Monday, July 1, 2019

Early Challenges of the Central Pacific Railroad by Zina Abbott

The Central Pacific Railroad was one of the most expensive to build in the world. Its engineers, Montague and Gray, would have been famous all over the world had they constructed a road this difficult in Europe. They had not only to build a road through an almost inaccessible country, but when it was completed they had the additional challenge of running trains over it at all seasons. You will see little of the costly and solid snow sheds, through which you pass mostly by night, and, which are now being roofed with iron; you will not see at all, perhaps, the ponderous snow plows, of various patterns, some to push the snow off on one side, some on the other, down a precipice; others made merely to fling it off the tracks on the plains; and behind which, during the winter, and often ate heavy engines were harnessed to “buck” the snow, and throw it from 2,260 feet away.
                 Charles Nordhoffm, 1882

Following passage of the Pacific Railroad Act, the first shovel full of earth was turned by the Central Pacific on January 8, 1863.

Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad was financed primarily by 30-year, 6% U.S. government bonds authorized by Sec. 5 of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. They were issued at the rate of $16,000 ($265,000 in 2017 dollars) per mile of tracked grade completed west of the designated base of the Sierra Nevada range near Roseville, CA where California state geologist Josiah Whitney had determined were the geologic start of the Sierras' foothills. Sec. 11 of the Act also provided that the issuance of bonds "shall be treble the number per mile" (to $48,000) for tracked grade completed over and within the two mountain ranges (but limited to a total of 300 miles (480 km) at this rate), and "doubled" (to $32,000) per mile of completed grade laid between the two mountain ranges. The U.S. Government Bonds, which constituted a lien upon the railroads and all their fixtures, were repaid in full (and with interest) by the company as and when they became due.

The Central Pacific started with the first thirty-one miles traveling east from Sacramento.

The first locomotive, Governor Stanford, went into service on November 10. It cost $13,688 and was more than ten feet tall and fifty feet long. With a full load of wood and water, it weighed forty-six tons and was the biggest man-made thing in California. The first thirty-one miles of railroad went into operation on June 10, 1864.

The cost of building the first thirty-one miles was nearly $3,000,000, and the Central Pacific soon face serious financial difficulties. Under the terms of the Railroad Act, forty miles of completed road were required before federal bonds could be accessed, and the state of California had not paid what it had pledge. Private funds were exhausted do to inflated prices for equipment and the cost of transporting it to California during wartime. Shipping was especially burdensome, as all of the supplies, ties, and rolling equipment had to be shipped 15,000 miles around Cape Horn from the East Coast, of voyage of eight to ten months. At times thirty ships at once were on the high seas filled with railroad equipment for the Central Pacific.

Using their personal resources, the Big Four purchased and transported enough iron and rolling stock around Cape Horn to build seventy miles of road. Not only did the Big Four in California—Leland Stanford, C. P. Huntington, Charles Walker and mark Hopkins—need to raise money for the railroad, they were required to do so during wartime. Everything—the iron, the spikes, the tools to dig, the powder to blast, the locomotives, the cars, the machinery—had to be shipped from New York around Cape Horn, to make an expensive and hazardous eight months voyage, before it could be landed in San Francisco, From there it needed to be reshipped by river 120 miles to Sacramento. 

Before the rails built to the San Francisco Bay, railroad supplies were shipped up river to Sacramento.

From Charles Nordhoff again:

“And now came the severest test of the courage and endurance of the men at 54 K Street [location of the first office for the CPRR]. Eleven months passed over before they could get the Government bonds for the completed and accepted part of the line; these bonds in the meantime had gone down from one and a half percent, premium in gold, where they stood when the charter was accepted, as low as thirty-nine cents for the dollar. Railroad iron in the same token went up from $50 to $135 per ton. All other materials, locomotives, etc., rose in the same proportion; insurance for the eight or nine months’ voyage around Cape Horn, which every pound of the material of the road bed and running stock had to make, rose from two and a half to ten percent, by reason of the rebel cruisers; freights from $18 to $45 per ton.

