact with Stanford and Hopkins. These gentlemen, however, failed to share their partner’s enthusiasm for the newcomer, and Crocker’s suggestion that he be given other railroad connections was coolly received. But the ambitious General was not easily discouraged. The Central Pacific had proved itself the most facile money-making machine ever seen in the West, and a place, however inconspicuous, at the same table with its owners was worth struggling for. Colton continued his intimacy with Crocker, remained agreeable through Stanford’s sullen silences, and endured the inimical glances of tired Mark Hopkins. Nothing needed to be settled in a day, and Huntington would soon be out on one of his visits. Meantime if the General’s connections would permit him to be of any small service to the partners, they had but to ask.
Huntington duly arrived; Crocker presented his new friend, and the matter of his joining the Big Four was reopened. Huntington proved willing to listen. By then he had reached a definite conclusion that his partners were not doing their share. A monopolistic railroad system produced a variety of problems. No group of two-hour-a-day executives could hope to cope with them. By Huntington’s code, subordinates were hired to carry out orders, not to give them, and he clung to his theory even though it often required that he remain at his desk until past midnight. He had given up! hope of much help from Stanford and Crocker. So Huntington listened while Colton, red-faced and selfassured, made his plea. The road needed a twelve-hour-a-day man on the Coast — but not any man. He must have a variety of qualifications and a variety of connections.
His face earnest, the General talked rapidly, persuasively. It was clear that he knew the political ropes, that he understood what favors the railroad needed from legislatures and from city and county lawmakers, and that he felt sure of the steps necessary to secure them. Huntington listened, hesitated — at length allowed himself to be convinced. Later he admitted that Colton had seemed ‘just the man we wanted.’
The General was allowed to come in.
He came in, however, with reservations. In return for the use of his talents in the interest of the railroad, he was permitted to share moderately in both its profits and its hazards. The agreement he signed in the fall of 1874 bristled with clauses safeguarding the interests of the original four. Financial provisions were liberal enough so that the newcomer might, and did, enrich himself. But he also ‘put his head in a noose and gave Huntington the other end of the rope.’ From the General’s standpoint, Huntington was not, as events proved, its best possible custodian.
Colton received twenty thousand shares each of Central Pacific and Southern Pacific stock. In return, he gave his note for a million dollars, payable in five years. During the first two years the agreement might be canceled at the will of either party, and the stock and the note both returned. By this transaction the partners received the services of a politician, who could do on the Coast what Huntington was skillfully doing at Washington and who could be on the job when needed. For his part, Colton became associated with the most powerful corporation in the West; he was able to speak publicly of the other four as ‘my partners’ and to sprinkle his letters to Huntington with such phrases as ‘our interests’ and ‘us five.’ To the ambitious General this was a privilege worth the high price he was paying for it.
That the price was high grew clear not long before his two-year probationary period ended. Early in 1876 he received notice that the partners were terminating his connection with the company. The blow, coming out of a clear sky, proved a severe shock. In his plight he hunted up Crocker and threw himself on his friend’s mercy. Crocker later stated that the General had shed tears as he pictured the ruin that would ensue to his personal fortunes. Colton had made it widely known that he was one of the associates; he had neglected to state that the arrangement might be only temporary. If he were dropped now, how could he face his friends? Or his enemies? For the General’s connection with the Big Four had not lessened his arrogance. He may have recalled an ironic reference in a local weekly to ‘the Big 41/2.’ If he were turned out on the street again it would hardly plunge the community into mourning.
There is evidence that the dismissal had been engineered by Hopkins, whose dislike of the General dated from their first meeting. Perhaps the other partners, too, had become annoyed at the newcomer’s mounting ego and had adopted this device only to remind him of the insecurity of his railroad connection. At any rate, the order was presently withdrawn. The chastened General continued to bear his title of financial director. But he realized very clearly his insecurity.
His plans were made accordingly. In less than four years his note would reach maturity. That it would have to be paid in full he no longer doubted. He set himself to accumulate a million dollars by October 5, 1879. But his need urged him into new difficulties, for in this game his opponents held all the cards. The bulk of the money could come only from the railroad, which was controlled in every detail by the other four, two of whom regarded him with active distrust. He needed to exercise rare diplomacy on one hand and a high degree of acquisitiveness on the other.
He did his best. The original four then drew salaries of $10,000 a year. Colton received a like amount. It occurred to him that if salaries were raised to $25,000 he could pick up a few needed thousands. This was unimportant to the other four, whose incomes were derived from other sources, and they blandly told him that moderate salaries for corporation executives are always pleasing to the stockholders.
Colton looked elsewhere for possible sources of new income. Before his admission to limited partnership he had been manager of the company’s coal mines, and he had since continued to hold the position and to draw its $6000 salary — evidently without the knowledge of the others. It was one of a number of ways by which he was storing up funds against the impending settlement. But while he made impressive progress, including some successful speculation in San Francisco real estate, it at length grew clear that he would still miss the goal by a wide margin. One unlucky factor was that his forty thousand shares of stock had not made expected advances; the market for railroad securities was still badly depressed. The outlook was dark.
In his dilemma the General hit on an ingenious scheme. His duties included oversight of the Western Development Company. This was the successor to the Big Four’s famous ‘profit mill,’ the old Contract and Finance Company, by means of which the partners, as railroad officials, had awarded contracts on extremely liberal terms to themselves as railroad contractors. Colton had a oneninth interest in this highly lucrative company. The value of his share, if it could be made available in time, would easily solve his troubles. Like all good tacticians, he decided that desperate situations demand drastic measures.
One afternoon in the summer of 1878, Huntington, Stanford, Crocker, and Hopkins were conferring in one of the rooms at Fourth and Townsend streets when the door opened and the affable General appeared. He was followed by two clerks loaded with bulky packages.
Colton announced pleasantly: ‘Gentlemen, here are your securities.’
The partners were told that the Western Development Company had declared a dividend. General Colton had quietly arranged the matter. He had not troubled to tell the others, preferring to spare them the bother of discussing its details. In fact, he had planned the whole matter as a surprise. The faces of the four men must have convinced him that to that extent his coup had been successful, for all later professed complete astonishment. The ‘dividend’ proved to be a distribution of the assets of the Western Development Company, chiefly Central Pacific stock and Southern Pacific bonds. At par their value was in excess of $21,000,000. Colton’s one-ninth interest had, therefore, a par value of two and a third millions.
The ensuing half-hour was a difficult time for the General. The other men, none of whom had a million-dollar note hanging over his head, accused him of an unwarranted assumption of authority; more, they insisted that the securities be returned at once. Again Colton was forced to throw himself upon their mercy. To return the stocks and bonds would, he pointed out, injure his standing with employees of his department, many of whom had been busy for weeks working out the details of the transaction. He added a more crafty argument: the Western Development Company was entirely owned by the five of them; transfer of its assets to their personal accounts would injure no one; the action merely gave each the control of his share. The General was not without knowledge of human nature. As he had foreseen, once each one’s share of the handsome sum was in his hands, each partner found himself reluctant to give it up.
The ‘dividend’ remained distributed, but Colton was prevented from benefiting by the move. He retained his oneninth interest, but his partners required him to sign an agreement that he would not sell any part of it, and that he would turn the full amount back whenever they demanded. He might have possession of the securities, but he must not use them to pay his debt; they were his, but they were not his. It was another of the General’s empty victories.
Nonetheless, he remained hopeful. After four years with the railroad, the public, knowing nothing of the financial squirrel-cage in which his partners confined him, considered him almost as important as the Big Four themselves. As Huntington’s political aide on the Coast, he was the man to see when railroad business was of a nature that could not prudently be transacted through the usual channels. More, the prestige of his railroad connection extended among leaders of the Coast who would otherwise have remained remote. In local papers his name was mentioned on equal terms with those of the lesser industrial and financial giants — the rising crop of bankers, promoters, merchants, and realestate and mining speculators — and only a step below the half-legendary railroad and silver kings who constituted the city’s aristocracy.
