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The Signal Gun and the Steel Trail
Boom! Boom! Boom! Never in history did the firing of a gun have such a powerful effect as that which sent the first shot at the flag of the Union, as it floated over Fort Sumter on that memorable Friday, April 12, 1861.
Fired at a time when most people were hoping for a peaceful outcome of the sectional troubles, it astonished the world and stirred the whole country to its depths.
Across the dry plains and rugged mountains of the West its echoes seemed to roll. The startled people of the Pacific coast looked at each other with anxious, uncertain eyes. No one felt quite sure of his neighbor, and they were so far from the scene of action that the government could not help them. They must settle the great question for themselves. Who was for the Union? Who was against it?
In Washington the President and his advisers waited with keen anxiety to learn what wealthy California would do. Senator Gwin had often spoken in Congress and elsewhere as though it would certainly be one of the states to secede. He and others had talked. too, in a confident way, of the "Grand Republic of the Pacific" that might be then formed out of the lands of the Western coast. To lose this rich territory would be a terrible blow to the Union.
From the time of California's admission there had been a constant endeavor on the part of Southern sympathizers to introduce slavery into its territory. A large number of politicians, especially those holding prominent positions, were Southerners, some of whom, like Dr. Gwin, had come to the Pacific coast for the express purpose of winning either the new state or some portion of it for the South and slavery.
They had succeeded in giving it a fugitive slave law that was particularly evil. Under it a colored man or woman could be seized, brought before a magistrate, claimed as a slave, and taken back South without being allowed to testify in his or her own behalf. Neither could a colored person give testimony in a criminal case against one who was white.
Opposed to this strong Southern party one man stood almost alone as the friend of free labor and free soil. This man was David C. Broderick. For years he fought the slavery interests inch by inch in San Francisco, in the state legislature, and finally in the United States Senate.
When he went to Washington he found the same state of affairs as in California - President Buchanan yielding to the Southern demands, Southern members ruling and often terrifying Congress. Broderick at once joined Stephen A. Douglas in the struggle he was then making for free soil in Kansas and the territories, and his speeches were clear and often fierce.
In reply to a speech from a Carolina senator in regard to the disgrace of belonging to the working class, Mr. Broderick said (Congressional Globe, 1857-58), "I represent a state where labor is honorable, where the judge has left his bench, the doctor and lawyer their offices, the clergyman his pulpit, for the purpose of delving in the earth, where no station is so high, no position so great, that its occupant is not proud to boast that he has labored with his own hands. There is no state in the Union, no place on earth, where labor is so honored, so well rewarded, as in California." Mr. Broderick died in the midst of his bright career, murdered in a duel by one of the leading members of the slavery party.
When he died, those of his fellow-citizens who believed much as he did, yet had let him fight secession and slavery lone-handed, recognized what he had done for them - their "brave young senator," as Seward called him, who had kept the evil of slavery from their soil. His work, stopped by the bullet of his enemy, was taken up by the people, and his name became a rallying cry for the lovers of the Union, of honest labor, and of free soil.
News that the war had really begun brought forth the strongest Union sentiments from many of those who had before been careless or indifferent. A mass meeting of the people of San Francisco was held - business was suspended, flags were flying everywhere, while eager-faced people listened to earnest Union speeches. A few days later the legislature, by an almost unanimous vote, declared in the strongest terms for the Union, offering to give any aid the government might require. No one could longer have any doubt of the loyalty of the state of California.
There were certainly many people from the South who were deeply in sympathy with secession; but these, if honorable men who were able to fight, hurried east to join the Confederate army, or if they chose to remain under the protection of the flag, were generally wise enough to keep their feelings to themselves.
Some there were, however, who, while they enjoyed the law and order of the peaceful state, still spoke, plotted, and schemed for secession. To keep such as these in order it was found necessary to retain most of the California troops in the state for home defense. Those who did reach Eastern battlefields fought well and nobly.
One of San Francisco's ministers was unwise enough frequently to express disloyal views in the pulpit, until one Sunday morning he found the banner he would dishonor floating over his church, and hanging to a post in front of the door a figure intended to represent himself, with his name and the word "traitor" pinned to it. The next day he left for Europe, where he stayed until the close of the war.
Another minister, Thomas Starr King, was one of the most earnest supporters of the government. He organized the California division of the Sanitary Commission for the assistance of sick and wounded soldiers. Chiefly through his influence California gave over a million and a half to that cause, which was one third of the whole expenditure of the Commission.
In 1862 Leland Stanford became governor. He was devoted to the Union, always striving to influence his state to give liberally of its wealth to help the government; and its record in that line was second to none. "A good leader, energetic and long-headed," the governor was called; but no one dreamed that long before he was an old man, he would give for the cause of education in California the mightiest gift ever bestowed by any one man for the benefit of humanity.
During the war, California furnished 16,000 men, two regiments of which were among the best of the Union cavalry. One regiment of infantry was composed of trappers and mountaineers, from whom were taken many "sharpshooters" so famous in assisting the advance of the Northern troops.
