Soon the railroads were passing each other's work crews. . .crossing
each other's survey stakes. . .building competing bridges to cross the
[David Haward Bain]
"And the whole idea seems to be in their minds that whoever got
the final okay for the trackage would get the money. And so it didn't
matter if they graded extraneously, if their survey stakes were within
inches of each other, even if they laid their railroad tracks over the
top of the tracks of the other company."
"At one point they are probably within two hundred feet of us.
From Bear River to the Promontory, we are so close that the U.P. cross
us twice. In other areas their line occasionally runs within a few feet!"-Leland
The nation that had struggled to get the railroad started, now realized
it had not created a mechanism to make the railroad companies stop building.
When they realized that if they didn't come up with a meeting point
themselves, the government was going to pass some really quick and dirty
legislation and make the decision for them.
So they finally met in February of 1869, at the home of Congressman
Samuel Hooper, who had wisely invested in both railroads and in the
construction arm of the Union Pacific. And they finally decided that
they would meet in the Promontory Mountains at Promontory Summit.
But even with the final meeting place set at Promontory Summit, there
was one final act of competitive pride in Utah that the Central Pacific
railroad considered unfinished business.
The Union Pacific had set what it claimed was a world record for laying
track when it spiked eight miles of rail into place on one day.
Union Pacific executives claimed the record demonstrated their line's
superior planning and skill. They dangled a $10,000 bet before the Central
Pacific that the record could not be beaten. On April 28th, 1869 Charlie
Crocker of the Central Pacific dramatically called their bluff.
Indeed, and in fact it is interesting that the Central Pacific waited
to set this record when the Union Pacific was bogged down in the east
slope of the Promontory Mountains and would never have a chance to answer
back. 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 half a dozen
Irishmen that physically laid ten miles of iron that one day.
Thirty-five hundred rails were laid in place. Twenty-eight thousand
spikes were driven by hand. The Irish track layers lifted the equivalent
of 125 tons of steel during the 12 hour day. Charlie Crocker and the
Central Pacific had their record.
"We got our forces together and laid ten miles, 185 feet in one
day, and that did not leave them enough room to beat us! But they couldn't
have done it anyhow-Charles Crocker."
By the first week of may, 1869 the rail lines of the Union Pacific and
Central Pacific were face-to-face on the wind- swept rolling hills of
Promontory summit in Utah. May 8 was set as the date to link the two
lines. And then disaster struck.
[David Haward Bain]
May 8 doesn't happen because they were building bridges through Weber
Canyon so quickly that they really did not pay attention to the fact
that this was springtime.
"The bridges in Weber Canyon are on the rampage. The past few days
sun has sent liquidizing snows in torrents, gathering force and assailing
the most stupendous railroad crossings. The bridge at devil's gate commenced
giving way last night.-The Deseret News, may 5th, 1869."
Not only were they having trouble with the bridge in lower Weber canyon,
but then the vice president of the Union Pacific, Thomas Durant, the
grand puppeteer behind everything, is kidnapped by his own men because
they are two months without pay. And so in the town of Piedmont, Wyoming
his train was all of a sudden put onto a siding, and masked men got
onto the train and hustled him off. And they were told that they would
not get their vice president back until all of their back pay had been
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 8,
and he was able to go back to company offices at Echo City then.
The short-lived kidnapping gave crews enough time to jerry-rig a passage
at the washed out bridge of Devil's Gate in Utah. The Promontory ceremony
was re-set for Monday, May 10th.
One of the most anticipated events in the nation. . .had received virtually
no pre-planning at Promontory.
In truth the actual event 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."
On the morning of May 10th an estimated 1500 people assembled on Promontory
Summit. The vast majority were rail workers, but some local citizens
made their way to the site, joining a military detachment bound for
San Francisco. All gathered under a flag that featured thirty-six stars.
At this moment of moments, Utah's leading citizen and primary railroad
contractor was nowhere to be found.
"Brigham Young had to be thinking about the amount of money that
was owed to his people at that point when they were doing all of the
celebrating, because there were still a lot of bills that hadn't been
paid. I think the reason that he didn't go was a smart one, because
this celebration was not in any local control. And if Young had gone
up there and been snubbed, the way he'd been snubbed by many of the
Union Pacific people over the past months, it would have been very embarrassing
to him politically among his own people."
Brigham Young had turned his back on the ceremony and traveled to settlements
in Southern Utah. By his reckoning the railroad companies owed him over
one million dollars as they gathered at Promontory.
The ceremony had moved to its final stage and a rail spike of pure
gold was presented. But counter to folklore, it was never hammered as
the final spike. Instead, it was slipped into a pre-drilled hole for
show, and quickly pulled out. Officials from the Central Pacific and
Union Pacific swung heavy hammers at a final iron spike. . .and missed.
