The Inside Man The Life and Times of Mark Hopkins of New York, Michigan, and California
Salvador Ramirez  1982  in two volumes and 1382 pages.

The first thing to say is that The Inside Man was heavily researched and that’s most clearly shown by the 250 pages of footnotes the two volumes contain.  Another thing to say at first, is that the title is “…Mark Hopkins…”  but you get so much more.  The detail in the book is astounding.

Mark Hopkins was one of the Big 4 who built the Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad.  The railroad opened California to the world and initially developed Donner Summit and Truckee.  The railroad set the stage for what was to come: the transcontinental  highway, the transcontinental air route, the transcontinental telephone line, and the coming of winter sports and tourism.

Hopkins had an even more direct connection to Donner Summit.  He owned Summit Soda Springs, the original Soda Springs along with a hotel there just eight miles from the railroad in the north fork of the American River Canyon.  He helped start the tourist trade on Donner Summit.  It was that reference that brought the book to the attention of the DSHS.  We were researching the original Soda Springs and came across a reference to a footnote in The Inside Man. We had to get the book to see the source of the footnote and thought that a book about Mark Hopkins might be a good addition to the library. He was the least well-known of the Big 4 and given the accomplishment of the railroad and all that must have gone into it, his story must be compelling.  What kind of person could do that?

Unfortunately the book is not about Mark Hopkins.  There are references to Hopkins but there is little about Hopkins beyond what we can infer.  Instead, the book is another one about the transcontinental railroad,  the other railroads the Big 4 acquired or built, and a lot of detail about a lot of things.  This book does not come at the railroad in the traditional way however.  It is really a compendium of conflicts that led to the railroad, conflicts during construction, conflicts during operation, and then further conflicts afterwards.  Money is one of the driving forces behind railroads and so the conflicts almost all have to do with money – in excruciating details. 

Using conflict as the theme, we can list the conflicts as fights with newspapers, politicians (in California and Washington D.C.), other railroad people, among the Big 4 themselves, with business men, with the public and with rate payers, and dealing with lawsuits.  The subjects of controversy were again and again financing, Goat Island, subsidies, grants, laws, where the terminus should be at different times, buy-outs, elections, fares, and deals/deals/deals.

We know that the ordinary reader is not going to read most of the books we review, particularly the 19th Century books and so we use the reviews as a way to talk about more history rather than just the books themselves.  In this case however, there is so much detail about so many conflicts and other things, that the reader’s head will begin to swim.

We do get an introduction to Mark Hopkins at the beginning of the book in a recital of facts that covers ninety pages or so. He was 35 when he and his brothers left New York for California in 1849.  Ramirez says Hopkins was meticulous, had good judgment, didn’t gamble smoke or drink, was responsible (he took care of his younger brothers), and was ambitious.  He thought California looked like a good opportunity.  To get to California Hopkins joined a joint stock company that invested in what would be needed there and gave people more strength than if they went singly.  It was a common was a common way of going.

He arrived in San Francisco after 194 days at sea on August 5, 1849.  He went up river to mine and experienced “six of the hardest days work every performed anywhere” which led Hopkins to say I’ll “dig my gold some other way.”  That is the most personal piece about Hopkins in the entire book.  Hopkins became a traveling merchant selling supplies to mines and then opened stores in Placerville and Sacramento.  The stores were an immediate success and so Hopkins started buying land and renting it.  He went back to New York a couple of times and married a cousin.

That first part, getting to California and setting up businesses, is good background and through it we can infer many qualities about Hopkins and what made him successful. None of that is discussed or elaborated upon.  He must have been as Ramirez says, ambitious, had good judgment, been responsible, and meticulous (since he was a numbers guy).  He was a public servant serving in a couple of municipal capacities which is a good characteristic.  He must have had other important qualities too: hard working and a chance taker since he put a lot at risk in the railroad venture and in starting multiple businesses.  At one point he tried to prevent slaves from being sent back to Mississippi. He was the conscience of the Sacramento City Council in terms of dealing with budgetary problems.  He provided money for a school for black children but would not do so for Chinese children. He adopted two children in 1862.  Those items all let us infer what kind of person Hopkins was.