Colton, indeed, frequently penetrated within this charmed inner circle. With William Chapman Ralston, most spectacular of the Coast’s bankers, he had been on terms approaching intimacy. He usually joined in the excursions Ralston liked to arrange for groups of prominent visitors, and his name could always be found in printed lists of guests (sometimes occupying two columns of eight-point newspaper type) at the stupendous Ralston banquets at Belmont. His two daughters were pretty and popular, and the marriage of the elder to Crittenden Thornton, son of a San Francisco judge, was a social event of importance.
The General was rising financially as well as socially. The incident of the Western Development; Company dividend in time was forgotten. The partners, Huntington in particular, grew less cautious in extending him their confidence. He was even honored by having his name given to a crossroads station on the new Southern Pacific line cast of Los Angeles.
As the General’s sun approached its zenith, the million-dollar note, nearing maturity, seemed less formidable. Value of railroad securities had been rising slowly above the financial swamps of 1871-1873. His stocks might realize enough to enable him to meet his note in full. For more than four years he had been drawing his share of the railroad’s profits. In 1878, when his note still had a year to run, his assets were well above the three-quarter-million mark. Rents from his San Francisco real estate averaged from $2500 to $3000 a month.
The former sheriff of Siskiyou had not done badly from any standpoint. His Nob Hill residence, one of the most attractive in the city, had become surrounded by a dozen others, homes of the financial and industrial leaders of the West, with most of whom he was on terms of friendship. There were a few exceptions. Stanford was one. On the other hand, Colton’s relations with Huntington were no longer formal. In the middle ’70s the General refurnished his residence, and one of his letters to Huntington turned aside from more important concerns to discuss a matter of art. One of the walls of his drawing-room needed to be properly covered: Huntington was sent $5000 and given carte blanche to select a suitable painting. In April 1878 another message requested Huntington to have ‘his Mr. Phillips’ purchase ‘200 tube rose bulbs’ and send them west. They were for Mrs. Colton’s Mount Diablo ranch, and the General specified that they must be fresh and of the ‘very best quality.’
Colton’s correspondence leaves little doubt that he considered himself secure. Early in 1878 he wrote ‘My Dear Huntington ’ that ‘ So far as I am personally concerned, I propose to stand or fall with you all.’ And a little later: ‘We have not got together enough and talked our plans over among ourselves. It may not be boastful to say that we fi ve men each in his way has some strong points.’ Even his feud with Hopkins seems to have been patched up, for on the latter’s death he sent this philosophical and prophetic note to Huntington: ‘ It was a terrible shock to us all ... I know how severely you will feel the blow, but it is only a question of time with us all.’
Colton was then enough in Huntington’s confidence to feel no hesitation in advising the older man not to overtax his strength: ‘I know, Huntington, I could not do half as well or half as much as you do if I was in your place.’ The General had been engaged because Huntington wanted a man on the Coast who was not afraid to work hard, and his letters to Huntington (he sometimes wrote three a day) contained frequent reminders that he was not loafing. ‘All my hair in front has either dropped out or turned gray,’ he reported on February 7, 1878. A month later he added: ‘Since November last I have not had 3 hours of sleep out of the 24.’
Success increased his self-importance. ‘D.D. had a way of stroking the cat’s fur the wrong way,’ recalled a one-time clerk in the railroad’s office. ‘He used to strut through the building like a bantam rooster, looking neither left nor right.’ The red-haired General annoyed others besides the railroad employees. One morning early arrivals on Montgomery Street found printed posters tacked to walls and telegraph poles adjacent to the company’s executive offices. Crowds gathered before the not too cryptic warning: —
A COLT-(ON) THE WRONG SCENT!
There is a Colt-(on) Montgomery Street, to be seen every day, who needs a wholesome piece of advice. . . . Look out, old SORRALTOP! Neither your PAID HOUNDS nor yourself, will obtain the prey you seek for. There is a BLOOD HOUND on your track you little dream so near, who will have justice, slow but sure. Lawyer, Priest or Doctor, you cannot, shall not escape calumny, and were you in any city but San Francisco, your DAMNABLE LOOKS would hang you. Meddle no more with business not your own, or you will reap a bitter but well-merited punishment, fit for such scoundrels as yourself, for you are known.
The poster aroused amusement, curiosity, and considerable speculation. It was presently forgotten — to be recalled after October 8, 1878. At half-past ten on that evening a carriage appeared before Colton’s Nob Hill house; the General was lifted out, carried across the sidewalk, past the crouched lions of the steps, through the grilled door. Later the carriages of Doctors Lane and Keeney hurried up. Other men appeared: Charles E. Green, Colton’s secretary; his law partner, Harrison; his daughter’s father-in-law, Judge Thornton. Lights on the ground floor and in upstairs rooms remained burning all night.
A startling rumor electrified the offices of morning papers: General Colton had been fatally stabbed. Reporters in hacks climbed the California Street hill. They were refused admittance and information. Hours later a statement was given out: some days before, the General had been injured by a fall from a horse at his Mount Diablo ranch. He was thought to be not seriously hurt. The newspapers printed the statement the following morning; they reprinted it word for word two days later when he died. Rumors persisted that the General had been murdered, but details of the mystery — if it was a mystery — never reached the public.
While Colton’s widow and his younger daughter were hurrying by special train from New York, and his former partners were composing messages of condolence, the public speculated on the General’s rise to prominence and on the heights he might have reached had he not been cut off at the age of forty-seven. Like sentiments were expressed at the funeral, where masses of late autumn flowers cascaded about the altar of Grace Church, and wreaths from Stanford and Huntington were admired. Crocker, the dead man’s closest friend, was in London with his family. ‘I loved Dave Colton,’ he later stated, ‘and when I heard of his death ... I sat down and wept.’
Mrs. Colton was watching from one of her windows the evening of Crocker’s return to Nob Hill. She sent a servant across to ask that he call. Crocker appeared the next morning, and the two shed tears while the dead man’s virtues were recalled. Mrs. Colton had been made sole heir in the will the General had dictated the night before he died. But it was not long before the widow found Crocker’s attitude growing less sympathetic, his visits infrequent.
Ellen Colton — she had been Ellen White, daughter of a Chicago physician — knew little of the General’s business affairs, but she was a woman of energy and intelligence. She familiarized herself with the outlines of a complex situation. From Crocker she received reports that daily grew more disturbing. Men had been at work at the railroad offices. They had uncovered enough to show that the General’s estate was in a deplorable condition. Crocker stated gloomily that the Western Development Company dividend would probably have to be returned. There were also the million-dollar note, soon to fall due, and the prospect of heavy assessments on the Central and Southern Pacific stocks. Besides, the General had incurred obligations for the investment of funds in other railroad enterprises.
That was not all. Irregularities had been found in the General’s accounts. This had been a saddening surprise to all the partners. Crocker added: ‘I would have given $20,000 as quick as a penny to prove Dave Colton innocent.’ Despite all this, Mrs. Colton was told no attempt would be made to freeze her out. The Big Four were willing to carry their expartner’s widow along with them; she was free to remain. To do so it was necessary only that she perform the obviously impossible feat of paying the General’s obligations in full. In that event, the partners assured her, his defalcations (which, it was charged, amounted to $190,000) would be kept secret. There need be no scandal.
Crocker’s visits across Taylor Street grew coldly businesslike, then ceased entirely. ‘When I discovered what kind of a man Colton was,’ he explained, ‘I never went to see Mrs. Colton again. . . . I could not face her.’
Thereafter negotiations were conducted through a third party. One day Crocker sent word that the partners had voted to return their shares of the Western Development Company dividend; Colton’s share must be returned too. ‘You had better do it to-day — before night.’ Mrs. Colton failed to understand the sudden need for haste in restoring the securities. Crocker’s emissary gave two reasons; the period during which claims against the estate might be filed would soon expire; besides, Huntington was about to return east and wished the matter settled before he left. But Huntington, as it proved, remained on the Coast for weeks longer.
S. M. Wilson, one of the railroad’s staff attorneys, had been Colton’s legal aide, and, like Crocker, a close friend. The widow turned to him for advice. His report brought her no comfort. The estate owed the railroad a great deal of money, and the partners demanded a prompt settlement. If she hesitated, the four would file suit, and in that case Colton would be charged with stealing company funds.