But it was enough to trigger a one word message from the telegraph operators:
"Done. D-o-n-e. And that brought great celebration all across the
[David Haward Bain]
". . .and then simultaneously a cannon looking over the Pacific
and a cannon looking over the Atlantic boom out the notice to the world.
Tens of thousands of people in Chicago and San Francisco and Sacramento
and Washington and new york and all of the major towns and small towns
erupt into a wild tumult of celebration."
"To his excellency, General U.S. Grant, president of the United
States. Sir: we have the honor to report the pacific railroad is finished.-Leland
Souvenir hunters dropped on the track, prying up dozens of spikes and
splintering the last wooden rail-tie to pieces until it disappeared
into a hundred different hands. The race was over. . .symbolically,
a new race was beginning as many were left scrambling for a piece of
Well its almost like waking up with a hangover after a great party because
the problems of the 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.
In April. . .before the line was completed. . .Brigham Young had dispatched
his son to Boston to confront the Union Pacific board of directors and
demand payment of close to one million dollars.
[Joseph A. Young]
"April 3, 1869 - The affairs of the Union Pacific are in a muddle.
Credit is weak and there is a general apprehension that they will not
meet their obligations. If the money is ever collected from them, it
will be in the next world. Your son, Joseph A. Young"
From his earliest pronouncements from the pulpit, Brigham Young had
staked a personal claim to the railroad work that he said had been divinely
inspired. It was Brigham's contract. His negotiating skills that would
secure the best deal for Mormon workers. It was his plan to keep out
the evil influences, and extract the good.
"He hoped it would bring cash revenues, and the Union Pacific was
notoriously corrupt, resulting in Congressional investigations, and
so the result was that virtually no cash came in terms of what had been
promised and contracted. In some ways the contract almost brought Mormons
to the brink of bankruptcy because the cash flow did not come in as
[David Haward Bain]
"And this was a tremendous shock to Utah, and we find by the summer
of 1869 we find the territory just thrown out onto the barter system
because there was no cash."
Mormon workers had signed IOUs to local businesses for food and clothing.
. .businesses had borrowed money to stay in business. The territorial
economy was failing because of the unpaid railroad work. Brigham Young
attempted to remind the Union Pacific of T.C. Durant's promises.
When you were present you were pleased to make a promise to my sons
Brigham and john w. That if we would keep on a large work force you
would pay what it is worth.
Durant would not respond. Instead, the letters Young received were from
destitute fellow church members who begged for their pay. One--Bernard
Snow--had served as a subcontractor, hiring hundreds of men to work
on the rail line for up to one year.
"July 26, 1869
May God bless them, for they have suffered severely. Most have suffered
sore deprivations. They are exasperated, and deal out threats of violence.
It is of vital importance to me to know what I can depend upon, for
the ruinous interest daily swelling my already too-heavy liabilities
makes financial ruin inevitable. I must ask you. What will be done to
satisfy their claims? They have not been paid one cent!--Bernard Snow."
But for others, the losses were measured in more than money,
[David Haward Bain]
You have the firm of Benson, Farr and West who had agreed to grade between
Humboldt Wells in Nevada, all the way up to the Promontory Mountains.
And basically Chauncey West was the youngest man. He was in his early
forties at that point, and he really took the brunt of the work
And he got himself into some real hot water financially, when people
were asking to be paid and he still had not been paid by the Central
Pacific, he advanced his own money. And so he was virtually ruined by
this whole thing with the railroad.
Brigham Young tried to intervene in west's behalf with Leland Stanford,
reminding Stanford of the promises that had been made during the fierce
final stage of competition.
You promised me that if I telegraphed Bishop West to take charge of
the work and crowd it through, you would see that he was made whole
or indemnified to the full extent. It was no matter what the work cost,
the object was to have the work done!"
Chauncey West, polygamist husband to several wives and father to more
than two dozen children, pursued Stanford in California.
In a San Francisco hotel he dropped dead of a stroke at the age of
forty-three. His partner, LDS church apostle Ezra Taft Benson, died
the same week. In Boston, Brigham's son Joseph made one final head-strong
push on the Union Pacific board of directors, recounting his confrontation
in a letter home to his father:
"I wish to know whether it is the intention of this company to
keep President Young out of three-fourths of a million dollars. If so,
the Union Pacific will swindle the very men who built the railroad.
Remember, the road is out in our country, and I think we can pull hard
enough so you can feel it on the other end!"
"At one point one of the board members threatened Young that he
was going to have the army descend on Utah and take out the LDS command.
And Young replied that he would go to the courts, and he said if its
necessary, then this will be a fight to the knife."
