Written by Michael Shannon

Working on the railroad all the live long day.

It was a bet between two railroad builders. Charles Crocker, one of the so called Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad and Wily, rapacious Doctor Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific Railroad, wryly captioned “Uncle Pete” by the men who built it.

Charles Crocker was only 47 at the time of the great race, Thomas Durant was 49. Still young men.

As the roads closed in on the designated place where they were to meet at Promontory Point in Utah. In a fit of excess pride, Durant ordered his construction bosses, the Casement brothers, Dan and Jack to lay as much track in a day as they could.

Tough as nails and given to dressing like a Cossack, Jack Casement worked his men hard. The crews lived in 20 cars, including dormitories, kitchen, dining car and an arsenal car containing a thousand loaded rifles. They moved west accompanied by a mobile town that could be put up and torn down in a day. Called “Hell On Wheels” its only purpose was to supply the largely Irish workforce with all the requisite vices.

Track crews worked seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day. They were paid a dollar for each days work. Much of the money went to the pockets of the thimblerigs, gamblers, bartenders and the ubiquitous “laundresses” that followed the road.

On the 24th the Union Pacific broke all records by laying six miles of track. Charles Crocker and his Chinese “pets” were invited to match that. The “Pets” was a derogatory term applied by other Central Pacific men to the Immigrant Chinese. Refugees from China during and after the Taeping revolution the Chinese had proven to be steady and hard working. Personal cleanliness and with a diet of vegetables and rice they were free of disease, did not drink and worked as steady as a metronome. By the time the Central Pacific hit Utah, they employed between ten thousand and fourteen thousand men, nine of every ten, Chinese.

Crocker beat it by a mile. Then the Union Pacific Casement brothers came back with seven and a half miles, working from three in the morning until almost midnight. But the Central Pacific was not to be beaten.

A $10,000.00 bet, $2,200,000.00 in todays currency, between two men with giant egos hanging in the balance, Crocker and his crews timed the final go so the other road wouldn’t have time to challenge whatever they did. Crocker and Durant epitomized the robber barons of the nineteenth century. Big risk, big reward.

After a day of careful planning, work began on the morning of April 29th, 1869. They were ready to go. A continuous line of five trains loaded with rails, spikes, fishplates, bolts and nuts were backed up to the end of track. Wagons loaded with water, hand tools and stacked high with ties were driven in and parked alongside the prepared roadbed. Thousands of men took their places and at exactly 7:00 o’clock a locomotive engineer carefully following the minute hand of his open pocket watch reached up and yanked the whistle cord sending up a piercing shriek of live steam and the great day was kicked off.

A train of sixteen cars loaded with iron rail and materials for two miles of track was pushed up to the front. Men climbed on top and threw off the fish plates and kegs of bolts and spikes. Others punched side stakes out of the right and left alternate cars. The rails were then rolled off and in eight minutes the sixteen ears were cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army. The flat cars were then flipped off the track and the locomotive was then pulled back out of the way and another train of rails brought into position.

As soon as the material train was gone, small iron hand cars were put on the tracks. Each had a crew of six Chinese working under white bosses. Sixteen rails were loaded on each car, together with a keg of bolts, a keg of spikes, and a bundle of fish plates. Two horses with riders were attached to the car in tandem by a long rope. As soon as the car was loaded and the crew on top, the horses were off on the jump. One side of the roadway was kept clear for the horses racing ahead with the material cars. On a down-grade horses were detached and the car went flying along with one of the crew acting as a brakeman. The horses ran alongside and, when a level was reached, the nearest rider hooked on again. The first car out from the material dump only had to a short distance, while the last cars had to go perhaps two miles.

At the same time empty cars were returning on the single track, all of them at full speed. As a full car came closer, the crew on the empty car jumped off and lifted their car from the rails, while the loaded car went past without slacking speed. There was no halt in the continuous stream of materials to the front.

When the loaded car neared the rail-head, its gang stepped off and another gang jumped on with picks. They broke open the kegs and cut the fastenings on the fish plates. The keg of bolts was thrown to one side to men who filled their buckets and distributed the bolts. Other men distributed the fish plates. The spikes were poured out over the rails on the car and as the rails were pulled off the spikes dropped through the floorless car and distributed themselves.

At this point the picked crew of Irish rail handlers, working under Track Foreman H. H. Minkler and Gang Foreman George Coley, came into the picture. A single horse pulled the car up to rail-head, where it was blocked by a wooden-framed iron track gauge. Four men worked on each side of the track. Two men seized the forward end of the rail with their tongs while the two rear men slipped the rail to the side of the car so it rested on iron rollers. The two forward men trotted ahead the length of the rail, thirty feet, the rear men dropping the rail in place, where it was bolted and spiked by the track gang. The car was then pulled forward to the next track gauge and the procedure repeated.

The track went forward at the rate of almost a mile an hour. A correspondent for The Alta Califonian , a San Francisco newspaper, timed the track layers. He wrote: “I timed the movement twice and found the speed to be as follows: The first time 240 feet of rail was laid in one minute and twenty seconds; the second time 240 feet was laid in one minute and fifteen seconds. This is about as fast as a leisurely walk and as fast as the early ox teams used to travel over the plains.”

