Friday, October 25, 2019

People: The Big Four

The Southern Pacific Railroad was not founded by the Big Four, nor was it even envisioned by them initially. But once they purchased a controlling interest in the line from Timothy Phelps in 1868, it became more closely linked to them than their original company, the Central Pacific Railroad. Indeed, the Big Four were neither visionary nor excessively ambitious. They were opportunists who saw the potential in a few failing railroading ventures and decided to become involved.

Idealized depiction of the last spike being hammered into the tracks at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869. Included at the center of this painting is Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Theodore Judah, and several other men associated with the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. Painting by Thomas Hill, 1881. [California State Railroad Museum]
Collis Potter Huntington was a Connecticut native who travelled to California in 1849 and wisely determined that there was more profit in selling mining equipment than in actually mining. In 1851, Mark Hopkins arrived in California and spent a year prospecting before giving up and opening a grocery store in Placerville. Shortly afterwards, though, he relocated to Sacramento, where he met Huntington. The two joined together in 1855 to form Huntington, Hopkins & Company, which sold hardware to miners and settlers in Sacramento.

Portrait of Mark Hopkins by Stephen William Shaw, c. 1872.
[Crocker Museum of Art]
Amasa Leland Stanford also came to California for similar purposes in 1852. Stanford was a lawyer from New York but had moved to Wisconsin in 1848, where he also entered politics. A disastrous fire in 1852 motivated him to seek his fortune in the Gold Country, where he, like Huntington and Hopkins, opened a store catering to miners in Michigan Bluff, California. He stayed in the state for three years but returned in 1856 with his family, at which time he relocated to Sacramento and opened a new general store.

Portrait of Charles Crocker by Stephen William Shaw, c. 1872.
[Crocker Museum of Art]
The last member of this quartet, Charles Crocker, was the last to enter the mercantile business. He was a native of New York but grew up in Indiana. Unlike his colleagues, we was more hands-on, having worked on farms, sawmills, smithies, and foundries in his early years. In 1850, he moved to California with two brothers and tried to make it rich hunting for gold, but gave up in 1852 and soon opened a general store in Sacramento. By 1854, his store was one of the most successful in town and he was well-known in the area. He was elected to the city council in 1855 and became a state assemblyman in 1860.

The Sacramento Valley Railroad freight shed and station in Sacramento, c. 1860s.
[California State Library]
By 1861, all four men lived in Sacramento, were becoming increasingly wealthy, and were competing for customers. But things were moving in the nation that would shift their focus away from petty rivalries and toward a greater goal. In 1854, Theodore D. Judah had helped construct the Sacramento Valley Railroad between Sacramento and Folsom. While the railroad was nothing spectacular, it proved the viability of a railroad on the West Coast. On July 1, 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act was passed into law authorizing the creation of a transcontinental railroad from the Mississippi River to California. The Civil War delayed implementation of this act, but its creation prompted a movement in California.

Theodore D. Judah, c. 1860. Photograph by D. B. Taylor.
[Sacramento History Online]
Even before 1862, Judah was convinced of the merits of a transcontinental line and began recruiting investors. In 1861, he held a pitch meeting in Sacramento and convinced Huntington, Hopkins, Stanford, and Crocker to invest and form the Central Pacific Railroad Company on June 28. It was an exceedingly ambitious plan, but it succeeded when Congress accepted the bid by the railroad to construct the western portion of the transcontinental line the next year. Stanford, as the most politically experienced member of the group, was elected president; Huntington was made vice president and placed in charge of acquisitions; Hopkins as the most experienced merchant became treasurer; and Crocker was placed in charge of actual construction of the line. Judah, meanwhile, died of Yellow Fever in 1863 while travelling to New York in a bid to undermine the Big Four's control of his company. With his death, the Big Four became both the chief financiers and the business leaders of Central Pacific.