To the widow, it had become a question of salvaging something from the wreckage and shielding the General’s reputation. She decided to capitulate. The settlement was signed late in August 1879, ten months after Colton’s death. The securities the General had been at such pains to acquire were turned back. The list included half a million dollars in first-mortgage Southern Pacific bonds, forty thousand shares of Central and Southern Pacific stock, his shares in the Rocky Mountain Coal and Iron Company, ten thousand shares in the railroad-controlled Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company, and of course all the securities obtained in the Western Development Company dividend.
She was required to sign a release for nearly a third of a million dollars due Colton from his one-ninth interest in the Western Development Company. On one lot of bonds, interest of about $6000 was due; it was specified that these be turned back with the coupons unclipped. As a wedding present to his daughter, Colton had presented her with fifty shares of Southern Pacific stock; this too had to be returned. Of all the General’s railroad property his widow was allowed to withhold only two hundred Southern Pacific bonds. These, however, she was not permitted to keep permanently. They were placed in trust; she was allowed to draw the interest on them for ten years, after which the bonds were to revert to the company.
The settlement did not leave the General’s widow penniless, as was later picturesquely claimed by the Big Four’s critics. Colton had made other investments, and these yielded enough to support his widow and younger daughter in more than average comfort. But Ellen Colton believed the terms had been more severe than circumstances warranted; that she had parted with more of the General’s assets than would have been the case had her knowledge of his affairs been more explicit. But the agreement had been signed and its provisions carried out. There the matter rested for many months.
Meantime San Francisco newspapers published the inventory of the Hopkins estate — Uncle Mark had died a few months prior to Colton. With closer interest than most, the General’s widow read the list of Hopkins’s railroad securities and the values placed on them by the impartial court appraisers — values far higher than she had been allowed for identical issues she had turned back to the Big Four.
The information, of course, confirmed her suspicion that she had been defrauded, and she reached a decision to try to have her agreement set aside. Avoiding attorneys with railroad affiliations, her choice felt on J. Frank Smith, one of the few leading members of the local bar not inside the ‘railroad corral.’ Smith shared his client’s belief that she had been cheated. He uncovered the fact that the Western Development Company, represented to her as insolvent at the time of the General’s death, had in fact assets of more than $10,000,000; that Colton’s share of the dividend had been turned back at much less than its market value; and that the embezzlement charges against Colton were unlikely to be sustained. Smith urged the widow to seek an annulment of the agreement and the return of her securities.
From experience Mrs. Colton knew that the surviving members of the Big Four would prove formidable opponents. In fifteen years the railroad had not lost an important case in the California courts. An effort to effect an out-ofcourt settlement failed, and Mrs. Colton thereupon commenced legal action.
The ‘Colton Trial’ proved one of the longest and most sensational in the annals of the state. At the preliminary hearing, the defendants entered a general denial of the charges in the complaint and made a variety of countercharges, including the accusation of embezzlement. On motion of the railroad attorneys, headed by Hall McAllister (brother of New York’s Ward McAllister), the case was removed to the superior court in Sonoma County, a farming community fifty miles north of San Francisco. The trial opened at Santa Rosa in November 1883.
The case remained in the courts nearly eight years. Judge Temple presided over the original trial, which dragged on until October 1885. A stream of witnesses for both sides flowed from San Francisco to the valley town. Tons of company records were shipped north as the financial and political activities of the associates were probed, and details long kept secret became available to an interested public.
As the long trial told on the nerves of the participants, clashes between opposing counsel increased in frequency and virulence. ‘The other side is ugly and nervous,’ McAllister wrote in the summer of 1884. ‘This is a good sign. . . . J. Frank Smith looked to-day like a “damned soul.”’ Exasperation at one of his associates caused the normally urbane McAllister to burst out: ‘What a damned old bore Fullerton is! [Fullerton was also on the railroad’s legal staff.] He has just come into my room (as he does every evening) to prevent me from working by going all through my trunk of papers. I requested him politely to leave, and he has just departed in a furious mood.’
Correspondence between McAllister and Alfred Cohen — the latter was again devoting his talents to the service of the railroad — makes interesting reading. One of Cohen’s duties was to round up San Francisco witnesses and to dispatch them to Santa Rosa as they were needed. There is evidence, however, that he was expected also to arrange for the convenient disappearance of persons who might prove useful to the opposition. In a note from McAllister to Cohen, of July 1884, one reads this cautiously phrased suggestion, the first sentence carefully underscored: ‘I understand that Colonel Gray was going to leave San Francisco, about Wednesday, and to be absent for a week or ten days. If this should be so, the other side could not have him for a witness.’
McAllister’s letters urged Cohen to coach railroad officials thoroughly before sending them north. Neither Crocker nor Stanford was ever an adroit witness; in the past both had caused railroad attorneys bad hours while they were under examination by opposing counsel. McAllister sent Cohen pages of careful instructions as to how Crocker should answer questions expected to be fired at him during cross-examination. On the other hand, the railroad attorney on whose advice Mrs. Colton had made the original settlement proved a witness after McAllister’s heart. ‘Wilson to-day was all that I could desire. He showed just the right amount of non-eagerness and impartiality which makes his evidence tell. . . . Hayes [Judge Hayes was associated with Smith as counsel for the plaintiff] is preparing for a long X-ex. [cross-examination] of Wilson, but I think he can stand it on every point.’
One afternoon Judge Hayes casually submitted a packet of letters, stating that by them he wished to show to what extent Colton had participated in the inner councils of the Big Four. The matter aroused no particular interest, and Hayes selected a letter and proceeded to read it. It proved to be a rambling and gossipy message from Huntington to Colton, written from Washington eight years earlier. In a vein of complete frankness it dealt with the railroad’s control of state politics and of the California delegation in Congress. The letter, and those that followed, proved what Mrs. Colton’s attorneys wished: that the General and Huntington had been on very confidential terms indeed.
This was the first, public notice of the existence of the ‘Colton letters,’ soon to become notorious not only in California but throughout the nation. Their hastily scrawled pages exposed the railroad’s political methods with a thoroughness that a man of Huntington’s caution would have allowed only if he possessed complete confidence in his correspondent. In them the canny New Englander permitted himself the luxury of speaking his mind. He and the railroad were to pay well for the privilege. Three years later, while Huntington was testifying before the Pacific Railroad Commission, the incriminating letters were read into the record, and he was questioned in detail as to the meaning of various passages. The old man bore the ordeal for half a day, then burst out: ‘If I had known that this particular correspondence was to have gone into the national archives to go down to future generations, I would have tried to have it full in every way.’
Hayes’s reading of the letters brought vigorous objection from the railroad’s attorneys, who foresaw that matters more important than Mrs. Colton’s fourmillion-dollar suit were involved. Judge Temple ruled they were pertinent evidence, and plaintiff’s counsel jubilantly read the entire six hundred into the record. From them the public learned not only the extent of the railroad’s control over legislation, but the by no means subtle methods by which that control was maintained. In his closely scrawled pages Huntington named scores of officeholders in California and at Washington who were taking orders from Colton and himself. He revealed the railroad’s policy of promoting deserving politicians and summarily retiring to private life those who failed to ‘keep in line.’ The cost of getting a bill through a state legislature or through Congress was discussed as frankly as the establishment of a railroad tariff or the price of steel rails.
Opposing newspapers of course seized the opportunity. The San Francisco Chronicle devoted solid pages of eightpoint type to their publication, and others — notably the New York World — gave them almost as much space. Huntington’s graphic picture of the railroad’s control of legislation proved the real beginning of a fight to drive the corporation out of politics, a feat that was not accomplished, however, until a generation later.
To-day the letters, and Colton’s replies, are important chiefly because they present one of the few available portraits of the two men in informal moods, when they felt safe to be completely themselves. Huntington’s uniformly begin ‘Friend Colton,’ and with no preliminaries plunge into the business at hand. That stated, they end with equal brusqueness, with 1 Yours truly’ and the scrawled signature: ‘C. P. Huntington.’ When personal matters are mentioned they are passing references to a favorite theme: he is working too hard and overtaxing his strength; he is tired and wishes he could quit.
