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Union Pacific Railroad

The Union Pacific Railroad had been organized to build the eastern end of the line, stimulated by the example of the Central Pacific. Although the former did nothing for eighteen months after the latter began operations, by the time the Central Pacific was ninety-three miles into the mountains, where the maximum government subsidy was only half the cost of construction, the Union Pacific had extended its rails two hundred and forty-seven miles out on the plains, on an average grade of thirteen and a half feet to the mile, where the minimum subsidy more than paid for the road.

The Union Pacific Company had seen quite as much of trouble as the hardware store crowd. Under the act of 1862, the Union Pacific was duly organized, with General John A. Dix as president, and T. C. Durant as vice-president. By heroic exertions the company contrived to raise money enough to pay the expenses of celebrating the breaking of ground at Omaha, December 2, 1863, eleven months after ground was broken on the Central Pacific.

That was all that was done for many a day. Nobody wanted Union Pacific Railroad securities or land. The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad, which later became the Rock Island, had sent General G. M. Dodge out across the plains on a survey ten years before, but the company didn't think it worth while to push on beyond the Missouri River.

No one would have anything to do with the Union Pacific on any terms whatsoever. The company got into such desperate straits that it was obliged to sell part of its material and cars. No one coming to the rescue of the Pacific railroad project, Congress, in 1864, had doubled the subsidy, making the amount $16,000, $32,000, and $48,000 a mile in bonds, according to the nature of the country, and twenty sections of land per mile instead of ten. Altogether, the government aid offered lacked but $4,000,000 of the estimated cost of the road.

In spite of everything that could be done the Union Pacific remained a financial outcast until the fall of 1867. Capitalists knew the road could never be completed, and that it could not possibly earn expenses if it was built. When it seemed as if the whole affair was doomed to become a humiliating fiasco, Congressman Oakes Ames, of Massachusetts, a wealthy manufacturer whose shovels had become favorably known wherever such implements were used, was asked by the administration to undertake the building of the Union Pacific. By the influence of his great wealth and business connections, aided by the attraction of the increased subsidy, he was finally able to finance the enterprise through the medium of a construction company, the notorious Credit Mobilier, the cause of the greatest legislative scandal in American history. As the government assumed all risks under this plan, and the profits promised to be enormous, capital at last took up the project, though timidly.

as soon as it became a certainty that the Union Pacific would be completed, and that the builders would make immense profits from its construction and operation, blackmailers, stockjobbers, and plunderers of every degree pounced upon it like a pack of famished wolves. Cornelius Wendell, a government commissioner whose duty it was to examine a completed section, refused to approve it until he was paid twenty-five thousand dollars. As delivery of the government subsidy was dependent upon his approval, he got the money.

James Fisk managed to gain control, and then held up the company in the most approved style, threatening to ruin it unless paid his price. When more legislation was needed influential Congressmen required to be "seen," and Oakes Ames made the crowning mistake of his career by taking three hundred and seventy-five shares of Credit Mobilier stock to Washington, where, in his own phrase, which has become a classic, he "put it where it would do the most good." Those who could find no leverage by which to extort money busied themselves with criticising financial and engineering methods and everything else connected with the project. It seemed as if there were as many foes in the rear as at the front.

By the beginning of 1867 the Union Pacific was in operation to a point three hundred and five miles west of Omaha. The completion of the Northwestern to Omaha, in December, 1866, opened up a line of communication which very greatly reduced the cost of supplies. The Union Pacific being now extended to a point most convenient for the Indians, all the tribes of the plains united their forces for the avowed purpose of exterminating the whites. Fifteen thousand warriors took the field, devoting especial attention to the railroad. Everything had to be done under armed guard. The engineers laid out the line within musket-range of a strong military escort, dividing their attention between their instruments and their rifles. Even then numbers of them were killed and their stock run off by thousands.

When President Lincoln and Congress set plans for the transcontinental railroad, they recognized the need for a military installation to protect Union Pacific workers from hostile Indians. On July 4, 1867, the railroad established its mountain region headquarters at Crow Creek Crossing, later known as Cheyenne. A few weeks later, the U.S. Cavalry moved from temporary headquarters in Cheyenne to a point three miles west and established Fort D. A. Russell. Thus, 1867 was the beginning of a city and a fort, and both have grown together over the years.

The construction gangs were a community of something like three thousand inhabitants living in tents and shacks at the end of the track. As fast as the road was finished to a convenient point it was operated to that point, which then became temporary headquarters from which the work of construction was managed. The town always moved with headquarters, and so came to be known as " Hell-on-Wheels," and the title was appropriate. Aside from the railroad employees and a few storekeepers the population consisted chiefly of gamblers and desperadoes and the very worst class of women. The chief article of commerce was vile whisky, and the principal industry was robbery, either thinly disguised as gambling, or by more elementary methods whenever convenient. Only by the frequent application of lynch law were the murders kept down to an average of one a day the greater part of the time. There was a ceaseless orgy of the lowest debauchery and the grossest crime in this Hell-on-Wheels that left a stigma which will last as long as the Union Pacific itself.

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Page last modified: 11-11-2011 13:36:12 ZULU