A Railroad Record That Defies Defeat
How Central Pacific laid ten miles of track in one day back in 1869
By ERLE HEATH, Associate Editor
Southern Pacific Bulletin, Vol. XVI, No. 5, May, 1928, pp. 3-5.
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FIFTY-NlNE years ago a squad of eight Irishmen and a small army of Chinese
coolies made a record in track laying that has never been equalled. In one
day, on April 28, 1869, these men, fired with the enthusiasm of the greatest
railroad construction race in the history of the world, laid ten miles and
fifty-six feet of track in a little less than twelve hours to bring the railhead
of the Central Pacific three and one-half miles from Promontory, Utah, where
connection was made a few days later with the Union Pacific to form the first
The names of the Irish rail handlers have been passed down through the years. Their super-human achievement will be remembered as long as there is railroad history.
So, too, will that day's work of "John Chinaman" be recalled as the most stirring event in the building of the railroad.
During six years the builders of the Central Pacific, at times numbering 14,000 men, had pierced the snow covered, granite walls of the high Sierra and extended their trail of iron over the barren plains 675 miles eastward. For more than five years the Union Pacific had been building westward. Officers of both roads were awake to the future advantages that would accrue to the company having the longest mileage. This rivalry extended through the ranks from the presidents to the track laborers. There followed some marvelous feats of track laying.
This is a page copied from the time book kept by George Coley, foreman of the Central Pacific crew that laid ten miles and fifty-six feet of railroad track in one day on April 28, 1869, setting a record that has never been equalled. The foreman's notations give the mileage stations between which the track was laid, and the names of the men who did the job, also the fact that the men received four days' pay for the day's work. The last two men on the list handled the track gauges for the eight rail handlers. The original book has been preserved by Coley's daughter, Mrs. Jennie Yeates, of Oakland, Cal., who also has the tape measure used by her father. The picture of Coley (left) was taken in 1911, not long before he died, while on the pension rolls of Southern Pacific. J. H. Strobridge (above) was construction superintendent in charge of the Central Pacific forces during the building of the first transcontinental railroad.
One day the Union Pacific broke all records by laying six miles of track. Charles Crocker and his Chinese "pets" were invited to match that. They beat it by a mile. Then the Union Pacific came back with seven and a half miles, working from three in the morning until almost midnight. But the Central Pacific was not to be beaten.
Crocker declared his men would lay ten miles of rail in a day. Such a ridiculous thing was scoffed at in the rival camps, which were now drawing close together. The story is told that Vice President Durant of the Union Pacific bet $10,000 that it could not be done, and that his money was "covered."
For several days Crocker and his construction superintendent, J. H. Strobridge, marshalled their forces and laid their plans. Ties were hauled ahead by two horse teams and distributed along the right-of-way. For some distance the ties were spaced on the already graded road bed. Rails and track materials were moved up from the rear and held in trains ready to advance. More than 4000 men and hundreds of horses and wagons were on the spot. Every man knew his particular job, taught by many months of track work. No one would get in the other fellow's way. In the Central Pacific camp, the patient and methodical Orientals were stirred to a pitch of excitement never shown before, and shared with the few hundred whites the anxiety to "get at the job."
Mishap First Day
April 27, 1869, was the day selected, but an engine off the track early in the proceedings compelled a postponement until the next day. This mishap brought many laughs from the Union Pacific side, but only served to arouse the determination of Crocker's men. Bright and early the next morning they were set again and at 7:00 o'clock the great task began.
Here is the way it was done, according to a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin, who was on the scene, and verified by Joseph M. Graham, now living in Berkeley, California, who was an assistant engineer on construction during the building of the Central Pacific:
How It Was Done
A train of sixteen cars loaded with iron rail and materials for two miles of track was pushed up to the front. Men climbed on top and threw off the fish plates and kegs of bolts and spikes. Others punched side stakes out of the right and left alternate cars. The rails were then rolled off and in eight minutes the sixteen ears were cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army. The train was then pulled back out of the way and another train of rails brought into position.
As soon as the material train was gone, small iron hand cars were put on the tracks. Each had a crew of six Chinese working under white bosses. Sixteen rails were loaded each car, together with a keg of bolts, a keg of spikes, and a bundle of fish plates. Two horses with riders were attached to the car in tandem by a long rope. As soon as the car was loaded and the crew on top, the horses were off on the jump. One side of the roadway was kept clear for the horses racing ahead with the material cars. On a down-grade horses were detached and the car went flying along with one of the crew acting as a brakeman. The horses ran alongside and, when a level was reached, the nearest rider hooked on again. The first car out from the material dump only had to a short distance, while the last cars had to go perhaps two miles.
Stream of Iron
At the same time empty cars were returning on the single track, all of them at full speed. As a full car came closer, the crew on the empty car jumped off and lifted their car from the rails, while the loaded car went past without slacking speed. There was no halt in the continuous stream of materials to the front.
