Study Guide

Transcontinental Railroad People

  • Theodore Judah

    Theodore Judah (1826–1863) was the father of the Central Pacific Railroad. He'd studied civil engineering and worked as a railroad surveyor while still in his teens. After serving as an engineer on the Sacramento Valley Railroad, Judah became preoccupied with the idea of building the first transcontinental line. His single-minded enthusiasm earned him the nickname "Crazy" Judah, but his constant promotion and exhaustive knowledge brought the project the attention and investment it needed to get off the ground.

    Judah deserves credit for solving several of the biggest problems facing a Pacific railroad. First, he brought in the key investors (the foursome known as the Associates) who would ultimately see the project through as the newly incorporated Central Pacific Railroad (CP). Second, Judah found a feasible route through the Sierra Nevada, cresting the ridge at Donner Pass. With financial backing and a workable route on his side, Judah went to Washington to lobby for government support in the form of the Pacific Railroad Bill, which President Lincoln signed in 1862.

    After these initial victories, Judah faced increasing disappointment. He frequently found himself at odds with the other directors (the Associates) of the CP on issues of construction, finance, and ultimately ethics. In October of 1863, tensions reached such a level that Judah sailed for the East Coast, hoping to find new investors for the project. 

    Shortly thereafter, he fell ill and died on November 2nd, 1863. The Associates were never eager to share credit for the line with Judah. Nonetheless, the Pacific railroad—Judah's brainchild—would undoubtedly have been much longer in coming had it not been for his pioneering work.

  • Grenville Dodge

    Grenville Dodge (1831–1916) was the chief engineer and a driving force behind the Union Pacific Railroad. Dodge had a military background, having achieved the rank of general in the Union Army during the Civil War, and in 1865, he led the U.S. Army's campaign against the Plains Indians. Upon retiring from the army, Dodge was hired by financier Thomas Durant to be the chief engineer of the Union Pacific.

    Dodge brought his military mindset to the building of the rail line and proved to be a fantastically capable engineer, which proved propitious, because the line suffered from Durant's constant meddling and efforts to milk the construction for personal profit. Dodge and Durant remained at odds for the duration of the project, although even Durant probably recognized that his chief engineer was indispensable.

    In 1866, Dodge was elected to Congress, and while spending large amounts of time lobbying in Washington on behalf of the UP, he received criticism for neglecting his engineering duties, his political responsibilities, or both. Nonetheless, politics and railroad work brought Dodge fame and fortune, and unlike most of the Union Pacific's top investors, the ever-resourceful Dodge avoided the public embarrassment of the Crédit Mobilier scandal and investigation.

  • Abraham Lincoln

    Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was the 16th President of the United States and is remembered as the savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator of the slaves. 

    But in this story, Lincoln also figures as an important and very well-placed friend of the transcontinental railroad. An ardent and long-time political champion of the railroad as a means of progress, Lincoln did some of his reputation-building work as a lawyer on behalf of railroads. After his election to the presidency in 1860, Lincoln made his mark on railroad history.

    With the election of Lincoln, the slave South made good on its threat of secession. In addition to precipitating the Civil War, secession brought an end to the political stalemate that had stalled congressional action to support a Pacific railroad. With Southern representatives no longer around to insist that the transcontinental route go through the South, Lincoln was free to sign, in July of 1862, the Pacific Railway Act that put the federal government behind the transcontinental project. Lincoln was also instrumental in bringing Congressman Oakes Ames aboard the Union Pacific, which had important consequences for that line's scandal-plagued future.

    When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the nation lost a great leader, and the transcontinental railroad—still four long years from completion—lost one of its most valuable partisans.

  • Collis P. Huntington

    Collis P. Huntington (1821–1900) was one of the Central Pacific Railroad Company's four investor-cum-directors—the men known as the Associates—and was a remarkably adroit and determined businessman. 

    Huntington came to California in 1849 during the Gold Rush and subsequently became a wealthy man by selling supplies to the prospectors and miners. After hearing Theodore Judah speak on the prospects of Pacific railroad building, Huntington convinced Leland Stanford and fellow Sacramento merchants Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker to join the project, forming the Central Pacific Railroad Company.

