Bain exposes railroad myths: Big Four should be Five

December 5, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

This is just the kind of book to dive into over the holidays: a huge, thick book filled with fascinating tidbits of information and portraits of extraordinary people involved in a great national undertaking.

The book is "Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad" (Viking, $34.95, 1999) by David H. Bain.

Bain teaches writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. It took him 14 years to complete "Empire" and while the book is nearly 800 pages long, he did not fall into the trap of including every single piece of research he unearthed.

"I am not an academic but a nonfiction writer," he said in a phone interview from the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco last month while he was on book tour. "My aim was not to show off my research but to tell the story and make it dramatic."

Bain did not have to embellish this story with fictional techniques. All the ingredients are there: the danger of pushing new technology to its limits, the thrill of walking an economic tightrope, cutthroat competition, harsh deadlines, underhanded dealings, and the conquest of an unyielding land. In the 130 years since the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroad lines were linked at Promontory Summit in Utah, history has provided plenty of myths and legends stemming from these events.

One involves the unfair exclusion of a key figure in the Central Pacific partnership.

"We always hear about the Big Four," said Bain. "But really there were five."

The Big Four are Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington. But the fifth man, the man who was largely edged out of his pivotal role in railroad history was Charles Crocker's elder brother, Edwin Bryant Crocker.

It was Judge E.B. Crocker, according to Bain, who held the partnership together when one or more of the four were depressed, worried, fearful or completely suicidal. After all, they had a lot to worry about. No one had attempted an enterprise on this scale before and there was nothing to suggest they would be successful.

"I would have hated to have seen their fingernails," said Bain. "They likely would have been bitten to the quick. They were hanging on the edge of a cliff, financially, for a long time. The arrogance of power and money came later on."

Actually, E.B. Crocker worked so hard on behalf of the railroad that he only enjoyed his wealth for a few short years before his premature death brought about by overwork.

"He was a wonderful man to get to know through his letters," said Bain. "He kept everyone going. Stanford was lazy, Huntington was depressed. Charley (Crocker) was worried. Hopkins was at least well-liked, but never came to the office." It was E.B. Crocker who was always optimistic, always turning his attention to the next task.

But the judge suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1869, shortly after taking part in the public celebration that marked the completion of the railroad. A month after receiving those accolades, as he was busy conducting more detailed and taxing business for the railroad in San Francisco, he was felled by a paralyzing stroke from which he never fully recovered. Bain believes the stroke was brought about by overwork.

"Unable to move, barely able to express himself, he would retire from business forever, spending several years with his family in Europe and ... using his railroad millions to build an extraordinary art collection that he housed in a gallery next door to the Crocker mansion in Sacramento (today's Crocker Art Museum). Because of his debilitating illness and his early death in 1875, and the willingness of Stanford and long-lived Huntington to hog credit due others, his paramount role in the enterprise would be obscured for well more than a century," wrote Bain.

Another railroad myth that Bain touches on is that of the Chinese basket drillers. In 1867, when the railroad was being built over the Sierra, a workforce of approximately 12,000 was in place. Fully 98 percent of the workers were Chinese, many of whom came to America specifically for the railroad jobs. Many found two to four years of continuous labor and returned to China where they could retire in comfort.

Bain describes the bravery of the Chinese workers who were allegedly lowered down the face of rocky cliffs in woven baskets in order to drill holes for blasting. Bain based his information on accounts found in newspapers of the day.

But a docent from the California State Railroad Museum, Jeff Aberbach, says he does not repeat the story of intrepid Chinese basket drillers. It may be true, he says, but there's no proof.

Bain says there are no accounts of basket drillers in oral histories from within the Chinese communities in the United States to confirm the tale. Perhaps the individuals who swung down the cliff face in those flimsy baskets were among those who returned to their villages in China and lived out their lives telling tales of building the railroad and blasting the mountains.

Bain writes about these and other issues surrounding the construction of the railroad including the support offered by Abraham Lincoln, the intrusion of the Civil War, and the displacement of the Plains Indians. It will please any history buff on your gift list.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

To Order "Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad" from Amazon [ Click Here ]

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