The letters mainly relate to railroad finance and railroad politics, with the emphasis on the latter. Huntington devoted many pages to bitter condemnation of the California group in Congress. Nothing short of a hundred-per-cent railroad delegation was ever satisfactory or even tolerable to him. Colton could never quite accomplish that, and at each election the opposition managed to put at least one man (usually a representative from San Francisco) into office. The rebel’s appearance at Washington aroused Huntington to exasperated profanity. From experience, he knew that a California delegation that would vote solidly for whatever the railroad wanted was a valuable asset; moreover he recognized that a shrewd politician who could get himself elected on an anti-railroad ticket was in a far better position to bargain profitably than one who had been committed to the railroad policies from the beginning.
This was the situation of John King Luttrell, sent to Congress from San Francisco in 1874, without benefit of railroad backing. Soon after his election Huntington wrote to ‘Friend Colton’: ‘I know he can be persuaded to do what is right in relation to the C. P. and S. P., but some political friend must see him, and not a railroad man, for if any of our men went to see him he would be sure to lie about it and say that money was offered him, but some friend must see him and give him solid reasons why he should help his friends.’ A note a week or two later indicates that Colton had attended to the matter: ‘Yours of the 12th is received and I am glad to learn that you have Luttrell under your charge, but you must be careful not to let him get anything to strike back with, as he is a cuss.’ What follows throws light on why Huntington felt the need of a discreet politician on the Coast: ‘I do not think it safe for Stanford to talk with him on our matters, as it would be just like him to get up in Congress and lie about what Stanford said to him.’
Following the Luttrell references, one finds Huntington writing on December 1, 1874: ‘I will see Luttrell when he comes over and talk with him and maybe he and we can work together, but if we can brush him out it would have a good effect, and then we could, or at least would try to, get better timber to work with.’ The interview could not have been an entire success, for Huntington was presently convinced that better timber was necessary. ‘I notice what you say of Luttrell: he is a wild hog; don’t let him come back to Washington, but as the house is to be largely Democratic and, if he was to be defeated, likely it would be charged to us, hence I should think it would be well to beat him with a Democrat; but I would defeat him anyway and, if he got the nomination, put up another Democrat and run against him, and in that way elect a Republican. Beat him.'
By the following January, however, Luttrell was surprisingly in the good graces of the railroad. In one letter Huntington wrote: ‘I hope Luttrell will be sent back to Congress. I think it. would be a misfortune if he was not.’ And a little later: ‘I hope Luttrell is elected and Piper defeated, as it is generally understood here that our hand is under one and over the other.’ From that time on, William A. Piper replaced Luttrell as Huntington’s favorite aversion. Huntington was then opposing Tom Scott in his attempt to get governmental aid for his Texas Pacific Railroad. That line seriously threatened the Big Four’s monopoly of the Coast traffic, and the partners were rushing their own road to the Gulf in the hope of forestalling this potentially dangerous rival.
Both sides were courting the favors of Washington legislators, and the fact that the new San Francisco Congressman promptly joined forces with Scott infuriated Huntington. He wrote Colton: ‘All the members in the house from California are doing first rate except Piper, and he is a damned hog, anyway you can fix him.’ Again, three months later: ‘Scott got a large number of that drunken, worthless dog Piper’s speeches printed and sent them broadcast over the country. He has flooded Texas with them.’ The wily Scott made capital of the antirailroad newspapers in California, reprinting many of their more violent attacks and distributing them by the thousands, thereby seriously weakening Huntington’s claim that California was solidly behind the Southern Pacific in the fight.
Colton’s failure to win the unanimous support of the local press brought, bitter complaints from Huntington. ‘The Sacramento Union hurts us very much.’ Again, on May 2, 1876: ‘Is it not possible to control the agent for the Associated Press in San Francisco? The matters that hurt the C. P. and S. P. most here are the dispatches that come from S. F.’ In the summer of 1876, Huntington thus evaluated candidates in the coming state election: ‘Wigginton has not always been right, but he is a good fellow and is growing every day. Page is always right, and it would be a misfortune to California not to have him in Congress. Piper is a damned hog and should not come back. It is a shame for a great commercial city like S. F. to send a scavenger like him to Congress once.’ Fortunately for Huntington’s blood pressure, Piper failed of reëlection and his place was taken by a man who more closely approximated the letter writer’s idea of a coöperative legislator.
When the Colton letters were published, railroad spokesmen on the Coast made valiant attempts to read harmless meanings into them. Huntington’s concern over the calibre of men sent to Congress from California was, they cheerfully explained, merely the desire of a good citizen to see the most competent men elected. The theory fell short of conviction, for throughout the correspondence Huntington many times stated his opinion of the House and Senate in terms indicating a belief that those bodies were beyond redemption. ‘This Congress,’ he informed Colton early in 1878, ‘is the worst body of men ever gotten together in this country.’ Two months later he was definitely of the same opinion: ‘This Congress is, I think, the worst set of men that have ever been collected together since man was created.’ The subject fascinated him, and five days later he returned to it again: ‘I think in all the world’s history never before was such a wild set of demagogues honored by the name of Congress. . . . We have been hurt some, but some of the worst bills have been defeated, but we cannot stand many such Congresses.’
Introduction of the Colton letters at the Santa Rosa trial caught the railroad forces completely by surprise. It was the opinion in legal circles on the Coast that the plaintiff’s advisers made a blunder in failing to put the letters to more effective use on behalf of their client. Huntington, of course, assumed that Colton had destroyed the letters; he had given instructions that this be done. That his orders were not carried out is another indication of the General’s astuteness; obviously he had not preserved the letters for sentimental reasons, and he therefore must have foreseen that they might be useful in the future. It was claimed that, had the fact that they still existed been revealed to Huntington in advance of the trial, the latter would have made any reasonable out-ofcourt settlement to get possession of them.
With their admission as evidence, however, the damage was done, and their only effect was to cause the Huntington group to contest the suit with greater vigor. The trial continued through 1884 and most of 1885, while its cost mounted to over $100,000 for each side. Judge Temple’s decision, when it was eventually handed down, proved an almost complete victory for the defendants. Colton’s name was cleared of embezzlement charges, but the plea for an annulment of the agreement was denied. The court held that the widow had entered into it with full knowledge of its terms, that the contract was sound and must be upheld. Mrs. Colton appealed to the state supreme court. After further long delays a second trial followed. The decision, rendered in January 1890, sustained the Santa Rosa judge. No further action was taken.
The long contest was an expensive one to General Colton s widow, but in the end it proved more so to the victors. Even journals friendly to the railroad and enjoying subsidies from the corporation did not claim that the HuntingtonStanford group had emerged with credit to themselves. Shrewdness, ability to drive a close bargain, to press an advantage, were qualities still highly regarded among California business men, who acknowledged no more coveted distinction than to be known as a ‘smart trader.’ But the application of such principles to the widow of a former partner proved distasteful even to those who were not sentimentalists. The victory cost Huntington and Stanford and Crocker far more in loss of respect than they gained in dollars.
Moreover, Huntington’s messages to ‘Friend Colton’ focused attention on a situation that, even in the free and easy '80s, the public resented. The Big Four’s political methods had been known long before the letters came to light, but it required their publication to dramatize the situation. Huntington’s discussion of the cost, of votes in the same terms, and often in the same letters, as the cost of other railroad necessities first caused thousands to reflect on the possibility that the picturesque captains of industry who were building up the country would bear closer watching.
Huntington was not allowed to forget Colton’s packet of letters; at each subsequent session of Congress they were regularly brought forth to hamper or defeat his most cherished projects. Because of them, correspondents of hostile newspapers watched his every move when he came to Washington. By the middle ’90s he had become a symbol of predatory wealth bent on the corruption of the public’s servants. Congressmen, fearing the effect on their constituents should they be seen talking with him, dodged down Washington alleys at the old man’s approach. Finally, nearly a quarter of a century after they were written, the Colton letters contributed largely to the defeat of Huntington’s ‘funding bill,’ by which he had hoped to postpone for many years payment of both principal and interest on the original subsidy bonds — a piece of bad luck that cost the railroad and its owners many millions of dollars. To that extent the sheriff of Siskiyou had his revenge.
