The big four

The Big Four

Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, better known to history as the «Big Four,» were instrumental in building the Central Pacific Railroad and developing California’s railroad system in the years between 1861 and 1900. Of modest origins, all were born or had lived in upstate New York prior to being drawn West by the Gold Rush. Huntington and Hopkins were partners in a hardware company; Stanford operated a grocery business with his brothers; and Crocker was a dry goods merchant. Prosperous by 1860, they all supported the presidential candidacy of Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican Party when called together by Theodore Judah to hear his idea for a railroad to the East. The start of the Civil War prompted their active involvement, and they invested every energy in building the western part of the first transcontinental railroad.

The greatest historical event in transportation on the continent occurred at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, as the Union Pacific tracks joined those of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins were the «Big Four» that conceived this enterprise and brought it to a successful ending after years of daily struggle that would have exhausted the patience and spirit of ordinary men. Huntington looked after the financing of the company. Crocker, with his tremendous energy, forced the construction of rails over the snow-crested Sierra and across the burning deserts of Nevada and Utah. Stanford kept his energies on the main points leading to success, and Hopkins saw that none of the money was wasted. That pioneer railroad line of the middle ’60s formed the basis of the gigantic Southern Pacific system.

The connection of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific bridged the 2000 miles to the Missouri River, and the four to six months time taken by the overland pioneers was reduced to six days. At once the Pacific States were transformed, and Western life gradually caught up with the life and aspirations of the East.

A transcontinental railroad had been dreamed of as early as 1836. From time to time it was suggested by visionaries and discussed by the orators and newspapers of the ’40s and ’50s. In 1853 Congress expended $150,000 in hunting a feasible route. Surveys were made from time to time. The California Legislature took a hand in the issue in 1855-6, fearing that Congress might relax its energies, and urged a speedy construction of a railroad, but the jealousy of politicians delayed the initiative. Meanwhile short line railroads were developing in the Middle West. Some of these united, and systems began to develop.

Leland Stanford is generally given credit for the initiative in starting the enterprise. In passing the store of Collis P. Huntington in Sacramento, one day, he noticed one of the huge freight wagons being loaded for the arduous haul over the Sierra into Nevada. Traffic was developing rapidly, and he realized that a better carrier and faster service was demanded. He and Huntington talked the matter over. Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker were drawn into the discussion; they all agreed that the time had come for a railroad connection with the East. Theodore Judah, for whom Judah Street is named, had surveyed a route over the Sierra and had interested Stanford in its practicability. He was sent for, and backed with money to go over several surveyed routes known and select the best one. Meanwhile, the corporation organized with Leland Stanford as president, C.P. Huntington as vice-president, and Mark Hopkins as treasurer. Charles Crocker was a leading direction, and the spirit of dominant energy in pressing construction through and over all obstruction. Eventually the Big Four controlled a far-flung network of railroad enterprises which gave them enormous wealth and political power. Admired and detested as the West’s first «Railroad Kings,» they left a legacy of railroad development which still influences transportation and politics in California.

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