Chinese work crews at the end-of-track of the Central Pacific Railroad in Nevada, c. 1868.
Stereograph by Alfred A. Hart. [Huntington Library]
From 1863 until 1869, Crocker and Huntington oversaw construction of the line while Stanford and Hopkins stayed behind the scenes and managed political and fiscal affairs. Stanford even served as governor of California from 1861 to 1863. In 1865, the first of thousands of Chinese workers were brought on to build the line and construction continued at a fairly steady pace until the meeting point with the Union Pacific Railroad was reached at Promontory, Utah and the line officially opened to through traffic on May 10, 1869. The railroad spent several more years cleaning up its route, which had been built quickly to receive more government land and money than of a high quality. But by this point, the Big Four already had moved on to other plans.

A Central Pacific train in Elko, Nevada. The Pacific Union Express Company had an intimate relationship with the railroad, as did Wells Fargo after the two merged. Express agencies were located at most mid-sized or larger stations across the Western United States. Stereograph by Alfred A. Hart. [California State Library]
As the transcontinental line was being built, the Big Four were busy investing in other businesses. They helped formed the Pacific Union Express Company in 1868, which merged with Wells Fargo in 1870. Stanford also became president of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance in 1868 and of the Occidental & Oriental Steamship Company in 1874. Huntington was invited to help finance the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1871 and became involved with several other railroads in the Chesapeake Bay area. Crocker, meanwhile, became involved in banking, eventually owning Woolworth National Bank, which eventually became the Crocker Bank, which was absorbed by Wells Fargo in 1986.

Portrait of Timothy G. Phelps, founder of the Southern Pacific Railroad, c. 1870.
[Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco]
But the legacy of the Big Four is their acquisition in 1868 of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Founded in 1865 by Timothy Phelps, among others, it was originally established as a subsidiary company tasked with constructing a railroad line between San Francisco and San Diego, using the trackage of the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad, which Phelps had helped to build and finance in 1863. In 1868, the Big Four, thinking to subvert Union Pacific, which was Central Pacific's partner in the transcontinental line, bought a controlling interest in Southern Pacific and planned to use the company to build a second transcontinental line via a southern route. As with Judah five years earlier, the Big Four pushed Phelps aside and lost all control over his railroad. He entered politics but never had any success and died in 1899.

Portrait of Leland Stanford by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, 1881.
[Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts]
Stanford was the president and primary motivator of the Southern Pacific Railroad, although all of the Big Four were initially involved. As a politician, Stanford negotiated many of the contracts and acquisitions needed to gain rights-of-way for the route. Importantly for Santa Cruz County, he oversaw the redirection of the route from its originally-intended path through Hollister to a revised route through Salinas via Pajaro Gap. He also, after several feints, negotiated the acquisition of the bankrupt Santa Cruz Railroad in 1881, although it was Hopkins' adopted son, Timothy Nolan Hopkins, who profited the most from this purchase through his acquisition of rich redwood timberland within the Soquel Augmentation Rancho, which prompted the creation of the subsidiary Loma Prieta Railroad in 1883. Hopkins himself had died in 1878.

Colorized postcard of the Southern Pacific depot in Yuma, c. 1890s. [Mitchell Jewell]
Construction of the second transcontinental route came in fits and starts and the three remaining members of the Big Four were more interested in their side projects than the railroad itself, although it remained to all of them. After pursuing a route down the Salinas Valley, that route was halted and primary focus shifted to the San Joaquin Valley, which finally reached Los Angeles in 1876. The railroad reached the Arizona border in 1877 and Stanford negotiated the purchase of the Houston & Texas Central Railway at this time to control more of the route to New Orleans. Two more acquisitions in 1881 solidified this control while construction crews beat the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to El Paso that same year. On January 12, 1883, the Southern Pacific officially linked San Francisco with the East Coast at a point near Langtry, Texas. Unlike the Central Pacific line, which Crocker consolidated into Southern Pacific on February 17, 1885, the Southern Pacific did not have to coordinate operations with rival lines. Furthermore, its route could operate year-round, since it did not have to overcome the Sierra Nevada or cross the floodplains of the Mississippi.