A more sophisticated age scarcely understands the extent to which the sentimental ’60s romanticized the iron horse. Railroads represented more than mere transportation. The names of the little seventeen-ton locomotives first used on the Central Pacific were for years household words throughout California, and their comparative speed and power became the subject of countless debates among loafers congregated before frame stations at train time. Not small boys alone, but half the male population would have chosen to occupy the engineer’s shelf of the ‘C. P. Huntington’ rather than the Governor’s chair. In the fall of 1866, the ‘Grizzly Bear,’ coasting one afternoon toward Dutch Flat, hit a cow and turned on its side. Crowds gathered from miles around to view the spectacle, and a Sacramento journalist wrote of the mighty cheer that arose when the engine was again on the rails. A speaker at a banquet celebrating the completion of the road assured his listeners that the accomplishment ‘completed the work of Columbus’; and in 1868 Henry George, not yet engrossed in Progress and Poverty, wrote that ‘it will be the means of converting a wilderness into a populous empire in less time than many of the cathedrals of Europe were building.’
Catalogues of the songs of the period regularly repeat the familiar theme, and success awaited any play during the ’60s and ’70s that introduced a locomotive into its third act or contrived to have its heroine throw the switch and save the night express. As renowned a bard as Joaquin Miller wrote: ‘There is more poetry in the rush of a single railroad train across the continent than in all the gory story of burning Troy.’ When Bret Harte, in 1868, became editor of a new Western magazine, the device he chose for that speculative venture included, of course, the universal symbol of progress. Harte was already looking back to the period he was to exploit, with varying success, for thirty-five years, and the Overland’s trade-mark included not only a railroad track but a California grizzly, head down, legs braced against the ties, disputing the mechanical invasion of his realm.
Years before the road was finished, the wonders of George Pullman’s new palaces on wheels filled the imagination of Californians, who impatiently awaited the day when shining Pullmans might be seen on their side of the Sierra. The new cars were worth waiting for. It was the boast of the ex-cabinetmaker who built them that as much money and taste were expended in their decoration as in that of a rich man’s parlor.
The millionaire of the period who found himself inside one of them might in truth have imagined himself at home. Scrollwork and gilt, in intricate patterns, velvet upholstery embellished with braid and tassels, carpets with huge floral designs in raw primary colors — these were obviously not for the poor. Yet thousands of impecunious Westerners cheerfully paid extra fees that they might see at first hand how luxury had been so combined with ingenuity that drawingroom, dining room, and sleeping quarters had all been compressed within the walls of a forty-foot coach.
Although the covered wagon was far from extinct, a crossing of the plains in one of Pullman’s Golden Palace cars offered a contrast that impressed even the unimaginative. For one seeking a dramatic illustration of what his age had accomplished, an early guidebook advised a passage on the Overland out of Omaha. Let the passenger choose a warm day when the doors of all the coaches were open, and take his place on the platform of the last car. ‘On either side are the prairies, abode of the buffalo, where the eye sees naught but desolation . . . then, looking back through the long aisle, or avenue, one gazes on the supreme achievement of our civilization.’
But it was a civilization often thickly coated with dust, and luxury was not synonymous with comfort. An August crossing of the plains, at twenty-two miles an hour, over an uncommonly rough roadbed and through scenery unsurpassed in monotony, was an experience few repeated from choice. To some extent the Pullmans minimized the discomfort, for their innovations were not confined to opulent furnishings, potted ferns and rubber plants, organs and hymnbooks, and towering wood-stoves. Mechanically, George Pullman’s masterpiece was a vast improvement on the ordinary passenger coach of the period. Double, rattle-proof windows were already in use in the early ’70s; more important, the cars were equipped with springs resilient enough to absorb part of the jolt and sway that made early railroad travel an ordeal.
In general, the discomforts of the cross-country trip were borne with fortitude by pioneer passengers, who looked on them as a small price to pay for the privilege of passing from ocean to ocean in eight days, a journey never before possible in twice the time. The opening of the line in 1869 made the transcontinental tour the world’s premier novelty in travel. During the first year of its operation European steamers plied the Atlantic with empty cabins while thousands overcame their fear of starvation, derailment, and wild Indians to set out courageously for the West Coast.
Gathering at Council Bluffs over the three lines then operating west from Chicago, crowds of adventurers were ferried across the Missouri to the fifteenyear-old metropolis of Omaha, eastern terminus of the Union Pacific. There they milled about the long station platform, checked baggage, and purchased Pullman tickets, while beset by peddlers of fruit, food, and remedies for car sickness, solicitors of accident insurance (at disturbingly high rates), newsboys, runners for hotels farther along the line, salesmen offering lucrative investments in business property, farmlands, and mines. Passengers forced their way through the bedlam to the waiting train, — often six hundred feet long, — found the car and seats assigned them, and sank down exhausted. There they thrilled with anticipation as the engineer applied the steam to the cylinders and released long blasts from the whistle. A series of rattling crashes ran down the train as couplings tightened and cars jerked into motion.
Almost at once the train entered the uninhabited prairie, and the adventurers were free to examine the flat landscape, to admire the trappings of the Pullmans, or, in the words of Williams’ Guide, merely to ‘sit and read, play . . . games and indulge in social conversation and glee.’ Narratives of early travelers throw no light on the natare of the latter recreation, but all refer to the conversation, if only to state that it must be conducted at the top of one’s voice to be audible above the clatter of the moving train.
To the socially correct, cross-country travel presented a variety of problems, not least, of which was the question of what, to wear. The following is the recommendation of one authority for a passage, in summer, between Omaha and San Francisco: First day, light spring suit ; second day, for the approach to the Rockies, winter suit; third day, for Salt Lake and the Nevada desert, summer suit, (gentlemen should retain their coats); for the ascent of the Sierra, the winter suit again, with the addition of ‘all your underclothing’; the mountains behind, the summer suit for the passage down the Sacramento Valley; and, at the approach to the bay, a final change to winter garments, to which were added, as the passenger stepped on the ferry, his overcoat and scarf.
During moments when the sartorially correct passenger was not shifting from suit to suit, he was at liberty to consider the problem of whether he or his female companion should occupy the seat next to the window. Most authorities agreed that she should he installed in the aisle seat, even though that subjected her to inconvenience from unsteady pedestrians and gave her a less than perfect view of the scenery. But on the other hand was the fact that the transcontinental line passed through an imperfectly civilized land, and Indians and Chinese were known to assume undignified postures beside the track in full view of scandalized passengers. Seated next to the window, the watchful escort in such emergencies had but to lean forward to shut off his lady’s view.
Three stops a day were made for meals, for overland trains did not regularly have diners until the late ’70s. Long before towns were reached, passengers crowded on the steps and platforms, the less encumbered swinging to the ground while the ears were still in motion and leading a headlong dash toward the eating houses. These frame structures were filled with long tables, laden wilh thick crockery and steaming platters of food. The trains remained twenty minutes, the meals were table d’hôte, and the price, whether for breakfast, dinner, or supper, was uniformly a dollar greenback or, in California and Nevada, seventy-five cents in silver. Food was always abundant, substantial, and could be hastily consumed.
Station eating houses were operated by private individuals under contract. Certain stops became known for their specialties. Those who had been over the line advised travelers to be on the lookout for Laramie’s beefsteaks, for antelope cuts at Sidney, for mountain trout at Evanston (where the westbound travelers first encountered Chinese cooks and waiters), for Green River’s biscuits, and at Grand Island for ‘lots of everything.’ Eating places were sometimes eight hours apart when the trains were on schedule — and they were often late. Guidebooks urged that travelers provide themselves with ‘a little lunch-basket nicely stowed with sweet and substantial bits of food’ as insurance against too prolonged fasts.
