The golden fleece

Wendy Smith is a critic and the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

There’s a famous photograph taken on May 10, 1869, the day the Union Pacific and Central Pacific tracks met at Promontory Summit, Utah, to complete the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific’s No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s Jupiter touch cowcatchers, workers swarm over the engines, men representing each railroad shake hands at the center. The image celebrates a triumph of American vision and gumption, the culmination of a transportation revolution that would foster the growth of industry and bring settlers to a vast land’s open spaces.

But it’s not the whole picture. The photograph doesn’t show the ferocious competition that preceded it, a race across the continent funded by two groups of cutthroat businessmen. “The race was over,” Richard Rayner writes of that photo-op moment, “settled at last, not in the badlands of Utah, but in the smoke-filled study of a dodgy congressman.” In that dank room, though the scandal-plagued Union Pacific hung onto plenty of track (and boodle), the Central Pacific came out on top, with a railroad that extended hundreds of miles beyond the California state line established as its end point in the 1862 Pacific Railway Act. Those extra miles ensured that the Central Pacific would dominate rail traffic in California and the Southwest, creating a cash cow for the four titans whose shenanigans are the subject of Rayner’s lively study.

Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker weren’t interested in railroads per se so much as in what a transcontinental railroad could do for California -- and for them. All born in the East, the men individually made their way west in the wake of the gold rush, not to do anything so foolish as prospecting but to sell supplies at bonanza prices. Huntington and Hopkins had for a while cornered the market in shovels, getting as much as $100 each for implements that had cost them $4 apiece. Given a large enough monopoly, Huntington realized, the Central Pacific could be “the world’s most profitable shovel,” raking in “whatever the market would bear” in fares and freight fees.


The Associates, as Stanford dubbed the quartet that seized control of the Central Pacific from its inconveniently scrupulous founder in 1863, used any means to ensure that there were profits from this risky, cost-intensive venture. Crocker was the sole contractor; his company hired the Chinese laborers who laid rails for half the wages Irish workers demanded and who died by the hundreds as they blasted roads through the Sierra Nevada. Hopkins kept the books -- and burned them in 1873 when a congressional committee began asking questions about what had happened to the money from government bonds meant to subsidize construction costs. Huntington greased palms back East and, in an uncharacteristic display of bad judgment, recounted his maneuvers in letters to a subordinate. When the subordinate’s disgruntled widow sued the Associates, the courtroom audience gasped as those letters were read aloud. Huntington’s blunt comments about paying politicians to pass legislation that benefited the concern revealed practices that for decades had been obfuscated by the portentous statements of Stanford. The role of the former California governor and future U.S. senator and his fellow Associates was to cloak their activities in the mantle of public service and bold enterprise, “yoking patriotism to corporate necessity,” as Rayner cogently puts it.

The ethically fraught link between public benefit and enormous personal profit particularly interests the author, whose narrative briskly goes over ground trod at greater length in many previous histories. As he notes, early biographers of 19th century capitalists tended to view them as “ruthless bandits who plundered the country,” while more recent writers have argued that “they created wealth and opportunity, not just for themselves, but for everybody.” Rayner assumes a neutral stance. Bad behavior doesn’t shock this author: His blisteringly honest 1995 memoir, “The Blue Suit,” revealed his father as a larcenous car salesman who vanished with 100,000 ill-gotten English pounds and matter-of-factly recounted Rayner’s own youthful career as a shoplifter, check forger and burglar. He’s long since relocated to L.A. and gone straight, producing well-regarded novels and nonfiction, but he retains some respect for buccaneers like the Associates.

“It’s the entwining of achievement and plunder that makes them so precisely American,” Rayner writes. The Associates were also thoroughly modern, creating at the end of the 19th century the kind of corporation that still holds sway at the beginning of the 21st: “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility,” as Ambrose Bierce defined it in “The Devil’s Dictionary.”

When the government loans that had made the Associates rich came due in the 1890s and Huntington tried to have a bill passed that would indefinitely postpone repayment, Bierce led the fight to force the railroad to meet its obligations. It was a rare defeat for men who thought that politicians and journalists could always be bought. But Huntington still left an estate worth millions, and the Associates’ assumption was correct more often than not, as we see in Rayner’s account of wheeling and dealing that forged California’s economic, political and geographic landscape -- for better and worse.