Verdoia: Mike let's begin with some context. If we go back to the mid 19th
century and the concept of a transcontinental railroad, what is of singular
importance to the American public?
Johnson: It was a great adventure for people in that time. Railroad engineers were what airline pilots are today and technology was being used to span the continent. This was cutting edge for that time period and it was great excitement.
Verdoia: So this notion of linking the nation, coming out of the ashes of the civil war, this was more than just a link by rail. This was symbolic.
Johnson: Well, this is really what it took to bring the country together from east to west. In an earlier time a country the size of the United States would have been ungovernable and it took the technology of the telegraph and the railroad to bring this country together and unify it.
Verdoia: So we begin this great enterprise of a transcontinental railroad. Obviously something that private enterprise alone could not undertake. How does the federal government enter into this to drive this project forward?
Johnson: Well the beginning of the railroad was a political process. The folks in government knew that if they waited for private enterprise would probably be another generation until the railroad would be built. It was going to take subsidies of both land and money to induce private builders to get this done.
Verdoia: So we are talking about an extraordinarily extensive undertaking for its time.
Johnson: Oh my goodness, yes. It is millions and millions of dollars and thousands and thousands of people to build it.
Verdoia: The Union Pacific started from the position of relative geographic, geological comfort of the Great Plains and was able to build out across relatively flat train. The Central Pacific starts out with almost immediately the arduous task of battling the Sierras, and getting their way through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By 1868 it seems like the roles are almost reversed because the Union Pacific now finds itself confronting the mountain range the Central Pacific finds itself confronting the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Johnson: They were both racing to try and control the traffic and trade of the Salt Lake Basin and so it was imperative for each company to try and build into and beyond Salt Lake to control that trade. Unfortunately for Union Pacific at that particular time they had this file to come through, the Weber and Echo Canyons which required tunneling and heavy grading. Some of the most difficult work on their route, meanwhile Central pacific had their easier part. They were coming apart the Humboldt Valley and the rolling deserts in Northern Utah. And so they actually were able to build about a mile of track per day while the UP was in some of its heaviest work.
Verdoia: You talk about being able to build a mile of track a day, can you tell a contemporary body of you know if you were talking to that classroom of school children what it was like to try to build a railroad back then? The sheer enormity of the construction effort, the hard work.
Johnson: Oh, well I think that it is almost as if we were building pyramids in the modern age. But we have to remember back in the 1860's there was very little power equipment. Just about the entire railroad had to be built with picks and shovels. The rock had to be blasted through with black powder sometimes nitro glycerin. The earth had to be shoveled a shovel full at a time and the one horse dump carts and moved out over the grade and so it literally took a multitude, a huge host to build a railroad almost 2000 miles long almost entirely with picks and shovels.
Verdoia: Maybe at this point it is important for you to draw the distinction because virtually all of the representation of the construction of the railroad seemed to involve the dropping of rails in place. And the driving of spikes and if that was the sum total of the construction effort was actually putting down the rail lines. But you pointed out to me that that perhaps an over emphasized part of the story of construction.
Johnson: Well that really is the smallest part of building a railroad. That is the part that comes along at the very end. In the time of the transcontinental railroad the men laying the grade were actually 100 to 200 miles beyond the end of track to do the heavy work of the tunneling and the bridging and the shoveling of the earth to construct the grade. So that would all be ready and in place when those track layers got there.
Verdoia: And you talked literally of thousands of people being at work. What were some of the challenges that they might face as they go across almost an untracked American west in some spots?
Johnson: Well, any kind of hand labor like that would be daunting but the supply effort was incredible. Because all of the material for the Union Pacific had to be brought over hundreds of miles of the vast desolate plains and of course to get the material into the hands of the graders you are talking 100 miles or so of wagon train beyond the end of track. For the Central Pacific people all the material, locomotives rolling, stock rails had to come across. The ocean on an ocean voyage of months to get to California before it could then be hauled across the Sierra. And so just the logistics were surely daunting.
Verdoia: Speed and mileage. Every account of the Central Pacific or the Union Pacific makes repeated references to speed of the construction effort and that mileage was a premium. Why were these important?
Johnson: Well it had to do with the government acts that started the railroad. Each company received loans and government lands based on the miles of completed track they laid. And so the railroad it could build more miles of track, but of course reap the benefits of government subsidies and land and money.
