One hundred fifty years ago, one of the most significant events in the construction of the first transcontinental railroad took place. The incident did not involve the physical laying of any track, but it influenced the final work on the Union Pacific Railroad.
Thomas “Doc” Durant served as the senior executive officer for the UP, and General Grenville M. Dodge was the company’s chief engineer. Two years earlier, Durant had enticed Dodge to join the Union Pacific to bring his military organizational skills to bear on the UP’s construction. The two men gradually drew apart in their concept of what should be done. Durant favored cheapening and lengthening the line to collect more money in the form of government bonds. Dodge believed in building a quality product covering the shortest route. Their disagreement came to a head on July 26, 1868.
General Ulysses S. Grant, recently nominated as the Republican candidate for President, came west for an inspection tour of the Union Pacific. His entourage included several other important Army generals who wanted a quick finish to the work. They anticipated its use in moving troops and supplies more expeditiously around the west in the growing conflict with the Indians. After the generals traveled to the end of track at Benton, Wyoming, they returned to Fort Sanders outside the newly established town of Laramie.
In the Officers’ Club there, Doc Durant met with Grant and demanded Dodge follow the plans dictated by Durant’s consulting engineer, Silas Seymour (whom the UP workforce called the “insulting engineer”). Dodge informed Grant that if anyone interfered with his efforts, he would resign. Grant, having witnessed Dodge’s capabilities as a general officer during the war, informed Durant that Dodge must be retained in his position until the job was done. Anticipating Grant’s election, and knowing he would be in a position to withhold government financing, Durant sheepishly withdrew his objection.
Andrew J. Russel, official photographer for the UP, took this shot of all the participants standing in front of the Fort Sanders’ Officers’ Club, where the meeting took place.
Will Braddock, the youthful protagonist in The Iron Horse Chronicles, witnessed the whole thing. You can read about it in Bear Claws, the second book in the trilogy.
Will continues to work for General Dodge until the railroad is completed on May 10, 1869.