Sunday, January 17, 2021

Centennials: The Transcontinental Railway and the Monday Evening Club

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). Photo by Andrew J. Russell.

Delivered to the Club in November, 1969 by Roger Linscott, at the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Club

The year 1869 was notable for at least two historic evens — the driving of a golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, to complete the first transcontinental railway system across the United States, and the establishment, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, of the Monday Evening Club. Contemplating these two great happenings — the one so freighted with significance for the development of the American West, the other so freighted with significance for, if not the nation, at least that small part of it which gathered here tonight — it occurred to me the other day how delightful it would be if one could find some common link to bind them together and thus fashion the basis for a centennial paper to fit the title which Joe Nugent [Club secretary] had fed to his hungry printing press a week earlier. A common bond between Promontory Point and Pittsfield seemed highly unlikely; but in desperation one tries anything, so off I went to the Lenox Library Saturday to find out what its archives might be able to provide.

The quest — to my happy surprise — proved fruitful. It developed that a leading, if somewhat accidental, figure in the dramatic ceremonies that marked the meeting of East and West at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, was the Reverend Dr. John Todd, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Pittsfield. And Dr. Todd, I discovered from a parenthetical sentence in a letter which he wrote to a friend shortly after his return from that historic occasion, was a charter member of the Monday Evening Club.

But more about Dr. Todd later. First let us look at the background of the events that earned Dr. Todd of the Monday Evening Club his footnote in history. For they were dramatic events, and historically momentous ones. Indeed, May 10, 1869, is a commonly described by historians as the most significant single date in the record of the American West.

In 1860, the vast region between the Mississippi Valley and California — a region comprising almost half the total area of the United States — was, for the most part, a howling wilderness, occupied mainly by some 300,000 untamed Indians and of millions of buffalo. Thirty years later all this was changed. The Indians had been systematically decimated and subjugated; the enormous buffalo herds had been wiped out; the frontier was gone, and a solid band of rapidly growing states stretched across the continent. It was the transcontinental railroad system, more than any other development, which brought this astonishing transformation about.

Ever since the 1830s, men had dreamed of constructing a railroad that would span the continent. Two visionaries in particular — Asa Whitney, the New York merchant, in the 1840s, and Josiah Perham, a rich Bostonian in the 1850s — exhausted their fortunes in efforts to secure federal legislation and financial backing for the scheme. What blocked every attempt during this period was North-South rivalry. The Southerners wanted a route that would start west from New Orleans or Memphis, linking California to slave states. The Northerners wanted a route to start west from St. Louis or Chicago. It was the Civil War that finally gave Washington the opportunity to end the argument, and a convincing excuse for financing so daring an undertaking. The secession of the South eliminated from Congress the legislators who had held out for a Southern route at the same time that it made imperative the establishment of a communication link that would keep California loyal to the Union. In 1862, Congress passed and President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Bill, incorporating two railroads — the Union Pacific, which was to build west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the Central Pacific, which was to build east from California until the two should meet. More to the point, Congress gave the two companies a right of way across the public domain, all the timber, stone and earth needed for the undertaking, twenty sections of land with every mile of road constructed — that came to a total of 24 million acres — and, in addition, a credit ranging from sixteen to 48 thousand dollars per mile, depending upon the nature of the terrain. And the bonds were to be guaranteed by the federal government.

Enticed by these liberal terms, the promoters who undertook the actual building of the Union Pacific were not idealistic visionaries like Whitney and Perham. Rather, they were hard-headed promoters interested in profits and unhandicapped by patriotism. Chief among them were two men, both figures of great force but somewhat easy virtue. One was Oakes Ames, a wealthy Massachusetts congressman and a manufacturer of shovels (it was commonly said that an Ames shovel “was legal tender in every part of the Mississippi Valley.”) The other was Thomas Durant, and up-and-coming New York financier. (And here, incidentally, we run into another Berkshire angle; for Durant was born and brought up in Lee, Massachusetts, where the Durant family still thrives today.) In any event, it was Durant’s ingenious idea to purchase a controlling interest in a Pennsylvania corporation known as Credit Mobilier of America, a title borrowed from a banking institution in France. The stock of his Credit Mobilier was split up between the directors of the Union Pacific, which Durant served as vice-president, and Credit Mobilier was then made the construction agent for the railroad. In other words, the directors of the Union Pacific proceeded to contract with themselves to build the railroad, and at a price calculated to exhaust the Union Pacific’s resources. Altogether, the cash or equivalent amounted to $75 million. With this setup, there was no urge whatsoever for economy in the construction of the Union Pacific. From the day it was born, the double-jointed money-making machine worked perfectly. As the tracks of the Union Pacific pushed onward across the Great Plains, the Credit Mobilier collected the enormous bounty granted to the line from the public purse and domain. Mile upon mile, the railroad was systematically stripped of its cash, which reappeared almost simultaneously as dividends for the happy stockholders of Credit Mobilier. It was, as Congressman Oakes told his colleagues in the House, “a diamond mine.” To stave off investigation — which finally took place some years later after the damage had been done — the officers of Credit Mobilier distributed free stock to key senators and congressmen and even to Schuyler Colfax, then vice president of the United States.