Verdoia: So, when it came right down to it they were racing for money, but they were also in a way racing against each other, were they not?
Johnson: Well, when the railroads came close to Utah one of the few settled areas along the line of the railroads was the Salt Lake Valley. It was going to be one of the larger markets and the idea was for a particular railroad to build into and beyond that market so that it could set the rates going either direction. That way if Union Pacific could build out into the Nevada Desert they could freeze their Central Pacific competition out of that very valuable market.
Verdoia: Which, since we started talking about the Salt Lake market, let's talk about the markets most legendary figure at least during that era, Brigham Young. A man whose characterized many ways and attacked by his attitude towards the railroad. As you have studied the man and you studied the original documents what is your sense of the way Brigham Young viewed the coming of the railroad?
Johnson: Brigham Young and the Mormon hierarchy I'm sure viewed the railroad as a mixed blessing. It would bring in much of the problems they saw that came with the outside world, perhaps some of the corruption, the drinking and the gambling and those kinds of evil influences. But it would also make it quite possible to bring new converts to Utah territory at much lower expense, in a much shorter time. It would put Mormon markets in connection with the outside world so that they could export some of the goods that they produced in the territory. And so Brigham Young's challenge was to try and maximize the good the railroad could bring while creating social and economic programs that would mitigate the problems.
Verdoia: Viewed expectations of the rail line he clearly early on believed that the railroad was literally going to come to the capital city of Great Salt Lake City. How did the rail lines approach Brigham on this subject?
Johnson: Both railroad companies in 1868 decided that the preferred route would be around the north end of the Great Salt Lake and bypassing Salt Lake City. I think they left Brigham Young out of the loop as long as possible because they knew that would aggravate him. For Brigham Young it was disconcerting but it wasn't the end of the world. He was upset about it but he knew full well that the benefits of the railroad would still atrue to Salt Lake if he could build a branch line from his capital up to Ogden which he did within a years time of the railroads completion.
Verdoia: You talk about the rail lines being interested and not just in the markets of the Great Basin and Salt Lake Valley but also in the work force that was here and being important to their completion of the project. How did they view being able to take advantage of a Mormon work force?
Johnson: Well they were quite pleased to have a Mormon work force because these were people that were there in place, they were good workers, they were sober, they were industrious. Both railroads courted Brigham Young as a prime contractor and used thousands and thousands of Utahn's to build the railroad across Utah. It was a workforce that was in place, it was good and it was dependable.
Verdoia: You mentioned that both railroads employed these Mormon workers and that brings us to point of literally these workers working past one another. This notion of the transcontinental railroad almost lapping itself in a certain respect. How did that come about?
Johnson: Well it had to do with the government financing. Both railroads were trying to get as much money and land as possible for building track. The other things they were trying to keep their competition out of the Salt Lake Valley. By the time the railroad got to Promontory it was already clear that Union Pacific was going to build into and beyond the Salt Lake Valley. They were hoping to build enough track to stall Central Pacific out in the wilderness so they couldn't get in and get that trade. Central Pacific hoped to get close enough so that Union Pacific couldn't do that and so we have this phenomenon in northern Utah where both companies have their graders far flung out all the way from the mouth of the Weber River over to Wells, Nevada just playing this game of trying to bluff the competition.
Verdoia: And literally they were passing if you will within spitting distance of each other.
Johnson: Oh absolutely, you know one could chuck a rock at the other railroad grade. And I'm sure it was done.
Verdoia: How did this competition play out in areas very close to Promontory which became known as the big bill, big trust. It seems to play out in a very dramatic fashion the competition of competing grade.
Johnson: Well that is interesting because going across the same chasm in the Promontory Mountains, each railroad took a different engineering method of crossing. The Central Pacific arrived on that site earlier and so it had the manpower and the luxury of time to build a massive earthen fill that took three months to build. The Union Pacific arrived later at that chasm not having the time and the resources to build the fill which was the preferred way of crossing the chasm, they did something quick and dirty and they just built a large spindly wooden trestle bridge.
Verdoia: Now, I read accounts and I know you have read accounts of what the trestle was like to transit in a heavily laden rail train. For the average person who might find themselves on the train what kind of an experience must that have been?