The rail handlers were only eight of several hundred men at the front, everyone of whom was an important cog in the smooth-working machinery. Ahead were three “pioneers,” the most advanced men, who, with shovel and by hand, butted the ties to a rope line measured from the track-center spikes set by the surveyors. About half the regulation number of ties were placed at first to insure having sufficient for the ten miles.

Just behind the rail layers came the spikers, bolters, and those who distributed the materials. The brawny Spike Men swung once to set the spike then one-two and she was done. A steady pace, three notes on the steel spike and on to the next one.Then came the gang that surfaced the track by raising the ends of the ties and shoveling enough ballast to hold them firm. Immediately following was a surveyor who sighted the line of the rails and, by motion of his hands, directed the track straighteners. Then the tampers, 400 strong, with shovels and tamping bars.

When a halt was called for the midday meal, six miles of track had been laid and the men were confident they would reach their goal. A number of Union Pacific officers had lunch with Stanford, Crocker, and others of the Central Pacific. They were ready to extend congratulations. “Victory” was the name given the spot where lunch was taken. The station is now called Rozel.

After lunch the work went on, but not so rapidly. The ascending grade on the west slope of Promontory Mountain was more difficult than the section covered during the morning and there were many curves. Considerable time was lost in bending rails, which was done by placing the rail on two blocks and forcing it into the desired curve by blows of heavy sledge hammers.

When the forward march was halted at 7 o’clock, ten miles and 56 feet of new track had been added to the Central Pacific. Jim Campbell, boarding boss and later superintendent of the division, jumped into a locomotive and ran it back over the new line at a clip of 40 miles an hour just to prove that the job had been well done.

If the roadway had been perfectly level and straight, these men could have laid fifteen miles of track. The task had involved bringing up and putting into position 25,800 ties, 3520 rails averaging 560 pounds each, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material making a total of 4,462,000 pounds.

From the first “pioneer” to the last tamper, about two miles long, there was a line of men advancing a mile an hour; iron cars with their load of rails and humans dashed up and down the newly-laid track; foremen on horseback were galloping back and forth. Keeping pace with the track layers was the telegraph construction party. Alongside the moving force, teams were hauling tool and water wagons. Chinamen with pails dangling from poles balanced over their shoulders were moving among the men with water and tea.

Farther back, locomotives were waiting with their cars of materials. All five train loads were used on that day. When one section was completed, the next material train was moved up as far as possible on the new track and materials for another two miles unloaded. In the rear of all this was the boarding house train and quarters of officers, a long line of wood houses built on flat cars, looking like a small town stretched out. In the valley below, continuous trains of wagons and mounted work shops moved along in parallel lines. It could only be compared to the advance of an army, which it was.

The men who did it have vanished from history. Only the tracklayers whose names were listed on the time book of the foreman George Coley exist. Their names, civil war veterans from both armies, Immigrants and working men from the teeming ghettos of Five Points and Hells Kitchen and Baltimore’s Pigtown are listed. The all-Irish crew of Conley, Kennedy, McNamara, Daley, Kelleen, Joyce, Carton, Egan, Elliott, Thom and Sullivan. Coley also noted that each man was given four days pay.

Crockers pets the Chinese might have been but the Paddy’s got the plum jobs. No Chinaman ever hogged a locomotive and no Irishman hung from a basket to clear the Cape Horn turn above Auburn for blasting.

It was the greatest public works project ever built in our country. It also began a period in which the railroad took on and reshaped America and changed American thinking. The luxury passenger express hurtling past small town depots, the slow freight trains chugging through industrial zones, the commuter locals shuttling between suburban stations and urban terminals heralded the forces of modernization and touched millions with the romance of the rails. The allure of the railroad and the metropolitan corridor that evolved around it lasted until the ascendancy of the automobile, when the railroad suddenly vanished from national attention.

Durant never paid up. Just like the robber baron he was.

In the middle of the twentieth century I could lie in my bed on our farm in the upper Arroyo Grande valley, snuggled down under a layer of blankets, my breath vaporizing on these cold winter nights and hear the whistle of the trains as they approached the many grade crossings over the farms. I heard it like millions of boys and girls and just like them I dreamed of the places I might go someday when I grew up. That high register moan called to us.

The bass notes of the big brass steam whistle carried for mile up our valley. I came through the night with a promise. We all heard it clearly.

Daddy would open the passenger door of his pickup truck and his little boys would climb up. We did it for two reasons, we loved him, loved to be with him and always looked forward to any adventure he might take us on. Every trip in that old truck was an adventure when you were twelve.

He would pull off the road just to watch the trains go by. Parked next to the tracks in Oceano we would stand by the rails and wave to the engineers. We were lucky to see the Southern Pacific’s gorgeous Coast Daylight passenger train in its black, orange and gold livery, the silver drivers whipping around, the locomotive wheels a blur, rhythmic gouts of white smoke whipped to shreds by the speed of the train. Buy a ticket in Our Lady of Angels and step of in Saint Francisco, cities with beautiful sibilant, soft names that drifted across the ear. The last days of steam soon to be replaced by the humming diesel electric, mundane, humdrum and just work-a-day.

