california annexes the united states -- 11/06/15

Today's selection -- from The West by Geoffrey C. Ward. Men like Leland Stanford, Thomas Durant, Charles Crocker and Collis Huntington became among the wealthiest men in the world building the transcontinental railroad because the U.S. government in effect paid them by the mile. The entire enterprise came to its climax when gold, silver, and iron spikes were tapped into the ground uniting the newly-built railroad running east from the San Francisco Bay with the one running west from Council Bluffs, Iowa. San Franciscans proclaimed that California had annexed the United States:

"By the spring of 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were converging at last in Utah. Speed and distance were still everything: 'I would build the road in the cheapest possible manner,' Collis P. Huntington told Charles Crocker, 'then go back and improve it ... , because the Union Pacific have built the cheapest kind of road.' (Huntington was right about the Union Pacific, which was forced to come up with an extra $7 million for repairs even before the line was completed; by 1887, Grenville Dodge admitted, the original tracks of the line he'd built were 'two dirt tracks ballasted with streaks of rust.')

"Rival armies of railroad men vied to cover the most ground -- and earn the most money for their employers -- before the two lines finally met. Still, no fixed rendezvous point had been established, so grading crews, working far ahead of the men who laid the track, passed each other in opposite directions and pushed on for miles, sometimes working so close to one another, the Deseret Evening News reported, that blasts set off by one work gang often spattered its rival with dirt. ...

"Finally, government engineers intervened and picked Promontory Summit, fifty-six miles west of Ogden, as the place where the two lines would finally meet.

A.J. Russell's famous picture recording the meeting of the First Transcontinental Railroad.

"By May 8, 1869, the rails were at last ready to be joined. Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific had already arrived for the ceremony in his private railroad car. But Vice President Thomas C. Durant of the Union Pacific was nowhere to be seen. His train had been halted in Wyoming by a crew of angry tie cutters who had not been paid for five months. They chained the wheels of his car to the tracks and would not let him pass until the cash was in their hands.

"The Union Pacific sent a special train with the payroll, Durant was released, and on May 10 everything was finally ready at Promontory Summit. The last two lengths of rail were brought up -- one by the Union Pacific's Irishmen, the other by the Central Pacific's Chinese. A telegrapher stood by to signal the driving of the final spike to both coasts and all points in between:

TO EVERYBODY, KEEP QUIET. WHEN THE LAST SPIKE IS DRIVEN AT PROMONTORY POINT, WE WILL SAY 'DONE!' DON'T BREAK THE CIRCUIT, BUT WATCH FOR THE SIGNALS OF THE BLOWS OF THE HAMMER.

"Four spikes -- two gold, one silver, and the fourth a blend of gold, silver, and iron -- were to be gently tapped into position to mark the occasion, and then a fifth and final spike -- an ordinary one but wired to the telegrapher's key -- was to be hammered into the ground.

ALMOST READY. HATS OFF PRAYER IS BEING OFFERED.

A clergyman intoned what seemed to be an interminable prayer. ...

ALL READY NOW; THE SPIKE WILL SOON BE DRIVEN.

WE UNDERSTAND; ALL ARE READY IN THE EAST.

WE HAVE GOT DONE PRAYING; THE SPIKE IS ABOUT TO BE PRESENTED.

"The final spike was slid into place. Leland Stanford was to have the honor of driving it home, with a special silver-headed maul.

THE SIGNAL WILL BE THREE DOTS FOR THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE BLOWS.

"Stanford swung the hammer high above his head, brought it down -- and missed. The telegrapher closed the circuit anyway: 'DONE!'

"In Washington, a great cheer went up from the big crowd in front of the telegraph office and an illuminated ball dropped from the dome of the Capitol. At Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell was gingerly rung so that its crack would not worsen. And in San Francisco a huge banner was unfurled that proclaimed, 'California Annexes the United States.' "


author:

Geoffrey C. Ward

title:

The West: An Illustrated History

publisher:

Back Bay Books

date:

Copyright 1996 by The West Project, Inc.

pages:

236-238
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