Modern history


Railroad Battleground

Among my earliest memories are those of being down at the railroad depot with my grandfather, watching the trains come in. It was the 1950s, and I wish I had realized then what an era was passing before my eyes. I grew up dreaming of airplanes and space travel, but my fascination with railroads never left me. Ironically, fifty years later, there has been a great resurgence in America’s dependence on rails. It will never be the same as the Santa Fe Super Chief, of course, or the California Zephyr that I rode west from Chicago with Grandpa and Grandma, but America’s commerce still rides the rails—no more so than on the direct Los Angeles-to-Chicago super route across the American Southwest.

Much has been written about America’s first transcontinental railroad, but driving the golden spike at Promontory Summit in 1869 signaled merely the beginning of the transcontinental railroad saga. The pre–Civil War notion that only one rail line would cross the continent vanished on the prairie winds. The rest of the country was suddenly up for grabs. Dozens of railroads, all with aggressive empire builders at their helms, raced one another for the ultimate prize of a southern transcontinental route that was generally free of snow, shorter in distance, and gentler in gradients.

The Denver and Rio Grande Railway’s gentleman general, William Jackson Palmer, put his railroad’s three-foot narrow gauge rails up against the big boys. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s William Barstow Strong and Edward Payson Ripley made sure that the routes were staked and won, and then created a textbook example of efficiency upon them. Collis P. Huntington, having already won half the West for the Central Pacific, determined to control the other half for the Southern Pacific. Above them all floated the shadowy hand of Jay Gould, a man who bought and sold railroads as readily as some men traded horses.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of ordinary men waged a different type of war: the herculean task of constructing the bridges, tunnels, cuts, and fills of these empires and hurriedly flinging track across wild and wide-open country. Among their challenges were vast distances, high elevations, tortuous canyons, unruly rivers, and two towering walls of mountains. The better routes were often not to be shared—admitting no passage wider than the ruts of a wagon or the steel rails of a single track of railroad.

From wagon ruts to a railroad empire, this is the story of the battles to control the heavily contested transportation corridors of the American Southwest and to build America’s greatest transcontinental route through them. When the dust finally settled, the southern route linking Los Angeles and Chicago had become the most significant of the nation’s transcontinental railroads.

Railroads and Railroaders

A Cast of Characters


There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of railroad names scattered about the American West. The vast majority were “paper” railroads, incorporated legally to hold a route, bluff an opponent, or appease local economic interests—all without laying a single railroad tie. Many of the companies that incorporated and actually laid track went through a succession of names because of mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations after bankruptcy. Sometimes the change was no more than for Railroad to become Railway or vice versa. Many of these, too, drifted into oblivion or became part of larger enterprises. Finally, the principal contenders were frequently forced by state or territorial laws to incorporate separate corporations within certain boundaries.

References herein are usually to the major railroads without distinction to their numerous controlled affiliates, subsidiaries, or joint ventures. This list is by no means definitive—nor even comprehensive of the railroads in this book—but it is an effort to identify the key roads.

A note about ampersands: The ampersand (&) is a staple of railroading, but its usage was varied and highly inconsistent. Consequently, and is used herein in railroad names to avoid confusion.

ATCHISON, TOPEKA AND SANTA FE—Organized in 1860, the railroad finally started construction in 1868 and eventually became the dominant transcontinental system in the southwestern United States.

ATLANTIC AND PACIFIC—Forced into early receivership, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad emerged as a joint venture of the Santa Fe and Frisco railroads and eventually became the key link in the Santa Fe’s main line across Arizona.

CALIFORNIA SOUTHERN—With capital from Santa Fe investors, the California Southern built north from San Diego to San Bernardino and eventually over Cajon Pass.

CENTRAL PACIFIC—The western end of the first transcontinental, the Central Pacific was the foundation of the “Big Four” ’s (Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington, and Stanford) empire and became an important part of the Southern Pacific system.

CHICAGO, BURLINGTON AND QUINCY—Known most readily as “the Burlington,” the railroad had pre–Civil War origins but became a transcontinental contender when it built west to Colorado and later pioneered the Zephyr streamliners.

COLORADO MIDLAND—Built by mining tycoon J. J. Hagerman from Colorado Springs to Aspen, this road through the heart of Colorado was sold to the Santa Fe just before the panic of 1893.

DENVER AND RIO GRANDE—Initially a narrow gauge incorporated by William Jackson Palmer to run south from Denver and serve as a north-south feeder line, the Denver and Rio Grande developed its own transcontinental ambitions.

DENVER AND RIO GRANDE WESTERN—Incorporated in 1881 and known simply as the Rio Grande Western after 1889, this segment between Grand Junction, Colorado, and Ogden, Utah, remained under William Jackson Palmer’s control until sold to the Denver and Rio Grande in 1903. After a reorganization in 1920, the entire Rio Grande system was called the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.

DENVER, SOUTH PARK AND PACIFIC—This was a feisty narrow gauge with which founder John Evans and Denver investors hoped to tap the mineral riches of central Colorado and then connect Denver to the Pacific.