    Huntington poured much of his personal wealth as well his lobbyist and fundraiser talents into the endeavor. The transcontinental railroad—and the innumerable side rackets Huntington ran while building it—made the already wealthy investor an even richer man. Although the Central Pacific Associates engaged in a financing scheme much like Thomas Durant's Crédit Mobilier, Huntington's shrewd instincts helped to steer the Central Pacific away from a similarly scandalous fate.

    Outlasting the other Associates, Collis Huntington died in 1900, a railroad, resource, and real estate tycoon.

  • Thomas C. Durant

    Thomas C. Durant (1820–1885) was perhaps the most colorful and least liked of all the men involved in building the transcontinental railroad. Durant had been educated in medicine—and was often called the Doctor or "Doc"—but he made his fortune as a prodigious schemer. 

    His first big score had been smuggling contraband cotton from the Confederacy during the Civil War, but when he became involved in railroad building, Durant hatched a scam of unprecedented proportions.

    Using his investment in the newly incorporated Union Pacific, Durant established himself as the line's vice president and general manager. Then, he secured the Union Pacific's construction contract for the Crédit Mobilier of America, a company controlled by none other than Durant himself. The Doctor then ran up construction costs for the line and awarded himself—and fellow Crédit Mobilier investors—handsome payments while nearly bankrupting the UP.

    The other top men of the Union Pacific probably counted themselves lucky when they managed to force Durant's resignation shortly after the line was complete. As it turned out, he made off with a fortune to scheme another day, and they were left to answer for the Crédit Mobilier scam in 1872, when it became the biggest financial scandal of the century.

  • Leland Stanford

    Leland Stanford (1824–1893) came to California and opened a store during the Gold Rush

    He was successful in business and had a second career in politics, eventually becoming the Governor of California. Fellow Sacramento shopkeeper Collis Huntington brought him on board with the Central Pacific Railroad Company as an investor, and he was named company president in 1863.

    Stanford served as the CP's political liaison and public affairs man. When the line met the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit in 1869, Stanford was to hammer in the final spike as the representative of the CP. Supposedly, he missed the spike and botched his moment in history, but Stanford is better remembered for something other than his involvement with the railroad: he founded Leland Stanford Junior University, known today simply as Stanford.

  • Oakes Ames

    Oakes Ames (1804–1873) was a U.S. congressman, an early investor in the Central Pacific, and a key player in the Union Pacific and Crédit Mobilier stories. Between his political power and the fortune he had made with his brother selling shovels during the Gold Rush, Oakes Ames, the "King of Spades," was in the position to do a lot for the transcontinental railroad. He even had the endorsement of President Lincoln.

    Ames involved himself intimately in the Union Pacific and became an investor and promoter for Crédit Mobilier. After his brother Oliver became the UP president over Thomas Durant and construction began to take off, Oakes Ames and the early Crédit Mobilier investors made a fortune. More and more people in Washington wanted part of the deal, and Ames sold a large amount of Crédit Mobilier stock.

    Ames' dealings brought a lot of money into the railroad and certainly helped the project reach completion, but his involvement ended in ruin. When the huge profits of Crédit Mobilier were made public and compared to the nearly bankrupt books of the railroad, Ames found himself at the center of the 19th century's biggest financial scandal. Although a federal investigation ultimately handed down only congressional censures, Ames' career was over. The King of Spades had become "Hoax" Ames to the public, never to recover.

  • Charles Crocker

    Charles Crocker (1822–1885) came to California by wagon on the overland route. Like the other Central Pacific Associates, he made his money as a merchant during the mining boom and was persuaded by Collis Huntington that the railroad would be the next big investment. 

    Crocker joined the board of the CP, but after Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, he stepped down to become the railroad's chief contractor, founding Charles Crocker & Company without having laid a mile of track in his life.

    Contracting work out to one of their own was a shrewd move for the Associates, and Crocker quickly learned about laying track and managing construction. One of his best and most famous decisions was to bring Chinese laborers to the CP during a labor shortage in 1865. The idea proved a huge success for the company. Crocker is also remembered for winning a $10,000 bet with Durant on whose crews could lay more track in a day. Crocker's Central Pacific men won with a staggering total of ten miles.