High Road to Promontory
1969 George Kraus

We take for granted trains, highways, and fast travel but there was a time, before the railroad, when it took four or five days just to cross the Sierra.  That stage travel was a lot faster than wagon trains or freight wagons, but it was still slow.

There were only 400 or so Americans in California before 1848 and even after was discovered there were only one hundred thousand people or so. California was an isolated land three thousand miles from the rest of the U.S.  Still, it was growing and better communication was needed.  With the Civil War the need was obvious to keep California in the Union.  Hence  the transcontinental railroad was launched.  This book is about the building of the road from Sacramento to Utah.

Although it was written some time ago, it is readily available for purchase and in libraries.  It is the classic book on the building of the Central Pacific.

The story covers all aspects of the building: early attempts, route, government aid, famous personalities, Civil War influence, whether locomotives could go uphill (seriously), and Congress’ inability to act.

In telling the story the author relies on lots of pictures for illustration, some maps, and many, many primary source quotes from newspapers, letters, and reminiscences.  It’s interesting to read about bucking the snow, traveling on the first trains, and reading descriptions of railroad camps and work.

There are lots of stories too: the Dutch Flat Swindle, opposition to the railroad, how the definition of the Sierra puts their start only 7 miles from Sacramento, the break with Judah (the man who devised the route and did much to sell the idea of building the railroad), and the terrible winters.

You learn how the railroad was financed and the incredible risk the Big 4 took.   They could get no bank loans for the railroad company and could get no government aid until 40 miles of track had been laid and approved.  The Big 4 had to personally guarantee the loans to build the first miles of track and pay for materials.

There are lots of details like the names of the locomotives, arrivals, ship names, the numbers of stages and passengers on the stage routes, freight rates, average speed of trains (22 mph for passengers and 15 for freight), how the Chinese lived, rail weight, twisting oxen tails, tunnel work crews, etc.

Since this is the Donner Summit Historical Society, that’s why I was reading the book and there is some specific to the Summit.  There is the Great Summit Tunnel, avalanche, hauling engines over the summit, the Tunnel 6 shaft engine, the first train over the summit, the terrible Summit winters, and some quotes such as of hiking to the top of Castle Peak.

If you want a good introduction to the building of the railroad this is it.

There is one oft repeated incorrect fact.  Relying on the memory of one worker it is described that the Big 4 undertook side enterprises besides the railroad.  One of those was the Summit Ice Co at Ice or Serene Lakes.  There was an ice company there for a couple of years but it was not owned by the Big 4 or even one of the Big 4.  It was owned by B.B. Redding and partners. B.B. was a railroad agent and friend of Mark Hopkins.  the company moved to Prosser in 1872 because there was too much snow on the Summit and it was colder at Prosser.  Summit Ice later became part of the Union Ice Co..