Johnson: It would have been absolutely frightening. It was a narrow spindly bridge that was you know a hundred or so feet high, drop down immediately on either side, you would have felt like you were just standing on the side of a cliff as you looked out your car window.
Verdoia: One thing that a person who studies a map and the route of both the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific quickly, any observer quickly comes to understand is that the rail lines closely followed natural water ways. Why was water so important?
Johnson: Locomotives drank voracious amounts of water in the days of steam. Generally the railroad figured they needed to put a water tank about every 18 miles so that the locomotives could replenish themselves. They might go anywhere to 20 to 40 miles without needing a drink, but the water had to be there and it had to be at regular and dependable intervals.
Verdoia: So how did that cause a difficulty when the water wasn't naturally available when they crossed a desert area. What would they have to do?
Johnson: Well, in the early days of the Central Pacific they built a fleet of huge water tanks on flat cars and when coming across the desert each locomotive not only had its own tender full of water, but pulled an entire flat car with a water tank on it to provide sufficient water. It took them months and months to bring the deep drilling equipment out to dig wells so that they would have those dependable water sources along the route.
Verdoia: You have already made reference to the competing companies passing each other in their grading work, but obviously we are nearing a time as we move in the early months of 1869 where these companies have raced far past each other perhaps overlapping by more than 100 miles even 200 miles. When is the line finally drawn, when does the company finally say enough is enough? How does that come about?
Johnson: Well, finally the government decided that there was enough of this foolishness and they brought (Colis P.) Huntington and General (Grenville) Dodge together in Washington DC and putting them in a room together said work it out. And the obvious choice was to divide the two ends of track roughly in two in that midpoint would be the completion point of the two railroads. And that completion point was Promontory Summit there at the crest of the Promontory Mountains.
Verdoia: You appropriately and with emphasis mentioned Promontory Summit. One of the great aspects that we have talked about many myths that endure about the completion of the transcontinental railroad is the notion that it was completed at Promontory Point. How did that ever come about?
Johnson: It is difficult to say because even in 1869 when newspaper reporters were covering the railroad they referred to the site as Promontory Summit, Promontory or wrongly as Promontory Point. And Promontory Point appeared in the New York Times and it seems to rule nicely off the tongue and so that seems to be the name that ended up in all the text books. Even though that is the wrong name.
Verdoia: The crew coming out of the east for the Union Pacific has earned a reputation as being a pretty hard working, hard drinking, hard fighting, carousing group. It seems that they bring their own little entourage right behind them in these construction camps as they move along. Can you tell me about hell on wheels?
Johnson: Well, the first hell on wheels was winter quarters in North Platte, Nebraska where the railroad camped for the winter. There were a lot of people with money and time on their hands and there were merchants and saloon keepers and people who ran gambling dens who were more than willing to liberate that money. And they were tough places. They were probably as tough as any of the seamy parts of the great American cities. Murder was not unknown, robbery was fairly common and these hell on wheels towns moved along with the grading gangs all across the line of the railroad. To a certain extent Utah avoided some of that but not entirely. Corinne was a rough camp and at the very end Promontory turned out to be kind of a rough place.
Verdoia: Let's consider the short-lived town of Promontory. Lets turn the clock back to the first days of May 1869. Central Pacific is getting close to being in place, Union Pacific is very close, everybody knows that this is the designated point. If we were to go out on a morning early in May in 1869, take a look around at the place in Promontory, can you give us an idea of what we might see?
Johnson: The Promontory basin was a beautiful spot with rugged high mountains and kind of a nice place to frame this last great event. Just maybe a couple of tents, growing up the town didn't really spring up until the day of the ceremony. The day before on May 9th it was described as just about a half a dozen tents and rum holes. And there was no water there at the site and in fact there had been no settlement there during the building of the railroad because of that. And so Promontory literally rose up almost overnight before the Golden Spike Ceremony.
Verdoia: Let's discuss the notion of the Golden Spike ceremony. The established date was May 8th and from everything that I understand the Central Pacific was there and ready to complete the venture on May 8th, but the Union Pacific principle players were not. What happened?