Trains maintained an average speed of a little more than twenty miles an hour. From the velvet-hung windows of the Pullmans a scenery-conscious generation found even the prairies fascinating; the sunsets were highly spoken of by all. In summer the horizon might be reddened by the glow of a prairie fire. Amateur hunters kept watch for the still numerous herds of antelope. The animals soon grew accustomed to the trains, hardly bothering to glance up as they rattled past. Word that there were deer ahead was passed down the coaches, windows were thrown up, pistols were drawn from rear pockets and under-arm holsters, and soon a rattle of gunfire ran down the length of the train.
Diversions were few; bored passengers regarded an endless expanse of plain, broken at twoor three-hour intervals by a water tank and a cluster of sod houses — 4 like islands in mid-ocean’ — at which the train stopped briefly for water and fuel. At points where the railroad chanced to parallel one of the old stage routes, a dusty string of freight wagons might be met and passed, or a covered emigrant wagon crawling westward over rutted roads. In the plush seats of the Pullmans, passengers stared as long as the vehicles remained in sight, reflecting upon the rocket-like progress of their age.
When nightfall blackened the windows, and the suspended kerosene lamps spread a yellow glow over the interiors, passengers were thrown on their own resources, and a more pronounced social atmosphere pervaded the cars. Those musically inclined clustered about the cabinet organ, — a feature of the early through trains, — song-books were distributed, and the notes of 4Oh, Susanna’ or of popular hymns rose above the clank of the rails, the rattle of windows, and the eerie blasts of the locomotive’s whistle.
Meantime porters accomplished the ingenious conversion of the seats into comfortable, if not completely private, sleeping quarters. There were always a few who regarded the procedure with apprehension. The American sleeping car was then under suspicion that it might be a menace to morals. Sermons were preached advocating separate cars for males and females. Innumerable conversations weighed the question of whether it was moral for strangers of opposite sexes to occupy couches separated by only a foot or two of space and a pair of denim curtains. The companies Look counter-measures, arguing that sleeping cars were as safe as the Christian homes of their patrons. Moreover, train officials patrolled the curtain-lined corridors to thwart any breach of decorum.
Despite these precautions, thousands of Americans resolved never to go to bed on a railroad train. Others lay awake until dawn, the ladies removing only their hats and gloves, and keeping footlong hatpins close at hand. On this long journey, however, even the strong-willed could hardly remain continuously awake through a ninety-hour journey. As the second evening approached, fatigue persuaded even the faint-hearted to adopt a rational point of view. For, in the language of the guidebooks, ‘a restful night’s sleep is the only wise preparation for the enjoyment of the wonders of the morrow.’
During the early months the novelty made traffic brisk. Before long, however, the journey lost its flavor of adventure, and the number of through passengers fell far below the anticipation. One through passenger train daily was then ample to accommodate the traffic. As late as 1879 this consisted of a combination mail and baggage car, one day coach, and an ancient sleeper. Even these accommodations seemed excessive to the reporting traveler, for he was the solitary through passenger, and for much of the journey the only passenger of any kind.
The discomforts of the journey undoubtedly caused many to continue to patronize the Panama steamers. But a more important reason was that a French engineer had completed another large construction job on the other side of the globe. The Suez Canal was opened, and colonials of half the nations of Europe found steamer routes between the Orient and their home countries shortened by more than two weeks. This effectually ended a hope to which the railroad owners had clung since Judah’s day: that a heavy commerce between Europe and the Far East would flow over their line.
Reluctantly the Big Four were forced to give up their expectation of a large passenger traffic during the early years; this would come only by the slow process of increasing Pacific Coast, population. Early travelers saw evidences that the company was making persistent efforts to hasten that growth. Those in the Pullmans caught fleeting glimpses of the interiors of other passenger coaches, far less ornate than their own. These were the emigrant cars, in which less affluent citizens and hordes of settlers newly arrived from every country of Europe were moving out to populate the railroad’s lands from Omaha to the Pacific.
A vivid picture of life in an emigrant train was preserved by a thin Scot who on an afternoon late in 1879 stood in a group on the station platform at Omaha. As his name was shouted, Robert Louis Stevenson hurried toward the middle of the three dilapidated coaches at the end of a freight train. He found himself in a long narrow box filled with hard benches, a wood-stove at one end, a watercloset at the other, and a row of feeble lamps suspended from the ceiling.
The official who had checked the group on board divided the men into pairs, unconditionally guaranteeing the honesty and sociability of each. Stevenson was rejected on the ground of probable dishonesty by one hairy Yankee, then successfully teamed with an ex-sailor from Pennsylvania. When each man had been provided with a traveling companion, the company representative offered each pair at a bargain price ‘the raw materials of a bed’ — a board cut to fit the space between the facing benches, and three bags leanly stuffed with straw. The travelers were expected to provide their own blankets. Price of the outfit was $2.50. Before the train left, — and long after Stevenson and his sailor bed mate had paid over their cash, — the offering price fell to $1.50. A few stations beyond Omaha, peddlers besieged the cars offering identical outfits for forty-five cents.
Domestic arrangements of the emigrants were ingenious. Passengers pooled their resources to buy not only beds but toilet articles, cooking utensils, and food. Stevenson invested in a tin washbasin, his bedmate in a towel; a third member was admitted to the syndicate upon purchase of a cake of soap. The railroad company supplied the water and fuel for the stove, in which, before the sun rose, a fire was crackling. Coffeepots bubbled on its top, bread was toasted, and eggs broken into sizzling frying pans. Soon the rising sun revealed the passengers crowded about their bed boards, converted into breakfast tables, and an air of optimism and mild gayety pervaded the company. It was, Stevenson recorded, the pleasantest part of the day.
The emigrants had trials not shared by more prosperous tourists. Passengers on the low - fare trains were subjected to petty graft, by trainmen. One account tells of a trip in which passengers had to take up a collection three times a day to bribe the crew to stop at eating stations. If the bribe was not forthcoming, the train stopped only at points where there were no restaurants.
Other forms of extortion ranged from working agreements with gamblers, who set up faro games in the coaches, to the admission of peddlers of fake jewelry, furs, and mining stocks. Thieves preyed on passengers’ property while the latter slept or ate. Victims naïve enough to complain at headquarters at the end of the journey received nothing more substantial than the promise of an ‘immediate investigation’ from an incredulous clerk. Some effort was made to clean up the situation, but abuses continued for years. Leland Stanford, testifying before the Pacific Railroad Commission at San Francisco in the middle ’80s, denied that he had ever received a share of the profits of professional gamblers operating on the trains.
During the first years of Central Pacific operation, running time between Omaha and Sacramento was four and a halfdays. The daily through train left Omaha at noon and arrived the next morning at Cheyenne. The attractions of the second day included the approach to the Rockies. Toward noon a stop was made at Sherman. The little wooden station bore a placard giving its elevation as 8000 feet — ‘highest railroad station in the world.’ Passengers descended to inhale the cold light air that blew constantly through the pass, and to regard the bleak mountain scenery. The rest, of the day the train wound through the mountains, crossed the elevated Laramie plains, and passed on toward the Utah line.
Utah roused the heightened interest of tourists, few of whom failed to make the detour, over the forty-mile Utah Central road, to the City of the Saints. There they inspected the domed tabernacle, familiarized themselves with the exterior of Brigham Young’s disappointingly modest‘mansion,’ and speculated on the marital status of every woman they encountered on the shady, well-kept streets.
Those who saw Brigham Young found the portly, seventy-year-old President of the Saints a disappointment. His appearance was that of a prosperous but harassed business man, hardly the ogre of legend who divided his time between plotting insurrections against the Republic and his duties to his multiple wives.
Fears of Mormons that the opening of the transcontinental line might mean the doom of their religion proved groundless. Brigham Young’s remark that ‘a religion that can’t stand a railroad is n’t worth its salt’ (a common commodity there) was recalled with admiration. The completed line opened new markets for the fruits and grains of the valley, brought in settlers (many of whom became converts), provided funds for world-wide missionary efforts, and drew a lucrative tourist trade. As Young had shrewdly foreseen, the coming of the railroad prolonged the life of Mormonism.