That was the story on the Eastern end of the deal. In California, the men who organized and ran the Central Pacific followed a course that was equally larcenous but a bit more discreet. By acquiring a controlling interest in the Central Pacific before its huge potential was fully comprehended by bigger financiers, four Sacramento merchants of no great means — Collins Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins (not to be confused with the William College president of the same name) got in on the ground floor. They proved to be a remarkably shrewd and effective team; so much so that they all came out of it millionaires many times over. One reason was that they set up their own version of Credit Mobilier — an outfit called the Contract & Finance Company — and made a contract with themselves to build the Central Pacific Railroad. A congressional committee subsequently estimated that the construction company was paid $121 million for $58 million worth of work; but this is uncertain because the Central Pacific’s books happily disappeared in a fire of mysterious origin just as the investigation was getting underway. At any rate, Stanford put aside enough so that, among other benefactions, he was able to give $30 million for the establishment of the university that now bears his name. Huntington left an estate of $75 millions. And Hopkins, though he died relatively young before the Central Pacific had come to full flower, was able to leave his widow well enough fixed to supplement her Nob Hill mansion with a $2 million summer home in the center of Great Barrington — so called Searles Mansion on Main Street which is now owned by the Home Insurance Company of New York. [Since the mid-1980s it has housed the John Dewey Academy.]

Because of the opportunity to make such vast fortunes from construction before any track was open to the public, the promoters on both sides of the transcontinental railroad pushed the work at a furious pace, each seeking to lay as many miles of track as possible before the two lines met. A herculean task confronted them. Some 1700 miles of track had to be laid through a wilderness of prairie, mountain and desert inhabited only by hostile Indians. On the Union Pacific side, the actual construction was directed by General Grenville Dodge, one of the greatest engineers of his day, with a labor force made up of Irish workers and veterans from the Union and Confederate armies who were quick to exchange picks for rifles when Indians appeared. There was no real base of supplies. All material had to be brought up the Missouri River, which was open for navigation only a few months in the year, or hauled in wagons across the plains. Even the railroad ties had to be brought from great distances, as the only timber available along most of the right of way was cottonwood, which was unsuitable for this purpose. For Durant, who was given virtually dictatorial powers by the Union Pacific Board of Directors, speed became an obsession. He spent most of his time on the line and said that sometime he did not remove his clothes for a week. At times, in its haste, the railroad borrowed money in the East at rates as high as 18 or 19 per cent. And in pushing the line far beyond the bounds of civilization without waiting for at the slower pace of the settler and the security which his protection afforded, it often became necessary for half the total number of workmen to stand guard and thus reduce the working capacity of the construction force — notwithstanding which, hundreds were killed by Indians.

On the western side, the engineering faced problems by the Central Pacific were even more formidable. There were no roads over the Sierras, so thousands of tons of equipment, including massive locomotives, were hauled in giant sleds over the snowdrifts. Food, powder, supplies of all kinds, followed the same perilous route. Roadways had to be blasted out of cliffs and bridges thrown over gorges; in the space of 60 miles, fifteen tunnels were bored through the mountains. When snow threatened to halt all construction, the ingenious engineers built 37 miles of snow sheds, and under these the work went on.

The cost of material and transportation was appalling. Congress had specified that the track must be laid with American-made rails. This forced the builders to place their orders in northern factories which, during the early years of construction, were swamped with requisitions for war material, and to ship the finished products in vessels which were compelled to run a rigid blockade maintained by Confederate cruisers. Eight to ten months were required for these runs to San Francisco Bay via Cape Horn, and at one time the Central Pacific had 50 ships chartered just for this purpose. Freight charges and marine insurance rates rose to fantastic figures. But Huntington, operating out of New York as the Central Pacific’s procurement agent, kept the supplies moving at top speed to his partners in California, despite every effort by telegraph, steamship, stage and express companies to obstruct the building of the road.