In the southern part of the state there was a body of volunteers known as the California Column, also the California Lancers, who, far off though they were, found enough to do. They drove the Southern forces out of Arizona and New Mexico, fought the Apache Indians in several battles, met and defeated the Texas Rangers, and took various military posts in Texas.
Great was the excitement in San Francisco when one morning the United States marshall captured, just as she was leaving the wharf, a schooner fully fitted out as a privateer. She was filled with armed men, and in her cabin was a commission signed by Jefferson Davis in the name of the Confederate States, also a plan for capturing the forts of the harbor, the Panama mail steamer, then en route north, and a treasure steamer soon to, sail for Panama.
In Los Angeles disloyalty was more outspoken and unrebuked by public opinion. Sometimes the surrounding ranchmen, many of whom were in sympathy with the South, on the news of a Southern victory would come into Los Angeles to celebrate with disloyal banners and transparencies. Living on Main Street there was a Yankee, one of the leading citizens, who upon such an occasion would take his rifle and, promenading the flat roof of his wide-spreading adobe, hurl down defiance at the enemy, calling them "rebels" and "traitors" and defying them to come up and fight him man to man. But there must have been a feeling of good fellowship through it all, since no stray bullet was ever sent to put a stop to the taunts of the fiery old Unionist.
Some Spanish soldiers of the California Column, however, grew weary of such open disloyalty, and one night, when off duty, captured two of the Southern ranchmen and proposed to hang them to the oaks in the pasture near where the city of Pasadena now stands. The American officers of the troops, hearing of the affair, hurried out from Los Angeles and begged their men to give up so disorderly and unsoldier-like an idea. "Yes, sirs, it is true, all that you say; but they are rebels, they talk too much; why suffer them to cumber Union ground?" This seemed the only reply they could obtain; but finally the captives were liberated, though advised in the future to guard well their tongues and actions.
The desire for war news from the Eastern states led to the completion of a telegraph line between the Missouri River and San Francisco, and on all sides the need of an overland railroad was also being recognized. Plans for such a road had been frequently presented to Congress, but straightway slavery entered into the question. The South wanted the road, but it must be through Southern territory, while the North favored the middle or northern route; and they could not agree.
On one such occasion Senator Benton spoke in favor of a line that had just been surveyed by Captain Fremont. He was told by those who had other plans that his route was not possible, that only scientific men could lay out a railroad and determine the most practicable ways and easiest passes. But Senator Benton's answer is worth remembering.
"There is," said he, "a class of scientific engineers older than the schools and more unerring than mathematics. They are the wild animals - the buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, and bear - which traverse the forest, not by compass, but by an instinct which leads them always the right way to the lowest passes in the mountains, the shallowest fords in the rivers, the richest pastures in the forest, the best salt springs, the shortest practicable route between two distant points. They are the first engineers to lay out a road; the Indian follows. Hence the buffalo road becomes the war path. The white hunter follows the same trail in the pursuit of game; after that the buffalo road becomes the wagon road of the emigrant, and, lastly, the railroad of the scientific man."
Through her senators and representatives California spent several years in pushing this matter. In vain they called attention to the fact that the distance from Washington to San Francisco by the way of Cape Horn was 19,000 miles, or more than the entire distance round the earth in the latitude of San Francisco; and that by Panama it was as far as from Washington to Peking in a direct line.
In 1859-60 there appeared in Washington a young engineer named Judah, who had been sent by the people of the Pacific coast to urge the immediate building of the road by the middle route that which was finally chosen. Mr. Judah knew more about the matter than any other man, east or west, and he failed in his mission only because the troubles over slavery and the prospect of immediate secession took up the whole attention of Congress.
However, he came back in no way discouraged, and continued to urge the matter in his cheerful, hopeful way. That he should be hopeful does not seem strange to us who know that the road was built and that it was a great success, but then conditions were different.
"What, build a railroad over those mountains, with their terrible winter snows and landslides, across the desert, where there is absolutely no water? It is impossible, and these men know it; they only want to get the people's money." Such was the type of article one might read at any time in the papers of the day.
Still, Mr. Judah's talk had its results. One June day in 1861, Leland Stanford, a young lawyer, who was at that time Sacramento's chief grocer, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington, hardware merchants, and Charles Crocker, proprietor of the leading dry-goods store, met and organized the Central Pacific Railroad Company, with Stanford as president, Huntington as vice-president, Hopkins as treasurer, Judah as engineer, and Crocker as one of the directors.
This action seems sensible enough as we write of it, but it was one of the most daring undertakings ever attempted by any body of men. None of the four was rich, all had worked hard for the little they had; but they felt that the country must have the railroad, that without it California could never become a great state. But if they could only push forward, as soon as they had themselves accomplished something, help would come to them from the East and their success would be assured.