Brigham Young viewed the threat of military intervention as an excuse
for anti-Mormon forces to destroy the Kingdom of God in the American
West. "He put John Sharp. . .a lawyer, Mormon church leader and
railroad contractor. . .in charge of negotiations with the Union Pacific.
Brigham also worked to quell the fears of financial panic in the Utah
territory. He suspended church tithing payments by indebted members.
. .used church food storehouses to feed the hungry. ..and urged his
followers to put cooperation above profit and debt."
"The embarrassment caused me by the failure of the company to pay
me as per contract means the whole business of our territory is suffering
greatly, and our merchants are severely cramped having advanced means
to the graders of the road, who are unable to pay because the company
has not kept their engagements with me."
It soon became clear that a handful of well-connected deal makers had
made millions in building the transcontinental railroad by being on
the inside, skimming profits and walking away when they could. Despite
being one of the earliest investors in the Union Pacific, Brigham Young
had been one of the many left on the outside. So obvious was the economic
slight that another unpaid contractor actually took pity on Young:
In the distribution of immense gains, certain stockholders have been
excluded, among them Brigham Young. It is clear there is an attempt
to defraud Brigham Young."
In Boston, John Sharp was making little progress in getting money out
of the Union Pacific.
"May 5, 1870
I presented a bill for 198-thousand dollars. . .which was met with a
Several U.P. leaders grumbled that Brigham Young was trying to gouge
the company for money he did not deserve. But a deal was cut to allow
Mormon emigrants to ride the rails west, with the fare being credited
against the debt. Brigham Young was also interested in using the Union
Pacific as a primary supplier for his plan to build a railroad from
Salt Lake City to the transcontinental line. Somewhere it was proposed
that the Union Pacific transfer $700,000 worth of rail cars and supplies
to Brigham Young to close out the debt.
[David Haward Bain]
"We know we owe you $1.2 million, but go back to Young and ask
if he'll take $700,000 and we'll just call it quits. And Sharp goes
and he does that, and he comes back all the way back to Boston and says
'Young says that this will work.' "
Brigham Young knew railroad supplies would not pay the men, and would
not settle the i-o-us with local merchants.
"January 28, 1870
I wish to have a meeting of all those of the brethren to whom I am indebted
for work on the Union Pacific railroad, to talk the matter over, relative
to the indebtedness. . ."
Young called the meeting for the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Closed to the
public, the content of the meeting never made the newspapers. Years
later, a rail worker said Brigham confirmed the obvious-the railroad
money was not coming. It was a loss they would all have to endure. .
. Another test of faith. He invoked images of earlier Mormon suffering,
and said this, too, would be overcome.
The scandal of an unpaid Utah debt was lost in a sea of Union Pacific
red ink and Congressional investigations into political corruption surrounding
the railroad. Of more lasting consequence, within months of its completion,
the transcontinental railroad was changing the face of the American
West. Nowhere was the change more profound than in Utah. The population
of the territory more than doubled between 1860 and 1870. Mormon emigrants
could now travel across the plains to their new American Zion in a matter
of days. But in the first year of the rail line, an equal number of
non-Mormons flowed to the Utah territory. They encouraged a mining boom.
. . Started new businesses. . .and populated new rail towns like Corinne.
An attempt to have Corrine and the transcontinental railroad seceded
from Utah and grafted on to Idaho was approved by a Congressional committee,
but ultimately died. Missionaries started appearing in the Utah territory.
Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians. . .all creating school and medical
missions in an effort to convert members of the Mormon church. . .with
little success. Political parties appeared in the territory. The Liberal
Party's platform was simple and direct: it was the non-Mormon party.
Mormons responded with their own "People's Party". . .and
the Utah territory took on a unique brand of two-party politics.
In 1870, the politics became even more unique for the time when the
territorial legislature granted women the right to vote. Some hailed
it an act of enlightened suffrage. Others labeled it a cynical maneuver
by Brigham Young to assure his political control as the Utah population
became more diverse. Both Mormon and non-Mormon would debate if all
this represented progress. In one version, Brigham Young would be portrayed
as politically blind and intransigent. . .steamrolled by shrewder men.
. .leading his people down a path of economic ruin.
In the other version, Young had done all he could. . .protected local
control of the economy. . .and secured the future of Utah by working
to bring the railroad to life. In 1868 Brigham Young had forecast the
railroad would mean prosperity and a golden era of appreciation for
his vision of the Kingdom of God:
"And when the road is finished, our friends can come and see us,
and witness the peace the order the freedom from crime that possesses
our cities of Zion."
But rather than confirmation, the most anticipated event in Utah's short
history would bring change. The isolation that was both shield and challenge
would evaporate in stronger, complicated ties to a nation marching westward.
Expectations were replaced by realities. The ceremony at Promontory
had appeared to be an end. . .in reality, Promontory would prove to
be a beginning.
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