“Intent on keeping down the interest account, the five men at 54 K Street asked the State to pay for twenty years the interest on a million and a half of bonds, in exchange for which they gave a valuable granite quarry, guaranteed free transportation of all stone from it for the public buildings of the State, and also free transportation over their line of all state troops, criminals, lunatics, and paupers. This was done. Then Sacramento and some of the counties were asked to exchange their bonds for the stock of the company, and this was done by a popular vote. But most of these contracts had to be enforced afterwards in the courts.
Early headquarters for the CPRR
“Meantime the money was used up. The business was from the first kept rigidly under control; every contract was made terminable at the option of the company; every hand employed was paid off monthly; and in reading over some old contracts I came upon a clause specifically obliging the contractors to keep liquor out of the camps. When Huntington, after long and trying labors in New York, returned to Sacramento, he found the treasure-chest so low that it was necessary to diminish the laboring force, or at once raised more means. “Huntington and Hopkins,” said he, “can, out of their own means, pay five hundred men during a year; how many can each of you keep on the line?” The five men (the fifth was Crocker’s brother) agreed in council at 54 K Street that out of their own private fortunes they would maintain and pay eight hundred men during a year on the road.

“Governor Leland Stanford then persuaded the California legislature to issue state bonds at the rate of $10,000 a mile after the completion of specified amounts of track.”

Many expressed doubts that the financially strapped railroad would never be completed by four inexperienced country merchants who were lacking money, materials, and an adequate workforce. Work never came to a complete stop, but there were days on end when there was not one cent in the company's treasury. It was then that the Central Pacific made an appeal for local bonding. The voters of three counties responded favorably, but it was well into 1865 before bonding was approved. That spring the forty-mile mark was passed, federal bonds were turned into cash, and the CP was ready to battle the Sierra. But the delay in financing had prevented the company from taking advantage of the mild winter of 1864-65.

Donner Summit comparison-difference between mild winter and one not so much
During the winter of 1866-67, the fight to overcome the Sierra began in earnest. All that was known of the region discouraged such a venture. Mountain roads were so steep that covered wagons had to be lowered down by ropes. The grading alone would cost more than $100,000 per mile, and they would need to drill fifteen tunnels through the solid granite: five on the west slope, one at the summit, and nine in the east.

Picks and shovels, wheelbarrows, black powder, and one horse dump carts were what was available for grading at the time. Over one thousand men were sent into the Sierra Nevada with hand axes and saws to harvest the 625,000 feet of lumber that were required daily, and several sawmills were built to process the logs.

Compared with their Eastern counterpart, very different country confronted the builders and operators of the Central Pacific. Even their Terminus on the west coast offered challenges for the new railroad.

Another great shortage the Central Pacific Railroad faced was labor. California, thinly populated, with wages very high at that time, could not supply the force needed since most potential workman already had jobs. Like materials, men had to be obtained from a great distance. Laborers were obtained from New York, and from the lower country. Europe, the usual source of cheap labor from its supply of unemployed Irish, German, and other immigrants, was almost halfway around the world. Instead of turning east to look for their workforce, Charles Crocker, the man in charge of construction, looked to the west. More on that next blog post.

Although it does not involve the Transcontinental Railroad directly, the nearest Transcontinental Railroad rail connection to the locality in the series, The Widows of Wildcat Ridge, is in Evanston, Wyoming. Both of my books in that series, Nissa and  Diantha, are now available on Amazon in both ebook format and print. Please CLICK HERE to access the book description and purchase link for Nissa, and CLICK HERE for Diantha.


The Central Pacific Railroad, by Charles Nordhoff, 1882; (Silverthorne, Colorado: Vista books, 2008), page 11, 29-30
Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009), Pgs. 402-4.


  1. Wow, I had no idea, this is so very interesting! Thank you so very much for sharing this article Zinna! God Bless you for all your research. :)

  2. I thought I knew a lot about the RR coming West but you have provided more info and insight into the costly, laborious struggle. Thank you!


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