AMC Network Entertainment LLC

This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

Hell on Wheels Handbook – The Central Pacific Railroad

The Central Pacific Railroad was the company responsible for building the western segment of the transcontinental railroad. Theodore Judah, a civil engineer and one of the Central Pacific’s founders, figured out a pathway through California’s treacherous Sierra Nevada range, lobbied Congress to fund the transcontinental railroad, and in 1861 assembled a group of investors to finance it. Even before he became president, Abraham Lincoln was an enthusiastic supporter. The first western track was laid in Sacramento in 1863, but Judah died later that year, just as his lead partners were taking over control of the railroad: Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington (right), Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker became known to the public as “The Big Four” railroad barons.

Although none of “The Associates,” as the four called themselves, had experience building railroads, collectively they possessed the skills necessary to accomplish the task. Stanford, an early governor of California, handled state and local politics and was the face of the corporation. Hopkins was good with the books. As construction chief, Crocker assembled a labor force that at its peak numbered 15,000 men (about 12,000 of them Chinese). Huntington was the master maneuverer by most historical accounts, fashioning complicated financial schemes and bribing or otherwise convincing federal legislators to back bills favorable to the Central Pacific. A contemporary described Huntington as “scrupulously dishonest” — despite creating holding companies like those that resulted in the Union Pacific’s Credit Mobilier scandal, Huntington and the Central Pacific emerged relatively unscathed from government investigations. Then again, that could have been due to the fire that conveniently destroyed many of the company’s records just prior to Huntington’s testimony before Congress.

Huntington considered the Union Pacific’s Thomas Durant a major rival, but the two joined forces when their goals coincided — only to double cross each other whenever possible. Both railroads benefited from joint lobbying to increase government fees paid for finished track, for instance, but Huntington was outraged to discover that Durant had sneaked in a provision preventing the Central Pacific from laying track beyond California’s border. Huntington confronted Durant and eventually the Central Pacific was authorized to continue east if the Union Pacific hadn’t reached California first. The amendment’s revision added millions to the Central Pacific’s coffers and contributed to it becoming one of the largest corporations of its era.

Read More