Johnson: Well, Leland Stanford and his special excursion train arrived Friday, May 7th at Promontory and to their chagrin when they talked to the Union Pacific telegraph operator they found out the Union Pacific dignitaries were mysteriously detained. They would not be able to arrive until Monday the 10th. Well it turns out the Union Pacific vice president T. C. Durant was traveling to Piedmont, Wyoming to have some negotiations with irate subcontractors. Well, the contractors, subcontractors and workers didn't like the fact that Durant couldn't pay them off so they literally uncoupled his private car, pushed it onto a side track and chained it in place, pulled guns on the conductor and told him to move off down the line that Durant was kidnapped. Well, Durant got on the telegraph and telegraphed both east and west to see if moneys couldn't be sent out there. Eventually the ransom of $80,000 which was just a down payment on what was owed came and Durant wasn't turned loose until Saturday May 8th and he was able to go back to company offices at Echo City then. But they still couldn't get to the ceremony because between Echo City and Ogden there was a bridge at Devil's Gate that was half washed out and workers were furiously trying to shore it up and it wasn't until Sunday afternoon May 9th that they were able. Locomotives couldn't cross they were just able to push cars to roll across that and that is how Durant's private car with the dignitaries got over that gap, was that it was pushed by a locomotive and then rolled across Devil's Gate bridge and was finally picked up by the locomotive 119 that would take it to it's destiny the next day.
Verdoia: Which brings to mind the notion and the nature of the construction. Sometimes the attempt to gain mileage was so feverish was some of the construction slip shod in a desperate bid to get the rail down and log those miles as completed miles for the financial benefits?
Johnson: It was very much a temporary fix when they laid the original railroad. They fully believed that they would have to come along quickly and rebuild it and in fact by the mid 1870's the entire Union Pacific line had been relayed with new ties and new rails. It was a temporary railroad much as the railroad that had been built during the war torn areas of the Civil War. And in fact a lot of the construction and engineering expertise came right out of that US Military railroads effort of the Civil War period. And if you looked at pictures of the Civil War railroads and the Union Pacific the hand hewn ties, the uneven rail beds, it is very much the same.
Verdoia: That brings us to this morning of May 10th 1869. A moment that every American school child learns something about, but which seems to have gotten so wrapped up in shrouds of mystery or mythology that it is hard to really cut through and understand what happened. What was the nature of the event itself, the joining of the two railroads?
Johnson: In truth the actual event it was really ill planned. In fact there was almost no planning at all. This was a media event staged for the rest of the country and the people at Promontory got short shrift. The dignitaries arrived mid morning and General Dodge of the Union Pacific met with the master of ceremonies from California Edgar Mills. And for an hour and a half they tried to work out the program. And shortly before noon at the time the ceremony was supposed to take place it was still a logger head and General Dodge was threatening to hold his own ceremony, a separate ceremony for his railroad. We are not exactly sure what the trouble was but I believe it was an argument over who would actually pound the last spike. That Leland Stanford had turned the first spade full of earth from California and he and the Californians had felt that he should drive the last spike of the railroad. Well, I'm sure General Dodge felt that that didn't give the Union Pacific it's due. And so ultimately the compromise was reached just before the event took place at noon was that each railroad dignitary, Governor Stanford and vice president Durant would have their own iron spike and at a given signal from the telegrapher they would swing simultaneously.
Verdoia: So much is made of the Golden Spike, who drove a Golden Spike on that day?
Johnson: Well, nobody drove a Golden Spike, it would have turned into a squashed little nugget if you drove a Golden Spike. There is this great mythology that was perpetrated at the time and the press and continued by the historians and dignitaries who were there that the Golden Spike was pounded. Well if we read the sources closely we find out that an auger had been used to drill holes in the polished laurel wood tie and so those precious metal spikes were set in predrilled holes. And the last spikes that were actually pounded at the end of the ceremony were common iron spikes.
Verdoia: One of the stories that is told that when Stanford and Durant stepped forward to symbolically actually swing sledges and drive spikes they take up their positions, they swing and why don't you tell us what happened?
Johnson: Well, General Dodge in his reminiscences recalled that both Stanford and Durant missed their first blow at the spike and then they proceeded to tap lightly measured blows. Now one thinks that is rather humorous, you know that these people couldn't hit a railroad spike, but if you have ever used a spike maul, they have narrow little heads, and I venture to say Ken if you and I went out and tried to pound a spike, that we would have a miserable time trying to hit that thing.