Initially, labor was the biggest problem of all, since few workmen felt disposed to shovel dirt for the Central Pacific when gold could be had for far less tedious digging along the streams of California. In desperation, Charles Crocker, the partner in charge of construction, suggested Chinese labor, only to be told that building a railroad was a he-man’s job, not a task for light-weight rice-eaters. “Well,” said Crocker, “those same rice-eaters built the Great Wall of China. I guess they can dig grades for an American railroad.”

His guess was accurate. An initial crew of 50 Chinese recruited in Sand Francisco performed so well that 2,000 more were enlisted in short order; and when the possibilities of San Francisco’s Chinatown were exhausted, Crocker began importing from across the Pacific until he had an army of 10,000 Orientals at work.

On both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, at each stage of the progress, a movable town was erected, pleasantly dubbed by the workmen “Hell on Wheels,” where an army of cooks, sutlers, harpies and gamblers assembled to serve, entertain and fleece the brawny sons of toil. Typical of these instant communities was Benton, Nebraska, which sprang into being 700 miles west of Omaha when the Union Pacific reached that point in August of 1868. A new city of tents blossomed almost overnight into a metropolis of vice. A daily newspaper, five dance halls, and 23 saloons began going at top speed. The heart of the city was “The Big Tent,” a canvas-covered emporium that specialized in liquor and games of chance. Brass bands, operating on day and night shifts, lured cash customers to faro, roulette, poker and monte tables that were available at all hours and at any stakes. A garish mahogany and plate-glass bar, 100 feet long and specially imported from St. Louis, occupied the position of honor across the middle of the tent; and since the street in front was merely a bed of alkali dust a foot deep, the half-strangled customers who fought their way through the white clouds into this delectable oasis proved highly profitable customers. The local aristocracy ranged from bordello proprietors and frock-coated professional gamblers to the Union Pacific laborers who shoveled shallow graves for the victims of the strenuous night life. Benton was, to put it mildly, a lively city; yet its uproar ceased as dramatically as it began. When the Union Pacific reached Wasatch, several hundred miles to the west, and set up a new advance base there, the city called Benton died in a night. Special trains conveyed the surviving citizens to the new instant city, and thick layers of alkali dust blotted out the underground homes of the more peaceful dead they left behind.

The last lap of the race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, staged in the second half of 1868 and the early months of 1869, became an American saga. Daily newspapers carried the score as a front-page feature, telling eastern readers in daily telegraphed reports how many miles of track the Union Pacific had laid in the previous 24 hours. From one to two miles was the average in 1868, but with the end in sight, new records were set. The Union Pacific’s Irishmen performed what seemed an impossible feat by laying six miles of rails in one early spring day of 1869. The Central Pacific’s Chinese saw this achievement and raised it a mile; whereupon the Union Pacific three days later laid seven and one-half miles. At that point, Crocker of Central Pacific came back with the statement that he could lay ten miles of rails in a single working day, and Durant of Union Pacific wagered $10,000 that he could not. The wager was covered, and the appointed day, April 29, Crocker’s Chinese army, trained to the precision of machines by long experience, tackled the job at the stroke of 7 a.m. By 7 p.m., they were 56 feet over the ten-mile requisite, having moved more than four and one-third million pounds of material in less than eleven hours. They had placed 25,800 ties in position and strung 3,520 rails weighing nearly 600 pounds each — not to mention handling more than 7,000 plates, 14,000 bolts and 55,000 spikes, Durant paid his bet, and the feat still stands as a world’s record. [Actually, the record was broken the following year during the construction of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.]

A few days later, the Chinese and Irish vanguards had their historic meeting at Promontory Point. Workmen from both camps laid ties and rails in the open space between the ends of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific lines. They stopped a rail’s length apart, and in the intervening space three more ties were laid: one of polished California laurel, one of silver from Nevada’s fabulous Comstock lode, and one of iron, silver and gold, from Arizona. Two locomotives were brought head to head. An assemblage of dignitaries, who had hurried to the scene from East and West, took their places amid a huge throng of workmen to witness the driving of the last spike — a spike of pure gold contributed by California.