Where in that background is a discussion of the man, Mark Hopkins?  Where is analysis of “what made him tick”, what was important to him, how he made choices, what drove him, etc.  Why did he support the black children and not the Chinese?  Thousands of people came to California in similar circumstances for similar reasons. What induced him to take the big chance to go to California beyond that it looked like a “good opportunity?”  What induced Mark Hopkins to cut his losses in mining and go into business and make several successes?  What induced him to join the CP venture which changed California and the country and made him extremely wealthy? What was his character beyond what we can infer from cold rendition of facts? Why did he feel responsible for the community and do community service? Was the CPRR gamble part of that?  What doubts and fears did he have on the way?  Why did he feel he should adopt two children?  When building the railroad was the toughest going, how did he deal with the challenges?

Even that background, which covers other subjects, is only ninety pages or so of the thirteen hundred page book. 

Once the book has set the background it moves on to politics, backgrounds of the other Big 4, and the railroads.  Mark Hopkins is left behind except for some gratuitous mentions to keep him in the picture.  For example, the  first sentence of chapter 18 says, “Eighteen sixty-seven dawned for Hopkins, and his associates, with an air of great expectancy.”  It seems just an added sentence.

There is just too much detail in the book. For example, in the first part of the book there is an introduction to Mark Hopkins serving as an elected official but instead of introducing Mark Hopkins, public servant and why he decided to enter local politics there are pages of other things: descriptions of U.S. political parties, ballots and how people used them, and then a long discussion of Sacramento city finances. The upshot was that Mark Hopkins was fiscally prudent but it goes on way too long since the detail does not add to anything about Mark Hopkins’ character or motivations.

Besides the railroad, the book covers a lot of other topics: floods in Sacramento and levees, hydraulic mining, getting to California, raising Sacramento, setting up businesses, the Red Cross, the backgrounds of his various partners, and quite a bit about State and Federal politics.  One topic covered heavily is Hopkins’ background and people in his family (you need a scorecard to keep track of the all the Hopkins during that section). Again, little is said of Mark Hopkins.

Besides the book being titled, The Life and Times of Mark Hopkins, and then never approaching the man and mostly spending the time on building and acquiring railroads, there are a couple of other niggling issues.

There are a lot of suppositions in the book with some form of “most likely,” “probably,” etc.   They became so frequent I started listing the pages and collected 26 of those between pages 78 and 303. If it’s not an important fact and there is no supporting evidence the suppositions should be left out.  They take away from the historical research. 

Irrelevancies take up space.   For example, track had to be inspected prior to awarding of government bonds. At one point there were three initial inspectors, but one was unsatisfactory and had to be replaced. So what?   And what has that to do with Mark Hopkins?  That shows the huge amount of detail that Ramirez has found, but it all didn’t have to be put into the book.

Then there is the issue of James McClathy, founder of the Sacramento Bee.  This is referenced a couple of times in the first volume and puzzled me until I realized that it should be James McClatchy.  That was fixed in Volume II.  There is at least one chapter named one thing in the text but another in the footnotes.  Most books have a little bigger margin on the inside of the pages than on the outside to account for binding.  This book doesn’t and so reading is made difficult unless one continually breaks the spine which of course is bad for the book.

Another problem is that the book is not linear.  It skips around leaving the reader unsure in which year she is unless she checks the letter or article’s dates in the footnotes.

To end on a better note, We take the TCRR for granted but there were lots of hurdles besides the Sierra to get over. Laws had to be passed, people convinced, support lined up, material had to be shipped, thousands of miles around the Horn, labor had to be procured and financing secured.   To do the latter a complex combination of Federal bonds, State support, county subscriptions to stock and individual stock sales had to be concocted.  There were lots of conditions to be met.  The railroad could not be paid for example, until track was laid but how do you pay for all he materials, equipment and labor with no money?  That was all complicated but then there were the hurdles thrown up by the Sacramento Valley Railroad which didn’t want the CPRR to succeed over Donner Summit and preferred their route over So. Lake Tahoe.  The SVRR fought with lawsuits, appeals, injunctions, skullduggery, and political chicanery.  Some author could do a good legal thriller over the machinations of the SVRR and the CPRR responses tied to the character of someone who could accomplish all that is in the first part of this paragraph.  Someone like that could be true hero.  That was never covered in this book though.