Again Mr. Judah went to Washington, and this time he was successful. The war had made the government feel the need of the railway, not only to bind the Pacific coast closer to the eastern half of the continent, but to transport troops to defend its western shores. There were many now ready to vote for the road, and in July, 1862, the bill, having been passed by both houses, was signed by Abraham Lincoln.
It provided for the building of two roads, one from the Missouri River westward, the Union Pacific, and one from the Pacific coast eastward, the Central Pacific, the two to be continued till they met and formed one long line.
On the day that Leland Stanford was inaugurated governor of California, he had the further satisfaction of beginning the construction of the overland railroad by digging and casting the first shovelful of earth. This took place in Sacramento, in the presence of a large gathering of the leading people of the state; and from that time the work went speedily on. It was estimated that the road would cost an average of eighty thousand dollars a mile, though in the mountains the cost was nearer one hundred and fifty thousand.
Not only the right of way, but a large portion of the near-by public lands, were granted by the government to each road, and at the completion of each forty miles of track there was to be further aid. The state of California, the city of San Francisco, and the counties through which the railroad passed, each gave generously to the Central Pacific; but all this did not bring in enough ready money. Huntington in the East and Stanford in the West almost worked miracles in getting funds to begin the work.
In the death of Mr. Judah, which occurred at this time, the company suffered a great loss. Although the enterprise went on to a successful ending, his name dropped out of sight; but those who know, feel that to him California owes a great debt of gratitude. Though she was sure to have the overland sometime, it might have been years later in its accomplishment, but for the faith, energy, and perseverance of Theodore D. Judah.
Charles Crocker now took charge of the building of the road; to accomplish the work he imported Chinese, whom he found peaceable, industrious, and quick to learn. They were arranged in companies moving at the word of command like drilled troops - "Crocker's battalions" they were called. There was need of the greatest haste to get the different portions completed in the time allowed.
"Why," said Crocker, "I used to go up and down that road in my car like a mad bull, stopping along where there was anything wrong, raising Cain with the men that were not up to time."
Neither Mr. Crocker nor Mr. Stanford ever recovered from the strain of that time. It is said that it eventually caused the death of both men.
Meantime the Union Pacific was pushing overland westward as fast as possible. Each road was aiming for the rich plains of Utah. If the Central stopped at the eastern base of the mountains, it would make this road of little value except for Pacific coast traffic; but if it could reach Ogden, the line would pay well.
It was a mighty race all through the winter of 1868 and 1869, Crocker and his men working like giants. What he accomplished then was scarcely less wonderful than Napoleon's passage of the Alps.
All the supplies for his thousands of workmen, all the materials and iron for the road, even the locomotives, he had to have hauled on sledges over the mountains through the winter snows.
Ogden was finally made the place where the two roads joined; but they first met, and the last work was done, at Promontory, a point fifty miles northwest of Ogden. There in May, 1869, the last tie was laid. It was made of California laurel, handsomely polished, and on it was a silver plate with an inscription and the names of the officers of the two roads.
It was an eventful meeting on that grassy plain, under the blue Western sky, while all around rose the rugged peaks that had at last been conquered by man's energy. The telegraph at this spot was, for the occasion, connected with all the offices along the line and in the leading cities of the country, where crowds were in waiting to hear that the great work was finished.
Two trains were there with their engines, as Bret Harte describes them, "facing on the single track, half a world behind each back." Around stood the guests and officers of the roads waiting for the final ceremony. "Hats off," clicked the telegraph. Prayer was offered, and then the four gold and silver spikes, presented by California, Nevada, Idaho, and Montana, were put in place by President Stanford of the Central Pacific and Dr. Durant of the Union Pacific.
As the silver hammers fell on the golden spikes, in all the telegraph offices along the line and in the Eastern cities the hammer of the magnet struck the bell - "tap, tap, tap." "Done," - flashed the message to the eager crowds.
All over the land the event was celebrated with great rejoicing. In Buffalo, as the news came, hundreds of voices burst out in the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." In Boston, services were held at midday in Trinity Church, where the popular pastor offered "thanks to God for the completion of the greatest work ever undertaken by men."
To the four men who were the builders of the Central Pacific, the public and particularly the state of California owes much. They not only built the road, but made it a grand, complete success in all its departments. Without it, California would still be a remote province, little known. With it she is one of the chief states of the Union, and in the great business world she is known and felt as a power.
Later the corporation became very wealthy and powerful. Then it was that it began to abuse its power, working often against the best interests of the inhabitants of the Pacific slope. In some cases, as in the eviction of the people who were settlers in the Mussel Slough District, it was guilty of extreme cruelty and injustice, such as is almost certain to bring its own punishment. But in reckoning with the Southern Pacific, for so the company is now called, the people of California should be careful to look on both sides of the question, remembering the terrible struggles of those early days, when the building of the Overland, that greatest achievement America had ever seen, was to them like the miraculous gift of some fairy godmother, seemingly beyond the possibility of nature.