And now the Rev. Dr. Todd of Pittsfield’s First Congregational Church re-enters our story. He was there at Promontory Point that day, rather by chance than by design. An exceptionally able and popular pastor, Dr. Todd had served the First Church well for many years — he was then 68 — and an appreciative congregation had raised the money to present him with a trip to California. Chance placed the minister and his party on the train which eventually became the first to cross the continent; and when the railroad officials learned that there was a clergyman aboard they persuaded him, with little difficulty, to contribute a note of piety to the rather raucous celebration by offering the invocation.

Detail of a larger photo taken during the invocation by Dr. Todd (with full white beard in center of photo). Standing next to him, with the full white sideburns, is Thaddeus Clapp of Pittsfield, who was traveling with Todd on a trip to California. Clapp was also a member of the Monday Evening Club.

There was more than a little irony in this, because Dr. Todd was noted as one of New England’s more impassioned temperance advocates, and the audience he addressed that day was composed largely or brawling construction workers who were notoriously bibulous even by the sodden standards of the Old West. “Later-day representations of the ceremonies at Promontory Point,” writes Lucius Beebe “have come to invest it in motion pictures, pageants and idealized art with a quasi-religious respectability and stateliness of preposterous proportions. Historians of the Cambric-tea school are pleased to depict the completion of the railroad as a symbolic meeting of the East and West in the cause of progress and good works. But the record, both from the photographic evidence and the accounts of what few coherent witnesses were present attest that Promontory Point was a thunderous drunk whose convulsions included almost everyone present and lasted several days. The classic photograph made on a wet place by Colonel Charles R. Savage of Salt Lake City, official photographer of the railroads, does not so much depict the pilots touch head to head as it does what appears to be two section hands in amiable dispute over an outsize bottle. In idealized recreations of the scene, the flagon of red-eye is now and then amazingly changed to a small American flag. When it came time for vice president Durant of the Union Pacific to smite the ceremonial golden spike, such was his state of exhilaration that the ceremonial sledge hammer failed to connect and the job finally had to be accomplished by a less august mechanic. Other photographs show a grateful multiplicity of bottles in evidence, and newspaper correspondents to a man were enthusiastic over the inexhaustible sideboard resources of Central Pacific president Stanford’s private car.

Drunk or sober, however, it was a great event, and recognized as such by a proud nation. When the golden spike was finally driven, the simple word “Done” flashed out over the telegraph instruments at the scene, starting a nation-wide celebration. President Grant received the message in the White House. Chicago staged a parade four miles long. The Old Liberty Bell rang out in Philadelphia. The “Te Deum” was sung in New York’s Trinity Church. San Francisco could not wait for the actual ceremony, but organized 48 hours prematurely a colorful three-day celebration during which every business house in town locked its doors and the saloons on Kearny Street never closed. The awe at the completion of such a fabulous engineering feat proved infectious even overseas. “When I think,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, “how the railroad has been pushed through this unwatered wilderness and haunt of savage tribes…how at each stage of construction, roaring, impromptu cities full of gold and lust and death, sprang up and then died away again; how in these uncouth places pigtailed Chinese pirates worked side by side with border ruffians and broken men from Europe, talking together in mixed dialect, mostly oaths, gambling, drinking, quarreling, and murdering like wolves…and then when I go on to remember that all this epical turmoil was conducted by gentlemen in frock coats and with a view to nothing more extraordinary than a fortune and a subsequent visit to Paris, it seems to me as if this railway were the one typical achievement of the age in which we live…If it be romance, if it be contrast, if it be heroism that we required, what was Troy town to this?”

Now back once more to the Rev. Dr. Todd, to return our story to its starting place. Whether or not his rather puritanical nature was scandalized by the revelry at Promontory Point, we don’t actually know; but we can infer it from the fact that while he lectured and wrote about his experience in California after his return to Pittsfield in the summer of 1869, he seems to have made no mention whatever of his role in celebrating the marriage of East and West. No reference to it can be found in the volume of his letter which was edited by his son and published some years after his death in 1873.

In that volume, however, I find a letter to a fellow clergyman, dated November 29, 1869, which comments on the new chapel at the First Church and then goes on to say: “We have a literary club here, limited to twenty-five, all graduates but one or two. We meet every Monday night; hence its name — the Monday Night Club. It meets at the members houses in turn, with an oyster and coffee entertainment at half-past nine. It does well — that is, the eating does.”

A rather cryptic remark, that last one; but let it pass. No doubt we can feel a bit flattered that his membership in this club seemed to him worthier of mention than his participation in what others might think an even more memorable event of one hundred years ago.


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