During early operation the junction of the two lines remained at Promontory. There west-bound passengers bade farewell to the Pullmans, for the Central Pacific had not yet agreed to use the new-fangled cars. Until termini were moved to Ogden, the bleak village of Promontory prospered, for there through passengers waited while mail and baggage were transferred. The process never occupied less than an hour; when one or another of the trains was late, the delay extended to half a day. The surroundings were desolate, and bored passengers had to look to the town for means of passing the time.
In the early months of 1870 a young Englishman named Rae became Promontory’s unwilling guest during the twohour wait between trains and strolled down its street to study the inhabitants at their work and play. He was struck by a certain incongruity between the street signs and the structures they advertised. A board shanty bore the name Pacific Hotel, a weather-beaten tent that of the Club House, and the false front of an unpainted frame hut, in large sunbleached letters, the Continental House. Toward the lower end of the street, the Englishman’s curiosity was doubly attracted by a line of tiny cottages, crowded close together, their doors opening directly on the board sidewalk. These bore no signs; moreover, their windows presented the novelty of‘neatly arranged muslin curtains.’ But closer inspection revealed that the doorway of the first framed ‘three smiling females,’ and the tourist hurried back past a huddle of saloons to the town’s leading gambling hall.
Rae spent the rest of his stay on the edge of a crowd about a circular table, regarding the operation of a game that looked ‘as simple as thimblerig’ and that bore an odd name: three-card monte. In fifteen minutes he saw a fellow passenger part with every penny in his pockets and learned that the operators sometimes gave their victims a fivedollar gold piece to tide them over until they reached the Coast, and that the profits of a monte table often reached £300 a day. The Englishman picked his way back to his car, convinced that Promontory harbored as unsavory a nest of assassins as he was likely to encounter.
Early travelers were usually disappointed in the Central Pacific’s Silver Palace cars, which were inferior in appointment sand comfort to the Pullmans. Their name was conceded to be the best thing about them, for they lacked not only the extremes of ornamentation that distinguished the Pullmans, but also the latter’s mechanical excellences, including good springs.
Passengers were less comfortable on the run west from Promontory for still another reason. The country traversed the first day out from Ogden was barren and desolate. In summer, heat and alkali dust reduced whole trainloads of travelers to misery. Sweltering in their plush seats, they faced the alternative of keeping doors and windows closed and enduring semi-asphyxiation, or opening them to the clouds of alkali dust that swirled up from the unballasted roadbed — chemically impregnated particles that irritated the throat and lungs ‘as keenly as the steel-dust which cuts short the lives of Sheffield needle-grinders.’ One August afternoon east of Elko a group of passengers were not. comforted when an optimist remarked that with congenial companions and sufficient water to keep the roadbed sprinkled the passage could be made tolerable. The reply was repeated by travelers for years: ‘With plenty of water and good company, hell would not be a bad place to pass through.’
Despite discomforts, the crossing of what was still called the Great American Desert did not lack interest. By the ’70s, Nevada had succeeded California as the bonanza state. Few of the early tourists crossed the Nevada line without giving thought to the possibility of a lucrative speculation. Those who wished to try their luck never lacked an opportunity. If they descended ;it. any one of half a dozen parched villages between the Nevada line and Reno they were confronted by a cluster of shed-like structures, all announcing themselves the headquarters of mining enterprises and bearing names connoting a high degree of solvency. Earnest individuals drew passengers aside and poured into their ears tales of treasure concealed in dry hillsides near by, needing only a few dollars for filing a claim or completing assays before it could be sold for a staggering sum to some waiting ‘syndicate.’
One passenger in 1871 descended at Elko and in less than a quarter of an hour drove what he believed to be the best bargain of his career. He had hardly reached the ground when a stranger approached and offered him. a half interest in the Fork and Spoon Mine for $1000, which he was assured was virtually a gift. ‘In five minutes, this very reasonable asking price had been halved, then quartered. By the time the engine was filled with water, the price had fallen to $50, then to $25. The whistle blew and the train began to move. I stepped from the platform, the philanthropist following, still offering me the certainty of wealth. “Give me ten?” he asked, and I shook my head once more. The train was moving faster. “Hell!” he shouted, now running. “I’m tired of mining. Give me a fiver and the claim’s yours!” In fifteen minutes I had made a clear gain of $995 — no, of $1000, for even his last offer I refused. With a look of entire good nature he let go of the rail, waved his hand in friendly farewell. I had saved $1000 — but had I let ten millions slip through my fingers?’
The compiler of one guidebook warned west-bound passengers that they might save themselves annoyance by forming parties of four to occupy facing seats from Ogden west. As the distance from the Atlantic Coast lengthened, a certain deterioration might be observed in the quality of passengers. Between Omaha and Salt Lake, only those at least partly familiar with the social graces were likely to be encountered in the Pullmans, but in Nevada, anyone, excepting only Indians and Chinese, might take it into his or her head to pay the extra fare and ride in the Silver Palace cars. Without a seatmate of his own selection, the tourist from the East might find himself spending the last dozen hours of his journey in close proximity to some affable but unwashed prospector whose sole traveling equipment consisted of a plug of tobacco and a quart bottle of whiskey. Ladies of unblemished respectability were sometimes forced to share scats with perfumed madams of Virginia City’s brothels.
Elko, about midway between Winnemucca and the Utah line, was in the beginning '70s the liveliest of the desert towns. Through dusty windows passengers regarded the crowds milling about its sandy streets, elbowing into the packed stores and saloons, while scores of freight wagons took on machinery and supplies from the lines of cars on the sidings. There one afternoon a curious tourist saw a crated baby carriage lifted to the top of a six-horse stage and, wandering on, paused to regard a circle of Indians on their haunches in the hot sand, oblivious of the surrounding tumult, while they dealt and redealt a pack of tattered cards, their squaws peering intently over their shoulders.
Farther west the same tourist was privileged to see a resplendent redskin, Winnemucca, ‘the Napoleon of the Piutes.’ Above his bare feet and tattered trousers this Indian patrician wore a military tunic, with huge epaulets, its front encrusted with filth and faded gold braid, the whole surmounted by a feathered headpiece. It was Winnemucca’s custom to meet every train at the town named for him and to stalk up and down the platform, one hand thrust between the buttons of his tunic in the pose that justified his title.
Wrecks were inevitable, for the roadbed was uneven, tracks had been hastily laid, and the iron rails, spiked to widely spaced cross lies, frequently broke. To the experienced traveler, a series of crashes ahead announced that the engine was off the rails; by the time the cars had jolted to a stop he had resigned himself to a half-day wait and the probability of missing a meal or two. Earlier, when one of the engines of California’s first railroads left the rails, it had been necessary only to secure a fence post from the roadside and pry it back on. The heavier locomotives of the Central Pacific required more formal equipment. Among the crew of each train was one man with a knowledge of telegraphy; passengers saw him, iron spikes strapped to his shoes, climb the nearest telegraph pole and send news of the mishap to the nearest division point. After an hour or two the wrecking train appeared, either to lift the engine back on the track or, if it had been rendered hors de combat, to shove it aside for later salvaging and to draw the train to the next station.
In the Sierra, wrecks were likely to be of more consequence. There a derailed engine, instead of ploughing harmlessly into the sagebrush, might careen over a hundred-foot cliff, drawing half the train after it. Not long after the line opened, a cartoon in a San Francisco weekly portrayed a nervous Englishman addressing a fat miner in the seat ahead: ‘I say, my man, would you mind leaning toward the centre on the curves?’ On parts of the road, notably the passage around Cape Horn, the tracks skirted the edge of sheer cliffs, and coaches overhung a thousand-foot chasm.
To those of steady nerves, however, the passage ‘over the hump’ into California was easily the most interesting phase of the journey. When the train, drawn by two laboring engines, began the ascent of the winding Truekee River Canyon, bored tourists awoke to new animation. As the climb continued, they caught glimpses back over the heatblurred Nevada plains. The cars wound upward through forests of pines, plunged abruptly into the snowsheds, — longdim corridors filled with thunderous echoes and smoke from the wood-burning locomotives, — and as abruptly emerged into the brilliant mountain sunshine. Presently faces were pressed to windows for a view of Donner Lake, forest-circled and peaceful, with no hint of its sinister past. The climb continued; a succession of tunnels and snowsheds followed, then a stop near the summit, where engines took on water and passengers stepped into a curious world of chilly sunshine and light, exhilarating air, and, from a height of seven thousand feet, admired a panorama of mountains and canyons, dropping away to the east and west.
