This is a remarkably candid series, "The American Experience." The usual interpretation of the building of the transcontinental railroad is one of hard-working Americans -- God-fearing sons of the soil -- conquering weather, mountains, and marauding Indians. The technological expression of Manifest Destiny. (Play triumphant music here.) We all have seen the famous photo of the driving of the golden spike uniting the Central and Union Pacific Railroads.
That the last spike was actually driven elsewhere, and that the photo we all know was actually staged, isn't important. What is important is that "there is nothing that is either good or bad but thinking makes it so." This program is an entertaining lesson in analysis about a rather dull subject. Only old ladies and aerophobes ride trains these days. Too leisurely for our hard-charging society.
The planning of the railroad, in the years before the Civil War, was already in dispute. Stephen Douglas, the famous Lincoln debater, owned some property along his proposed line, which was to begin in his state, Illinois. Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, wanted the route to start in Georgia. The arguments were understandable because, after all, there was a great deal of money to be made.
Example. Thomas C. Durant, "an energetic and restless man who loved making money and knew how to do it," bought a lot of real estate around Omaha. President Lincoln owed political capital to the state of Iowa, who had given him the nomination in 1860, so he designated Council Bluffs, Iowa, as the starting point for the Union Pacific. Council Bluffs was on the east bank of a river and the larger city of Omaha was on the west. Any railroad being built westward had to pass through Omaha. Since Durant owned that real estate, he sold it to the federal government at a great profit.
He made money any way he could. He bought contraband cotton from the Confederacy. He sold his own company short. He manipulated stocks by buying up a lot of one company, forcing its competitor's price to drop, then shifting to the competitor's company. He never really cared whether the railroad was finished because he bought real estate along the tracks, knowing that settlements would grow there. He illegally bribed congressmen who, in turn, granted him more land, along with the rights to any minerals or oil found under that land.
Durant wasn't alone in his enterprise. Everybody else was cashing in too, entrepreneurs with names like Crocker, Huntington, and Stanford. When the company declared its first dividend, their representative was surrounded by congressmen begging for free shares or asking for a loan to buy them. To be clear about this, these men who were passing legislation on the railroads were the railroads' own stockholders. In one eighteen-month period, all stockholders received more than 341% in dividends. The wife of the chief engineer owned 100 shares of stock at $200 per share. So her dividends amounted to about $70,000. Meanwhile, the working crews of the Union Pacific were going without pay because all the money was being paid to the stockholders. The whole enterprise was corrupt, from the legislators in Washington to the executives and down to the clerks who were bribed to let cars pass with loads lighter than they should have been. The investigation that followed is known as the Credit Mobillier scandal but the only person to pay a penalty was one of the least culpable.
I've concentrated on the unscrupulous goings on behind the scene, partly because it's unavoidable and partly because the film lays them out so clearly. Nobody denies, though, that the transcontinental railroad was a momentous achievement in more ways than one. It ruined the cultures of the plains Indians, but it made possible a shorter trip from coast to coast -- instead of six months by wagon, a week by rail. But the underhandedness of the management does stain the picture of triumph over hardship.
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