GULF, COLORADO AND SANTA FE—This railroad made halfhearted progress north through Texas from Galveston until it was absorbed into the Santa Fe system, giving that road access from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico.

KANSAS PACIFIC—Begun as the Union Pacific, Eastern Division, its completed line between Kansas City and Denver eventually became part of the Union Pacific.

MEXICAN CENTRAL—A standard gauge concession granted by Mexico to Santa Fe interests, its main line stretched from El Paso, Texas, to Mexico City.

MEXICAN NATIONAL—A narrow gauge road built under concession to William Jackson Palmer and his associates, it ran from Laredo, Texas, to Mexico City.

MISSOURI PACIFIC—A sleepy local road until bought by Jay Gould, the Missouri Pacific evolved into the centerpiece of the Gould empire, extending west to Colorado and south to the Gulf of Mexico via the Texas and Pacific Railway.

ST. LOUIS AND SAN FRANCISCO—Despite transcontinental dreams, the Frisco, as it was called, remained a Midwest regional road, but its western land grants made the Atlantic and Pacific possible.

SOUTHERN PACIFIC—Acquiring a number of small Bay Area railroads, the Southern Pacific built east across Arizona and New Mexico and was the domain of Collis P. Huntington.

TEXAS AND PACIFIC—Saved from early bankruptcy by Thomas A. Scott, who later sold it to Jay Gould, the road built across Texas to link up with the Southern Pacific.

UNION PACIFIC—The eastern end of the first transcontinental, the Union Pacific slipped into receivership before becoming a powerhouse under E. H. Harriman.

UNION PACIFIC, EASTERN DIVISION—Always a separate entity from the original Union Pacific, this road became the Kansas Pacific and reached Denver by 1870.

WESTERN PACIFIC—Not to be confused with an early Bay Area venture absorbed into the Southern Pacific, this was George Gould’s twentieth-century effort between Ogden and Oakland via the Feather River Canyon.


MARY JANE COLTER (1869–1958)—Architect and designer whose buildings and interiors tied the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe to the landscape it served.

CHARLES CROCKER (1822–1888)—One of the Central Pacific’s Big Four and the construction expert behind the effort to build the Southern Pacific across the Southwest.

JOHN EVANS (1814–1897)—Principal founder of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad and the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway between Colorado and Texas.

GEORGE GOULD (1864–1923)—Jay’s son and ruler of his own considerable empire of the Missouri Pacific, Denver and Rio Grande, and Western Pacific.

JAY GOULD (1836–1892)—Wall Street banker who at one time or another controlled the Union Pacific, Texas and Pacific, Denver and Rio Grande, Frisco, and Missouri Pacific.

E. H. HARRIMAN (1848–1909)—New York banker turned rail baron, he revitalized the Union Pacific and began an acquisition program that included the Southern Pacific.

FRED HARVEY (1835–1901)—The Santa Fe’s marketing ace in the hole as the purveyor of solid, reliable food in Harvey House restaurants and hotels up and down the Santa Fe line.

CYRUS K. HOLLIDAY (1826–1900)—Visionary behind the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and a longtime member of its board of directors.

MARK HOPKINS (1813–1879)—Big Four accountant and money counter whose attention to detail and underlying conservatism made them all millionaires.

COLLIS P. HUNTINGTON (1821–1900)—The Big Four’s insatiable expansionist who championed the Southern Pacific and extended a railroad empire across the continent.

WILLIAM RAYMOND MORLEY (1846–1883)—The Santa Fe’s man on the scene at the pivotal battles for Raton Pass and the Royal Gorge.

THOMAS NICKERSON (1810–1892)—Sea captain turned railroad investor, he led the Santa Fe through its turbulent expansion during the 1870s.

WILLIAM JACKSON PALMER (1836–1909)—Construction manager of the Kansas Pacific’s drive across the plains and guiding light of the narrow gauge Denver and Rio Grande.

EDWARD PAYSON RIPLEY (1845–1920)—Foremost an “operations” man, he guided the Santa Fe out of the panic of 1893 with steady expansion and sound management.

A. A. ROBINSON (1844–1919)—The engineer and implementer of much of the Santa Fe’s expansion, he made the decision to seize Raton Pass.

WILLIAM S. ROSECRANS (1819–1898)—Civil War general who went west to seek his fortune in railroads and real estate, particularly in Southern California and Mexico.

THOMAS A. SCOTT (1823–1881)—Thomson’s right-hand man at the Pennsylvania Railroad, he sought to extend its network with the Texas and Pacific.

LELAND STANFORD (1824–1893)—More politician than railroader, he handled the political strings of the Big Four as California governor and U.S. senator.

WILLIAM BARSTOW STRONG (1837–1914)—The president of the Santa Fe from the battle for Raton Pass through the completion of its line across Arizona and into California.

J. EDGAR THOMSON (1808–1874)—The man many call “the father of the modern railroad network,” he led the Pennsylvania Railroad with the mantra “Build west.”



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