When Abraham Lincoln came to Washington in March of 1861 for his inauguration as President of these United States, there was immediately much speculation on what was the most important item on his agenda. It was not the emancipation of the slaves as so many believed at the time, but the secession of the states from the Union. This was his prime priority nothing was allowed to swerve him from this issue. But in saying this, we are not implying that he did not have other projects in mind. The Emancipation Proclamation of the slaves had to be shelved for a more propitious time. From his inauguration day on, it seemed that everything that could go wrong went wrong.
The standing army of the United States was so small that they could not have put out a brush fire. The navy’s few ships in service had a job far beyond their capabilities. The militia had to be called up, the nation must be geared to war, finances must be arranged, factories and shipyards must be enlarged and put on a war footing to supply an army and a navy.
Upon his back was laid the burden of incompetent generals and defeat after defeat except out in the Mississippi Valley there were encouraging signs that several of the generals, there, knew their job. He removed generals only to find that the new man was no better than his predecessor was. From first Bull Run to the peninsular debacle, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Antietam and Chancellorsville, the soldiers in the ranks never refused a charge. On the other hand, the officers in command, all graduates of West Point, acted as if they never read the Plebe Manual’s first commandment “Know thy enemy”.
Then Lee moved on Gettysburg and for three days the battle was in doubt. It could be the end or the beginning. If Lee won, the South might have received a negotiated peace. If Lee was defeated, it could be the end with Lee’s retreat blocked by the Rapidan River. Meade, however, always the first mate but never the Captain, allowed Lee to get the remnants of his army back to safety when a regiment could have marked finis to the Southern Army of Virginia.
On this very same day, July 4, 1863, Grant took Vicksburg and opened the Mississippi to New Orleans, then immediately sent his troops on to Chattanooga. Lincoln knew then, that he had the man who could finish Lee.
Of course, there was always the political situation staring him in the eye. He was dependent on a group of governors of the various states for meeting the state quotas of troops to keep the national armies at strength. Many of these governors were from political parties different from his own and acted accordingly. Politics never die; they are with us always. Congress was as irascible as ever, and lastly, he had the sycophants and the job seekers by the hundreds to listen to and send on their way.
Nevertheless, even as he was reforging the band holding the North and the South together, his mind was looking ahead to another band, which had to be forged from east to west. More simply stated, sending goods and communications east and west with a shorter time span or there would be another split of the Union. More than half the land between the Mississippi and the Rockies was uninhabited except for wild animals and even wilder Indians.
In 1860, if you thought about the western part of the United States at all, it was with little tidbits of information regarding the gales off Cape Horn, or the heat, humidity, insects and diseases of Panama, or the killing travel over the plains with ever watchful Indians waiting for you to make a mistake so they could stampede thousands of buffalo over you or raid your camp at night. The “Gold Rush”was over.
In 1862, Lincoln started to lay the groundwork and by 1864 Congress had passed a bill, ultimately signed into law, initiating two Companies to build a railroad from Iowa to San Francisco. The Union Pacific was to start at Council Bluffs and work westward while the Central Pacific started in Sacramento and worked eastward. Somewhere in this vast 1800 miles, they would meet. Congress stipulated the meeting point when they started to approach each other.
The Government could not help since every penny they could borrow had to be used to fight the Civil War. They could not excuse men to do the work since enlistments had dried up and the Government had to resort to drafting eligible men. The only thing they did have was thousands upon thousands of acres of unused soil that they would be lucky to sell at two cents an acre without transportation. So Lincoln figured out that by giving it to the railroads in alternate acres with the Government, starting from the railroad right of way, the resulting increase in value of this land would assist in the financing.
Now, to turn back the pages of history for a moment, when the railroads made their entrance on stage they were an instant hit in the North due to its industrialization. At first railroads sprang up between towns usually 30 to 40 miles away. For economic reasons, these bits and pieces, separate at first, merged and remerged until they became huge long distance lines. By the time of the Civil War, the New York Central, the Pennsylvania, and the Baltimore and Ohio were the largest survivors and were well established
The South took another course. At first railroads were used only to bring cotton and tobacco to the nearest point of a navigable stream or river. There barges ran the product to the seaport where foreign ships would pick it up. Their economy was based on overseas ships picking up the cotton and tobacco at deep-water harbors. What railroads they had were built as cheaply as possible with small track widths, wooden rails covered with a piece of iron strapping, and lighter rolling stock. Trains were forbidden to enter towns for fear that hot ashes would start fires. Goods and passengers coming into town were stopped on the outskirts of the town and drays and carriages were used to transfer passengers and goods to the other side of town for continuation of their trip. By the Civil War, very little had been done to improve and upgrade railway traffic and equipment. During the civil war, the South was to rue this lack of progress. It was a major reason for their defeat. By war’s end, there was very little rolling stock left and tracks were completely worn out.
Now back to our story. Congress had no money, so they offered a government bond for every forty miles of rails laid by the builders. The bonds varied in sum from $4,000 to $50,000 per mile commensurate with the degree of difficulty encountered. The builders could then sell the bonds to the people. Surprisingly, the people bought all of them as fast as they were issued. However, few would buy the stock or bonds of the railroads because they thought the road would not be completed. Who could blame them?