The Union Ferry Depot in San Francisco, which brought together all of the Southern Pacific-controlled ferry companies in one place on Market Street, c. 1910. [Public domain]
Meanwhile, Stanford and Huntington continued to negotiate the purchase of railroad lines, real estate, and related industries across the West Coast. In 1887, Stanford, who was serving as a senator in Congress at the time, convinced fellow senator James G. Fair, who controlled the South Pacific Coast Railroad, to lease the line to Southern Pacific. Many similar acquisitions occurred throughout the state, resulting in Southern Pacific holding a near-complete monopoly of West Coast and Southwest railroading.

The spectacular Crocker Mansion in San Francisco, which was completed shortly after his death. [Public Domain]
The surviving Big Four members remained active after the completion of their two transcontinental lines. Crocker was injured in in New York City in 1886 and died in 1888 from his injuries. His family has remained prominent in politics, although his legacy is perhaps the least of all the group. His mansion in San Francisco burned down after the 1906 earthquake but he left his heirs approximately $40 million.

Leland, Jane, and Leland Jr. posing for a family portrait in Paris, c. 1882.
Photograph by the Walery Studio. [Stanford University]
Huntington and Stanford began to fight for control of the company after the death of Crocker, with Huntington eventually gaining full ownership in 1890. Nonetheless, Stanford retained the presidency of the subsidiary Central Pacific and remained chairman of Southern Pacific for the rest of his life. Like Crocker, Stanford built a mansion on Nob Hill in San Francisco, which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Stanford's greatest legacy is, of course, the university he and his wife, Jane, founded in Palo Alto in honor of his son, Leland Stanford Jr., who died as a teenager in Italy in 1884. Stanford himself died in 1893 from heart failure related to locomotor ataxia.

Portrait of Collis Huntington, c. 1880s. [Huntington Library]
The last of the Big Four, Huntington, outlived all of his rivals to see the new century dawn, but his focus primarily turned to the East in later years. In 1881, he became heavily involved in the revival and growth of the city of Newport News, Virginia. He expanded the railroad into the city and then oversaw the conversion of the city into a massive port and shipyard. He also worked in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist, often bribing or otherwise convincing politicians to favor the interests of Southern Pacific over potential rivals. Unlike his former partners, Huntington had a large family of children and siblings that married into many important families and left their own impact on the United States. A nephew, Henry E. Huntington, is the namesake of Huntington Beach, California and the Huntington Library in San Marino. Collis Huntington, however, also has several places across the country named after him, including the Scarlet Huntington Hotel in San Francisco; the towns of Huntington in West Virginia, Texas, and British Columbia; and Mount Huntington outside Fresno. Like his peers, his mansion on Nob Hill was also destroyed in the earthquake. Huntington died on August 13, 1900, and his nephew Henry quickly sold his controlling share of Southern Pacific to Edward H. Harriman, a director of the Union Pacific Railroad, who became president of the company in 1903.

Political cartoon criticising Southern Pacific's monopoly on its railroading activity
in California. Note Stanford and Crocker in the eyes of the octopus.
Drawn by George F. Keller for The Wasp, August 19, 1882.
The Big Four certainly left their impact on California, from their railroading ventures to the foundations and businesses they established to the repercussions of their actions. Their activities helped link California and the Southwest to the East Coast, led to the development of the southern Bay Area, Los Angeles, and the San Joaquin Valley, and converted San Francisco from a collection of huts to a thriving city. It was their public perception as "nobs"—conspicuously wealthy men—that led to the founding of Nob Hill and the public perception of San Francisco as a high-class city. That being said, they were certainly robber barons and perfect representations of the Gilded Age, lampooned and criticized by such individuals as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Frank Norris. But they also represented the ideal America, as portrayed so graphically in Sunset Magazine and other Southern Pacific corporate propaganda. The Big Four were the ideal Americans—self-made rugged individualists who set goals and achieved great things. And their impact is still felt everyday across the United States and beyond.

Citations & Credits:
  • Encyclopœdia Britannica Online.
  • Raynor, Richard. The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Coast. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, publication pending.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, publication pending.

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