Verdoia: So they step forward and as you pointed out to me there was rather a intricate plan set up so that the swinging of the hammer would actually send a signal electronically to the rest of the nation. What were they attempting to do by telegraphy to get the word out?
Johnson: Well, this was the idea of the man who donated the Golden Spike, David Hughes. His idea was that when Stanford struck the hammer it would be wired electrically to the telegraph lines so that that impulse would fire signal cannon all across the world. Well most cities found out that there were too many technical problems to use the cannons, so they wired it up to their alarm bells. Their fire alarm bells. But across the nation there was this telegraphic hook up and the various reporters in cities said there were anywhere from perhaps three to eleven blows.
Verdoia: When the word went out when the telegraph operators sent the word out it was one word. What did he say?
Johnson: Done. D-O-N-E, and that brought great celebration all across the country. In Philadelphia they lined up steam fire engines in front of Independence Hall, they blew the whistles, they rang the bell in the tower. In Chicago they had 50 tugboats lined up on the lakeshore blowing their whistles and a massive procession. In New York there was one-hundred gun salute. You know there was just celebration all across the country. This was an event of national proportion that really, really excited the whole country was unifying the nation east to west. We were conquering the western wilderness, and also it was seen as the way of populating this great vast western country.
Verdoia: There is one person conspicuous in his absence and that is Brigham Young.
Johnson: Many people have speculated that Brigham Young still was upset about the railroad not coming through Salt Lake City. I am not one who subscribes to that. I think Brigham Young was a grown up and had long since gotten over that. But I also think that he felt he might not have been a major player at the ceremony and felt that his duties as President of the Church should take him elsewhere at that moment.
Verdoia: And that this wasn't the event of these people, and it was an event of outsiders, there would be ample enough opportunities for his people in the future?
Johnson: I think so. Brigham Young had an interesting relationship with the outside world. He dealt with the outside world but was very much a part of it. And I think staying away from the Golden Spike ceremony was a way of keeping that distance.
Verdoia: The great event is done. And then what happens? Here we've had this epic event, what happens to the workers, what happens to the railroad? I mean can you give us a sense of what the next chapter is after this, after this spike had been driven?
Johnson: Well, it is almost like waking up with a hangover after a great party because the problems of railroad construction started coming home to roost after the great party of completion. The Union Pacific was in tremendous debt having difficulty paying its bills and its contractors. There was still the wrangling over where the junction point would be and the purchase by Union Pacific of the track. Central Pacific's purchase of the track.
Union Pacific was tremendously cash starved having a difficult time paying off its contractors. Brigham Young the Mormons and others of their contractors they still had to arrange the selling of their trackage to the Central Pacific. That trackage from Promontory to Ogden, Ogden being the final junction point and Huntington knew that UP was cash starved and really forced them into a deal they didn't want to make, but they needed the money. And really there were all these problems. The nation settled down to the difficult task to building a new country in a wilderness and transcontinental railroading.
Verdoia: One thing you talked about when you mention Union Pacific as a company being cash starved and literally being seiged by creditors of every size. Brigham Young, Mormon contractors, but also many, many other people who felt that their contracts were never fulfilled by Union Pacific. Yet there are those people who became incredibly wealthy through their association with the Union Pacific effort. Can you help us understand Credit Mobilier from the standpoint as we said in the other room as trying to describe it to a very young mind?
Johnson: Well the Credit Mobilier was an interesting financial device. A way of making money off of the construction railroad while really milking the parent company dry. The builders of the Union Pacific soon realized that any money that was going to be made would be not on running the completed railroad but on building the railroad. And they formed their own construction company called the Credit Mobilier issued all of the building contracts through the Credit Mobilier and Credit Mobilier vastly overcharged the railroad. And so they got their construction moneys up front leaving the parent company Union Pacific in a virtually bankrupt position. And so Union Pacific went along for decades unable to pay off its debts and Durant, Sidney Dillon, the other builders of the Union Pacific had already reaped huge profits in the 1860's.
Verdoia: This ultimately results in a major congressional investigation does it not?
Johnson: Shortly after the completion even at Promontory just months later the information starts to leak out in dribs and drabs about bribing of congressmen and government officials and the way that the builders of the Union Pacific had taken advantage of their government trust.
