Orville Hickman Browning, Secretary of the Interior during the Andrew Johnson administration, had the responsibility of issuing government bonds used to finance the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Browning had earlier completed the senatorial term of Stephen A. Douglas, after the latter’s death in mid-1861. In 1844, as a lawyer in Illinois, Browning had successfully defended the accused murderers of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints. In 1868, charges of poor construction were made against the Union Pacific. Before he would issue more bonds, Browning appointed three men to a special commission to inspect the railroad.
One member was Major Gouverneur K. Warren, considered by some to have saved the Union Army at Gettysburg in 1863 when he was a Major General of Volunteers and Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac. After the war, he reverted to his Regular Army rank of major and served in the Engineer Corps. The second member was James Barnes. A Brigadier General of Volunteers at Gettysburg, it was one of his brigades (which included the 20th Maine) that held the Union’s far left flank on Little Round Top. The brigade was placed there at the insistence of Warren over Barnes’s objection. Prior to the war Barnes had been a construction engineer for various railroads, and it was to that profession he returned after the war. The final member was Ohio engineer Jacob Blickensderfer. He had been appointed by Secretary Browning in 1866 to determine where the base of the Rocky Mountains started. His recommendation established the point at which the Union Pacific received the highest value paid by the government for each mile of track laid. He later accepted a position as a construction engineer on the staff of General Grenville M. Dodge, the UP’s Chief Engineer. Blickensderfer had to take a leave of absence from his Union Pacific job to serve on the commission. Really!
General Dodge served as a guide for the three men on their inspection tour. In November 1868, the commission reported to Secretary Browning that “. . . few mistakes were made . . . few defects exist . . .” and “. . . this great work . . . [is] rapidly approaching completion under . . . favorable auspices.” More bonds were issued.
In November 1868, another of the infamous Hell on Wheels towns appeared overnight. Bear River City, Wyoming, lay close to the Utah border, 890 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska. Following the vigilante lynching of a suspected murderer on November 19, a mob of two hundred men burned down the printing office of Bear River City’s Frontier Index, generally attempted to annihilate the town, and killed sixteen people. A company of soldiers were dispatched from nearby Fort Bridger, Wyoming, to impose martial law. A couple of weeks later, Bear River City disappeared. The railroad had moved on.
Meanwhile, out in northern Nevada, the Central Pacific kept chugging steadily eastward toward the Utah border. Their ultimate objective was to beat the Union Pacific to Ogden, Utah, and perhaps push up Echo Canyon as far as the Wyoming border.
Grenville Dodge and Jacob Blickensderfer appear frequently on the pages of The Iron Horse Chronicles.