Since the public would buy neither the stock nor bonds of the companies, the heads of the two companies put their own personal fortunes on the line. From there they had to do some shady financial arrangements with dummy corporations. The government bonds would not be forthcoming until they had built 40 miles of track. So financing was the first order of business. How the financing was arranged did not come out until later. Suffice to say that very few came out of this mess with full pockets except for the Government who didn’t put up a penny, but did give away some acres of (what was then) valueless land.
With financing covered, the builders had to place orders for steel rails, wooden ties, fish plates and nuts and bolts to keep the rails together, spikes, rolling stock, shovels, ballast for the tracks, and wheel barrows. While the transportation to the railhead was bad for the Union Pacific, it was worse for the Central Pacific, because all the raw material had to sail around Cape Horn and then back to San Francisco.
Next, surveyors were sent out to find a way over the prairies, the ravines and water crossings; how bridges must be built with grading not to exceed the ability of locomotives to negotiate them, all 1800 miles of it. Through it all, guns were always within reach to dissuade Indians and wild animals. When there was no way around a large mountain, they had the choice of carving a ledge or tunneling.
Three thousand Irish immigrants were hired by the UP to start westward. Thousands more would be brought in and put to work. In California 3,000 Chinese were imported to start the work eastward. When the CP started to drive tunnels through hard granite, there were more than 10,000 employed. All this had to be done before the first shovel full of dirt was removed. The problems kept coming up; when one was solved, two others would be waiting to be solved. The only reason that the worst fears of the public were not realized was the absolute dedication of both owners and workers.
After the surveyors moved on, the workers had to level every high spot and fill all depressions by shovel, pick and wheel barrow. When the grading was finished the tie layers placed 8 ties to a rail, spacing them as they laid them. Behind them were the tracklayers, 6 men to a rail, who dropped the rail on the ties and bolted it to the previously laid track. Any curves in the track had to be made by hand. Then came the track aligners who measured the 4 foot 8 and ½ inch width between tracks and confirmed that the tracks followed the surveyor’s line, followed by the spikers who finished the job by driving spikes into the ties. Finally, ballast handlers filled in between the ties.
A few miles back, other crews were doing the same thing with spur lines where one train could wait for a passing train going the other way. Round houses to turn an engine around, water towers to replenish water in the engine boilers, waterproof buildings for storage of wood and coal for the engines, all were built. And all of it done by manpower, not machines, at four to six miles per day, in all kinds of weather except for the dead of winter.
On the other side of the Rockies where the CP was working east, the problems were even worse. Two mountains with no possibilities of skirting had to be tunneled. Holes for the black powder explosive used had to be hacked out of solid granite manually using hand chisels. High-powered dynamite and electric drills had not yet been invented. While no records exist or were kept concerning casualties among the workers historians have been quoted as saying that, “Every tie laid could be used for a gravestone for those who died on this 1800 mile trek.”
Lincoln had set the two railroads to compete against each other and since it was impossible to predict the progress of each, he left it to Congress to determine where the rails would meet. Congress promptly proceeded to mess this up and when it did wake up the two roads had overlapped by 100 miles. Congress refused to grant the builders bonds for this overlap although the issuance would not have cost the government a cent.
In the ensuing 30 years, which was the life span of the bonds that the Government had given the railroads, the Government received every cent of the interest and face value of these bonds. It collected $64 million for the face value of the bonds and also collected $104 million in interest. These figures do not include the value of land that was opened up and the alternate acres the Government reserved and sold at very large prices, for which, without the railroad, it had no takers at even two cents an acre.
When the railroad was completed on May 10, 1869 and the two trains met at Promontory Point, a golden spike was used to proclaim that the United States was now one. Travel from New York to San Francisco, which cost $1,000 dollars and took from three to six months to accomplish was now down to $100 dollars and five days. But by far, the largest good from this grand endeavor came from the settlement of millions of immigrants in these wasted and forgotten areas which are today our nation’s breadbasket.
What happened to the workers? The opening of the transcontinental line spawned other smaller feeder lines and then the building of the huge Southern Pacific railroad. The workers became so dedicated to the railroads that they became as like a family. As long as they could work for a railroad, they did. For many, this love of railroading lasted through four generations. It is interesting to note that in 1920 four of the six Presidents of the largest railroads had begun their careers as track workers or train hands.
Unfortunately, the man who designed this dream and had promised to be its first passenger could not be there. He had been assassinated. However, his dream had become a reality; that this nation would never again be divided. It would stand before the nations of the world united. ‘THE BANDS OF STEEL” had been established for all time North to South and East to West. Abraham Lincoln could now rest easy in his grave. His beloved union had been saved.
Our references for this article include Stephen Ambrose’s new book entitled, NOTHING LIKE IT IN THE WORLD. Mr. Ambrose, a historian of considerable merit, is best known for his histories of the men of World War II in Citizen Soldier and D Day. The second of our references was Agnes Laut’s ROMANCE OF THE RAILS, an old book but one of our favorites...and so to bed.
Ye Olde Editor
© 2004 All rights reserved.