If the train was late, the run to Sacramento was seldom reassuring to the timid. At reckless speed, they coasted toward the lowlands, the light coaches swaying round the curves while wheel flanges screamed against the rails, and the friction of the brakes heated the metal shoes until they glowed red-hot in the dark, and passengers sniffed nervously at the smell of charring wood beneath the coaches. Yet accidents were infrequent, even before air brakes and proper signaling devices were installed. Passengers regained their courage after the first score of curves had been successfully passed.
Other disturbing phases of the passage, however, were less quickly forgotten. Except in midsummer months, the task of keeping passengers warm in the Sierra proved beyond the company’s engineers. Later the installation of steam pipes and vestibule cars solved the problem, but neither was available in the ’70s. At each opening of the doors the heat generated by the wood-stoves was swept out as though through a funnel.
After a dozen such icy blasts one winter passenger set his chattering teeth and sketched a device that would have solved the problem. He proposed a long rod, to be suspended from the roof of the coach, bent to a right angle at each end, the angles facing in opposite directions, and the are of each passing over the top of one of the doors. By a half turn of the rod, one door could be opened and the other locked; their simultaneous opening would thus be prevented and the terrors of frigid gusts sweeping through the car would be ended. The drawing was submitted to a skeptical trainman with the request that he turn it over to the company’s engineers at Sacramento. With well-founded pessimism, the philanthropist commented in his diary: ‘My little invention is far too simple to interest them. They will find a hundred specious reasons why it cannot be adopted and future passengers will continue to suffer the same inconvenience.’
Hostile California papers made much of the discomforts and dangers. The failure of the company to operate Pullmans over the line in the early years and the delay in installing safely devices were soundly criticized. Ambrose Bierce for years took pleasure in emphasizing what he called ‘the methods devised by the railroad company to punish the Demon Passenger.’ The following is typical: ‘The Overland arrived at midnight last night, more than nine hours late, and twenty passengers descended from the snow-covered cars. All were frozen and half-starved, but thankful they had escaped with their lives.’ When the Southern Pacific designated some of its trains ‘flyers,’ Bierce quoted figures showing the much superior speed of Eastern trains. To the list of dangers a patron of California railroads faced he added another: ‘the passenger is exposed to the perils of senility.’
Details of wrecks were realistically recorded in the Union and Bulletin and later in the Examiner, despite protests by railroad officials. From the middle ’80s onward, the Examiner’s ridicule of Central and Southern Pacific, trains and the manner of their operation was so damaging that Huntington gave his personal attention to silencing the paper. Nothing could be done, for the young man who owned the Examiner had the backing of a multimillionaire mother.
The Examiner continued to harp on the safety of Atlantic Coast railroads as compared with those in California. By the familiar journalistic strategy of giving slight mishaps an importance normally reserved for major catastrophes, the public was persuaded that a ride in one of the company’s trains was a hazardous experience. ‘Last week in Petaluma,’ stated an Examiner paragraph, ‘a man withdrew to his hay-loft, tied one end of a rope to a rafter and the other about his neck. He then stepped through a trap door. Petaluma is not on the line of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The citizens of towns that enjoy that privilege can commit suicide with far less fuss and bother.’
When Hearst sent Bierce to Washington in the middle ’90s to fight the refunding bill, his attacks on the Southern Pacific first attracted national attention. Heaping ridicule on Huntington and his projects was no new job for the journalist . In California he had been so engaged for two decades, beginning with his editorship of the News-Letter in 1868. On August 4, 1888, he wrote in ‘Prattle’: ‘The worst railroads in America are in the West. The worst railroads on the Pacific Coast are those operated by the Southern Pacific Company. The worst railroad operated by the Southern Pacific Company is the Central Pacific. It owes the government more millions of dollars than Leland Stanford has vanities; it will pay it fewer cents than Collis P. Huntington has virtues. It has always been managed by rapacity tempered by incompetence. Let Leland Stanford remove his dull face from the United States Senate and exert some of his boasted “executive ability” disentangling the complexities in which his frankly brainless subordinates have involved the movements of his trains.’
During the early months after its completion, the Central Pacific had no direct connection with San Francisco, and the transcontinental run ended at Sacramento. Passengers who stepped from the cars before the wooden station at the foot of K Street usually stopped overnight at the capital. Those who chose to continue on to the bay had a choice of two routes. They might transfer to the cars of the California Pacific, which operated a sixty-mile road down the valley to Vallejo, where connection was made twice daily with boats for San Francisco. The more popular alternative was the California Steam Navigation Company, the boats of which were the equals, in size and luxury, of any in the country. After days of travel through a bleak and largely uninhabited country, tourists stepped off the overland train and crossed the levee to the deck of the Yo-Semite with a sense of having returned to civilization at its most luxurious.
Dozens of early travelers exhausted their adjectives to describe the wonders of the Yo-Semite. The saloon was likened to the baronial hall of an English country seat, its furnishings to the most elegant drawing-rooms. Dining room and staterooms were cool and spacious, and at night, with hundreds of deck and cabin lamps lighted, the pampered traveler must have looked back without regret to his passage of the Nevada desert only a few hours before.
One fact, however, marred the informed passenger’s pleasure in the river boats: their saloons were commonly more satisfactory than their engines, the boilers inferior to the berths. The first twenty years of steam navigation on the Sacramento presented a disconcerting record of founderings, wrecks, and explosions, with a list of victims mounting into the hundreds. But, having survived the perils of the desert and of the Sierra crossing, overland passengers risked the hazards of the trip down the river for the opportunity it gave them for rest and relaxation. Even after the Central Pacific’s trains reached Oakland, in 1870, experienced travelers preferred to descend at Sacramento and to spend a few restful hours on one of the river steamers before facing the noise and confusion of the Coast’s metropolis.
Such were the trials and rewards of the overland trip when transcontinental railroads were new. Nearly seven decades have passed. If these tourists of 1869 were to repeat the journey to-day, who can guess what their sensations might be?
Of course they would recognize the route itself; it is not much changed — Judah and the other pioneer engineers saw to that. The thousand-mile run from Omaha to Ogden is across the identical prairies, but our travelers of the '60s might wonder at the farmhouses and tilled fields that have transformed their wilderness, and they would surely fail to associate dozens of thriving towns with the bleak way stations of memory. From Ogden west, the rails more frequently leave the old route. After E. H. Harriman assumed control of the road in 1901, he spent millions building the Lucin Causeway across Salt Lake and eliminating scores of snake-like curves in the desert section, and so shortened the distance from Ogden to Reno by nearly fifty miles.
Judah’s old route across the Sierra needed few alterations when, soon after the new century began, the line was double-tracked to take care of the heavy tradio he had long ago predicted. To-day, as in 1869, trains follow the same winding grades through the pine forests, round the same high granite spurs, pass beneath the same miles of snowsheds. Here much remains as it was envisaged by the engineer in the '50s; the Sierra crossing is still Judah’s monument.
Passengers of 1869 would not fail to recognize the route if they were to pass over it in one of to-day’s trains — but what, one might ask, would they think of the train? Progress here might prove too much for their imaginations to grasp; there was so little about the toy-like locomotives and coaches of the early years to suggest the swift and symmetrical streamliners of to-day. The journey from Omaha to Sacramento then required three days. Modem travelers cover the distance in less than twentyeight hours, gliding over tracks miraculously freed of rattle and jolt and sway, in cars that defeat the elements by the ingenious devices of air conditioning. Radio has displaced the cabinet organ, steam and electricity the wood-stove and kerosene lamp, diners and bars and coffee shops the station eating houses, and the sleek luxury of lounge and club and observation cars suggests but faintly their kinship to the ornate little Pullmans of long ago.