Wonderful but, oh, the freights. Mile long trains trudging along carrying our vegetables from here to there. Dad’s celery bound for New York’s markets, Oliver’s Bell Peppers bound for Canada and POVE’s lettuce to Chicago and Atlanta. The beauty of the freights wasn’t in the look, they carried all the cachet of the men working the freight depot, chambray shirts, overhauls, sturdy shoes, hard hands long past looking at the train logos and wondering.

This was for us. Rolling by, boxcars emblazoned with the names and nicknames of all the railroads criss crossing America. The Grand Trunk, The Nickel Plate, The Katy, The Rebel Route and our own Frisco. As we tried to count the cars we saw the Feather River Route, The Wabash, Northern Pacific’s Main Street, the Texas and New Orleans, Tennessee Central and the Lackawanna. The old Susie-Q, The Possum Trot, The Yelllow Dog, The Blue Streak, The Rock Island and the Kansa City Southern. The Zephyr, Grand Trunk, the big suitcase, The Milwaukee Road and the Slim Princess.

There were stories from my grandparents about our little narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway which used to chug its leisurely way from Port Harford to Los Olivos down in Santa Barbara county. High-Ballin it was not. Thirty miles an hour was breezin’ for her.

Daughter of wealth and privilege, my grandmother would take the surrey down to the depot in Arroyo Grande with her friends and board for San Luis Obispo just to do a little shopping. During her high school days in Santa Maria she rode down on Monday and returned Friday evening. My grandfather to be, not born to wealth or privilege would pedal his bicycle over the dirt highway to meet her there. I don’t think we ever rode with my dad to the old dump on highway 227 without hearing that story.

Annie Shannon, center, Oceano Depot, boarding for the University at Berkeley, September, 1904.

Our little narrow gauge served communities from Los Alamos down in Santa Barbara county and up to San Luis Obispo and west to the harbor at Port Harford. It hauled sugar beets, rock from the quarries, oil, cattle, farm products and the people who lived here. It was so in tune with life in the Cow Counties of western central California that my grandmother could walk down the hill from her house and the train would pull to a stop so she could get on for the ride to San Luis to go shopping. Just like a bus.

As kids we didn’t understand just what the PC meant to them at the turn of the century. Every type of freight needed in San Luis Obispo county came by sea. There were few exceptions. Steam and sailing ships docked and unloaded goods directly onto the train cars which fed businesses all over the county. Milk, butter, cream from the dairies, wheat, vegetables, and fruit were hauled down to the harbor and sped of to San Fransisco and Los Angeles. County baseball teams rode the train to the port and traveled overnight to play games in Los Angeles. Redwood from Cambria’s now long gone forest was shipped up north to build homes. Crude oil from the Kettleman Hills came by pipeline to Port Harford where it was loaded onto steam tankers headed for Richmond and Martinez in San Francisco’s east bay to be refined. The Pacific Coast was a literal lifeline for the isolated central coast until the coming of the Southern Pacific in 1904.

As the story goes, when the last of the tracks were pulled up in 1939 and shipped as scrap to Japan, the Imperial Japanese warlords would ship them right back in 1941, or so my dad said anyway.

No more boxcars. Instead, big fifty-three foot containers emblazoned with names like Costco (China), Maersk (Denmark), Evergreen (Taiwan), Hapag-LLoyd (Germany) and OOCL (Hong Kong). It’s different.

Not even the sound that generated the Hobo term “Rattler”, the clickety- clack of the trucks wheels rolling over the bolted joints on the tracks. The rhythm of the rails provided the inspiration for a thousand tunes that wrote the history of our country from the freedom trains rolling north from the Jim Crow south, headed up north to Kansas City and Chicago and all point in between or the fruit and grain pickers moving west for the apple harvest in Washington state or bean pickers in our own little town of Nipomo, California. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo, Bob Dylan and all those guitar pickin’ boys from Texas wrote it all down and put it to music. The rhythm of the rails.

Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, The Doobie brothers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Cat Stevens, Tom Waits; it’s as if you don’t have a train song in your play list you lack. For generations trains were part of the heartbeat of this country.

The rails, they’re all welded joints now and silent. No one writes about Amtrak.

Most of the old roads are gone. There are only four major railroads left now and only one slow freight graces our community with its presence today. It doesn’t even stop here anymore. The trucks killed it. There are no more of those esoteric names we loved as kids; all gone now and little kids look to something else to fire their imaginations

Cover Photo: New York Central and Hudson Valley RR, Locomotive 999, the first to pull a train at one hundred miles an hour. She did a mile in 32 seconds in 1883 for a recorded speed of 112.5 mph. Sporting 86 inch drivers her record stood for 21 years. She pulled the elite Empire Express on the Hudson River route for 16 years. She was retired in 1962 and now is of display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.

E-Mail: Michaelshannonstable@Gmail.com


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