Verdoia: In the final days of the construction a record is set by laying more than ten miles in one day of laying track. Again this is something that took place right in the final stage of construction but when you think of the amount of work that went into it and the extraordinary distance towards time it is an incredible accomplishment, is it not?
Johnson: It is a feat in handling of rail that hasn't been matched to this day and everything had to be perfectly choreographed. And the rails had to be set up just so and the ties laid out and everything had to fall into place just so for this event to take place. They scheduled it one day in late April and a locomotive had broken a draw bar and so the whole event had to be called off until things could be set up again. And that day April 28th 1869 was the final day when the stars align and the everything happened the way it should.
Verdoia: Now this is a matter of pride between the two railroads because and official of Union Pacific has said we have set a record that will never be broken at six miles and whatever it was, and the Central Pacific deliberately made sure that the Union Pacific made note of this record that they made.
Johnson: Indeed and in fact it is interesting that Central Pacific waited to set this record when Union Pacific was bogged down in the east slope of the Promontory Mountains and would never have a chance to answer back. And they invited Union Pacific officials out to watch so that they would be sure that there was no hanky panky that the record had indeed been met. And one small crew of Irish track layers were actually the ones that physically picked up all the iron off of the cars and laid it down. It took an army of men hundreds and hundreds of men were part of that track laying to lay out the ties and ballast the track and everything and pound the spikes but it was actually a crew of about a half a dozen Irishmen that physically laid that ten miles of iron that one day.
Verdoia: The Chinese laborers for the Central Pacific Railroad are well-documented for their contribution to the construction. They are highly regarded for the work that they did and the challenging work that they did. And most reports consider them an admirable workforce. But right at the end, just prior to completion of the transcontinental railroad an incident flares in Utah that results what many are describing as a riot even a small-scale war between factions or clans. Can you recall that?
Johnson: Yeah, it is a perfect example of the old adage that idle hands are the devil's playground. It happened immediately after the rails had been laid just about to Promontory and a large Chinese crew was laid up at Camp Victory with little to do. They got into trouble basically over controversies between two clans from the old country. These were factions that had existed in the old country and these various political or cultural factions flared up at Camp Victory. They grabbed shovels, there was just an out and out riot. Men beating each other to death and it finally took the Central Pacific executives, James Strobridge in particular, to wade into the middle with axe handles and pistols and to try and break this thing up and they finally responded to that. It stopped.
Verdoia: From your standpoint all the time that you have spent thinking about this, how does this railroad change this nation?
Johnson: Well the transcontinental railroad can be thought of as a catalyst. Something that vastly speeds up the pace of westward expansion. Just think that coming across the west immigrants moved as fast as a covered wagon would carry them, and suddenly we have a railroad bringing not only people at maybe 30, 40 miles an hour across the west but bringing in the kind of heavy machinery that is needed to develop the country. The mines, the mills the factories, the forests and able to take out those commodities and raw materials that we processed in the east. And so there is this great quantum leap forward in the pace of western expansion. And what is remarkable is the people that built the railroad had no idea that the frontier that they traversed would be filled up in a mere 25 years or so by the early 1890's the frontier is considered to be gone. And it is that first transcontinental railroad that speeds up the practice and makes it happen in such a short period of time.
Verdoia: The Utah Territory even in the 1860's benefits in the eyes of its organizers by a buffered isolation. Arguably less so in 1867 than is experienced 1847. But still to a degree is most isolated settled area in the nation. And that tune was changed because of the railroad. What are the consequences for the Utah Territory?
Johnson: Well for Utah there is a long period of tangling with the outside
world both economically
Verdoia: Obviously when anyone invests their time in a subject they are drawn to that subject for certain reasons can you speak uniquely to that? What has brought you, why do you find this notion of the transcontinental railroad its construction and completion so compelling?
Johnson: I think it is the quintessential American story. You look back at the 19th century, the gilded age. This is so representative of that period. You have you know, technical triumph, you have thousands of men from all walks of life coming together to build this. You have exploitation, you have greed, you have corruption and yet you have great heroism and noble purpose all wrapped up into the same thing. And it is a great accomplishment and one that tells of the American character. I never cease to fascinate in that.
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