The Continental Reckoning

Today's selection -- from Continental Reckoning by Elliott West. The most ambitious big U.S. government project of the nineteenth century was the transcontinental railroad:

"No event in the West during these years commanded more public attention than the Pacific rail project. Journals and newspapers followed it in scores of articles, and few literary visitors resisted observing and writing about the spectacle. Its scale and visibility alone made it difficult to ignore, but it had more than that going for it. The simple fact of its being built, the particulars of how it was carried out, and imagined events and threats that in fact were not there were the ideal makings for myths around the emerging West and its meanings for a reconstructing America. 

“The most obvious theme was of western settlement as the unifying sequel to the Civil War's saving the Union. As if in relay, the Union Pacific's first rails were being laid simultaneously with the end of the war. Its most prominent field commanders came from high in the ranks in eastern campaigns. Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge had served in Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi, and Brig. Gen. Jack Casement in engagements throughout the war, eventually marching through Georgia under William T. Sherman. Sherman himself would oversee protection along the route. Descriptions of construction evoked troops in mass array. Construction teams stood ‘like the grand reserve of an army’ behind the graders, and once at work their spiking of rails sounded up close like a ‘hotly contested skirmish’ and from a distance like the ‘roar of the wonderful advance.’ 

“In 1873 the popular Croffut's Transcontinental Tourist Guide recalled that in 1860 the nation had faced being riven, not into two, but into three parts—North, South, and West. It had taken the Civil War, that ‘carnival of blood,’ to convince naysayers into building the Pacific railroad that now joined all three into one. The next year Croffut's would feature on its cover John Gast's American Progress, with its floating female figure leading the railroad westward while stringing a telegraph line. Politicians hailed the project as truly national. A ‘free and living Republic’ would spring up along rail lines as ‘surely as grass and flowers follow in the spring,’ one promised. His reference was not to Nevada or Oregon but to the former Confederacy. Railroads were called agents of both reconstruction and recommitment. They would fuse all sections into one by tapping their resources, easing the movement of their peoples, and overcoming a bloody past with a binding prosperity.

The U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in 1944, on the 75th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad in America.

“In this, the shift in the railroad's message could not have been sharper. An especially illuminating irony of the Union Pacific is this: Credit Mobilier, the corrupt engine that drove construction of what was now celebrated as the nation's great unifier, had been born in dedication to national division. Before it was acquired and renamed by Thomas Durant and George Francis Train, it was the Pennsylvania Fiscal Agency, brainchild of Duff Green, an ardent slavery apologist from Georgia who hoped to fund lines from New Orleans through Texas and then both westward to Southern California and southwestward through Mexico to Mazatlan. His was one of many visions of a powerful bi-oceanic Southeast resting on the institution ‘intended by a wise Providence’ for any civilized order—Black slavery. 

“Now, with the Union preserved, the rhetoric of sectional dissonance gave way to one of railroads as agents of coalescence. As with the telegraph, bodily metaphors seemed irresistible. When the Pacific line was completed, Chicago celebrated with a hundred thousand persons in a seven-mile-long procession that ended with a windy oration by Vice President Schuyler Colfax. His imagery was both tangled and revealing. The nation had been literally reborn. Before the war it had been divided north-to-south but also, overall, had been a sprawling, inchoate body, what France's Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand had called ‘a giant without bones,’ In the war that body had found its strength and now, reaching westward, it had found its form. The new America lay toward the Pacific, the railroad its spine and with ‘iron ribs in every direction’ and arms reaching for the commerce of Asia.

“This vision, of the railroad embodying a renewed nation, had distinctive western colorations. First among them was virility, a West of unbridled masculine energy. Its clearest description was in the towns, ‘Hell on Wheels,’ that served as supply and recreation points. North Platte in Nebraska, Julesburg in Colorado, Benton, Laramie, Cheyenne, and Green River in Wyoming, and Bear River in Utah—some had been snoozing stage stops before being shaken awake. Others were built from nothing. All were collections of tents and flimsy plank buildings along dust-blown streets. Like other western working sites, notably mining camps and cattle towns, they were dominated by young men with spending money and glands at full throttle, on the loose from monotonous grunt work done under tight discipline. There was open, rampant vice. Visitors like Henry Morton Stanley wrote of the many hard cases, sharpers, and especially prostitutes, ‘expensive articles [who] come in for a large share of the money wasted.’ A large, revolving population of over-liquored men translated into plenty of brawling and high-decibel disorder. There were a handful of homicides and in Bear River a riot that took at least a dozen lives. Cheyenne vigilantes hanged seven men in 1867 and 1868.  

“That rough reality, however, was consistently overstressed. An eastern reporter claimed absurdly that Julesburg hosted 750 brothels and gambling houses. Samuel Bowles wrote that the towns, ‘congregation[s] of scum and wickedness,’ averaged a murder a day. Stanley agreed on the homicidal clip and noted that men walked the streets of Julesburg who had murdered for five dollars. The going rate in Cheyenne was ten, wrote a Chicago Tribune correspondent. There is nothing to back up such claims, however. The Frontier Index, a newspaper that moved with the railroad, eagerly recorded the violence it witnessed from Laramie to Green River to Bear River, yet between March and November of 1868 it noted only a single murder and three lynchings (and dozens of arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct).

“Even correcting for lively exaggeration, there seems something like a compulsive inflation of mayhem and dissipation that would be repeated over and again by visitors to the new country. The towns pictured at the tip of the railroad were expressions of expansion as national machismo. It was an image that would appear and prosper in various settings, a West of hairy chests and split lips.”

Continental Reckoning The American West in the Age of Expansion
author: Elliott West  
title: Continental Reckoning: The American West in the Age of Expansion  
publisher: University of Nebraska Press  
page(s): 196-198