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The Railroad Barons of California

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Four men, known collectively as The Associates, were instrumental in building the Central Pacific Railroad. Political chicanery, unabashed greed, and a stone-hearted disregard for the men who did the hard labour characterize the story.

The Associates

Collis P. Huntington was drawn to California by the Gold Rush in 1849. He did the smart thing and, instead of panning for gold, he opened a store that sold supplies to the miners. In 1860, he joined a group proposing to build the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento, across the Sierra Nevada mountain range to meet up with the Union Pacific in Utah.

To secure financial backing from Washington “Huntington sprinkled money around the Capitol. He donated thousands of dollars to campaigns, retained legislators as attorneys, and put lobbyists on the Central Pacific payroll (PBS).”

The government loans that financed the construction made Huntington a very wealthy man, but, when his backroom bribery became known, he was widely vilified.

Collis Potter Huntington.

Collis Potter Huntington.

Leland Stanford was another Gold Rush entrepreneur who made his money selling equipment to miners. A Republican like Huntington, he became Governor of California in 1862; he only served for two years.

He put a lot of money into the Central Pacific Railroad and was its president from 1861 to 1893. As PBS notes “Stanford made no attempt to separate his political office from his private business interests.” To many, Stanford fully qualifies for membership in the “robber baron” club. To capitalists he was a “captain of industry.”

Leland Stanford.

Leland Stanford.

Charles Crocker was yet another man drawn to the California Gold Rush. After trying the hard labour of mining he decided it did not suit him as a way of making a living.

He opened a store in Sacramento and soon fell in with Huntington, Stanford, and other moneyed men. He also blended politics with business and profited mightily from the combination.

PBS tells us “Crocker managed the actual construction of the railroad. He overcame shortages of manpower and money by hiring Chinese immigrants to do much of the back-breaking and dangerous labor. He drove the workers to the point of exhaustion, in the process setting records for laying track and finishing the project seven years ahead of the government’s deadline.”

Charles Crocker.

Charles Crocker.

Mark Hopkins also was an easterner eager to profit from the California Gold Rush. He joined a partnership with Huntington in operating a hardware store. He was known to be tight with money, which made him the perfect choice to be treasurer of the Central Pacific Railroad.

He is said to have been less money-grubbing than the other three Associates, but he died a very rich man (see below).

Mark Hopkins.

Mark Hopkins.

Building the Central Pacific Railroad

Having finagled the financing of the Central Pacific Railroad, the Associates set about the daunting task of actually building the thing.

The company posted job advertisements and only a few hundred people applied. That wasn’t going to get the work done, so Charles Crocker proposed hiring Chinese immigrants. Cocker’s idea did not sit well with his colleagues who harboured deep prejudices against the Chinese who had arrived in large numbers at the start of the Gold Rush.

But, the railroad was boxed in. Most white men did not want the work, which was punishing and dangerous. So, Crocker turned to the Chinese immigrant community for his labourers.

The first, small crew started in January 1864 and eventually swelled to include between 10,000 and 15,000 men. They were treated appallingly.

Chinese labourers shifting fill by hand next to a trestle. The fill would eventually replace the bridge.

Chinese labourers shifting fill by hand next to a trestle. The fill would eventually replace the bridge.

The Chinese Railroad Workers in America Project says “Chinese workers were . . . paid less than their white counterparts, worked longer hours, and had to pay for their food; the Central Pacific and Union Pacific provided white workers food without additional cost.”

Winter working conditions in the mountains were dreadful. Workers endured below-zero temperatures, heavy snowfalls, high winds, and avalanches. One snow slide hit a camp of Chinese labourers, killing at least 20. These were added to the death toll among the workers handling dangerously unstable nitroglycerine-based explosives.

The Central Pacific Railroad did not document accidents and deaths among its workforce, which suggests the company didn’t care much for the welfare of its employees, particularly among the Chinese. Estimates of those killed building the railroad go as high as 1,200, but there is no way of knowing how accurate that might be.

The Summit Tunnel had to be hacked through granite.

The Summit Tunnel had to be hacked through granite.

When the railroad was finished in 1869, the contribution of the Chinese was left out of the accounts. We only have to look at a ceremony in 1969 marking the 100th anniversary of driving in the last spike to see how the vast majority of the workers were ignored.

U.S. Transportation Secretary John Volpe asked “Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid 10 miles of track in 12 hours?”

The answers are that only 10 percent of the people who accomplished those amazing engineering feats were American. The rest of the work was done by Chinese men who were forbidden from becoming citizens at the time.

Bonanzas for the Railroad Barons

While the Chinese workers were alternately sweating, freezing, or dying building the railroad, the Associates were in the counting house counting out the money:

  • Collis P. Huntington died in August 1900 at the age of 78―estimated net worth $35 million to $50 million ($900 million to $1.3 billion in today’s money).
  • Charles Crocker died in 1878 aged 65―estimated net worth $20 and $40 million (between half a billion dollars and one billion dollars in today’s money).
  • Leland Stanford died in 1893, at the age of 69―estimated net worth about $50 million ($1.3 billion in today’s money).
  • Mark Hopkins died in 1878, aged 64―estimated net worth about $20 million to $40 ($500 million to $1 billion in today’s money).

Eventually, all the swindles involving railroad building had to be dealt with. With reluctance, because many members were in on the scams, Congress started to investigate. Collis Potter Huntington was called to give an accounting of the financial structure of the Central Pacific Railroad.

The gentleman, of course, said he would love to be completely open and frank with the committee but somehow the company’s books were accidentally destroyed during an office move. The darndest things happen.

Bonus Factoids

The four Associates were occasionally referred to as the “Big Four,” and sometimes as the “Nabobs,” shortened to “Nobs.” They seemed to like one another’s company because they all built mansions in the same area of San Francisco. The neighbourhood became known as “Nob Hill” and it still carries that name today.

Mark Hopkins's mansion in Nob Hill.

Mark Hopkins's mansion in Nob Hill.

  • Thomas Durant was the man behind the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad that was building from the east to link up with the Central Pacific. Durant set up a company called Crédit Mobilier of America into which the construction profits were shovelled. Shares in Crédit Mobilier were sold to about a dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives, some of whom made big money. The scandal hit the fan in 1873, and some Members of the House were censured.
  • With the transcontinental railroad completed, the coast to coast travel time was cut from months to about a week.

Sources

  • “Collis P. Huntington.” American Experience, PBS, undated.
  • “Leland Stanford.” New Perspectives on the West, PBS, undated.
  • “Charles Crocker.” New Perspectives on the West, PBS, undated.
  • “The Chinese Railroad Workers in America Project.” Stanford University, August 2020.
  • “Forgotten Men at Golden Spike Ceremony.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 12, 1969.
  • “Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen.” Lesley Kennedy, History.com, May 10, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 06, 2021:

It was a treat staying in each of those hotels once.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 06, 2021:

Very interesting article, Rupert. I've never been on the transcontinental railroad, but I think I'd feel the souls of the men who built it as the train travels through each tunnel. Kinda spooky.

I learned a lot from this article, one being how Nob Hill got its name. Shady characters leaving behind a legacy that the privileged few enjoy today.

I feel badly for the men who worked under Crocker's whip. He looks like a mean son of a bitch!

Thanks for the history lesson. Great read, as always.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 05, 2021:

Peggy. I'm sure the service was superb.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 05, 2021:

Besides all living on Nob Hill in San Francisco, there are several hotels that bear the name of several of these men. We have stayed at The Huntington and the Stanford Court.

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