When the loaded car neared the rail-head, its gang stepped off and another gang jumped on with picks. They broke open the kegs and cut the fastenings on the fish plates. The keg of bolts was thrown to one side to men who filled their buckets and distributed the bolts. Other men distributed the fish plates. The spikes were poured out over the rails and as the rails were removed the spikes dropped through the floorless car and distributed themselves.
At this point the picked crew of Irish rail handlers, working under Track Foreman H. H. Minkler and Gang Foreman George Coley, came into the picture. A single horse pulled the car up to rail-head, where it was blocked by a wooden-framed iron track gauge. Four men worked on each side of the track. Two men seized the forward end of the rail with their tongs while the two rear men slipped the rail to the side of the car so it rested on iron rollers. The two forward men trotted ahead the length of the rail, thirty feet, the rear men dropping the rail in place, where it was bolted and spiked by the track gang. The car was then pulled forward to the next track gauge and the procedure repeated.
The track went forward at the rate of almost a mile an hour. A correspondent for the Alta, another San Francisco newspaper, timed the track layers. He wrote: "I timed the movement twice and found the speed to be as follows: The first time 240 feet of rail was laid in one minute and twenty seconds; the second time 240 feet was laid in one minute and fifteen seconds. This is about as fast as a leisurely walk and as fast as the early ox teams used to travel over the plains."
At the Front
But the rail handlers were only eight of several hundred men at the front, everyone of whom was an important cog in the smooth-working machinery. Ahead were three "pioneers," the most advanced men, who, with shovel and by hand, butted the ties to a rope line measured from the track-center spikes set by the surveyors. About half the regulation number of ties were placed at first to insure having sufficient for the ten miles.
Just behind the rail layers came the spikers, bolters, and those who distributed the materials. Then came the gang that surfaced the track by raising the ends of the ties and shoveling enough ballast to hold them firm. Immediately following was a "reverend looking old gentleman" who sighted the line of the rails and, by motion of his hands, directed the track straighteners. Then the tampers, 400 strong, with shovels and tamping bars.
Mile an Hour
The scene was an animated one. From the first "pioneer" to the last tamper, about two miles, there was a line of men advancing a mile an hour; iron cars with their load of rails and humans dashed up and down the newly-laid track; foremen on horseback were galloping back and forth. Keeping pace with the track layers was the telegraph construction party. Alongside the moving force, teams were hauling tool and water wagons. Chinamen with pails dangling from poles balanced over their shoulders were moving among the men with water and tea.
Farther back, locomotives were waiting with their cars of materials. Five train loads were used on that day. When one section was completed, the next material train was moved up as far as possible on the new track and materials for another two miles unloaded. In the rear of all this was the boarding house train and quarters of officers, a long line of wood houses built on flat cars, looking like a small town stretched out. In the valley below, continuous trains of wagons and mounted work shops moved along in parallel lines. It could only be compared to the advance of an army.
When a halt was called for the midday meal, six miles
of track had been laid and the men were confident they would reach their goal.
of Union Pacific
officers had lunch with Stanford, Crocker, and others of the Central Pacific.
They were ready to extend congratulations. "Victory" was the name
given the spot where lunch was taken. The station is now called Rozel.
Grades and Curves
After lunch the work went on, but not so rapidly. The ascending grade on the west slope of Promontory Mountain was more difficult than the section covered during the morning and there were many curves. Considerable time was lost in bending rails, which was done by placing the rail on two blocks and forcing it into the desired curve by blows of a heavy hammer.
When the forward march was halted at 7 o'clock, ten miles and 56 feet of new track had been added to the Central Pacific. Jim Campbell, boarding boss and later superintendent of the division, jumped into a locomotive and ran it back over the new line at a clip of 40 miles an hour just to prove that the job had been well done.
If the roadway had been perfectly level and straight, these men could have laid fifteen miles of track. The task had involved bringing up and putting into position 25,800 ties, 3520 rails averaging 560 pounds each, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material making a total of 4,462,000 pounds.
"Site where the Central Pacific completed laying ten miles of track in one day."
Postcard by Intermountain Tourist Supply, Salt Lake City.
Each of the rail handlers lifted 125 tons
of iron during the day, in addition to carrying the weight of their heavy rail
tongs. They walked many feet more
than the ten miles forward, Their's was a wonderful exhibition of skill and
strength, and they richly deserved the acclaim showered on them when they proudly
in a wagon as a feature of Sacramento's railroad celebration a few days later.
When the parade was over, their wagon was filled with flowers thrown to them
by men and women, boys and girls.
Ten miles of railroad track laying in one day! It is a record that will probably never be challenged. It is not likely there will ever again be such a spirited race for railroad supremacy as the one that inspired the Central Pacific and Union Pacific to such marvelous feats in those early days. Never will there be assembled such an army of railroad workers.
With the eight sons of Erin and the sons of "John Chinaman" rest the palms of a great track-laying victory.
Courtesy G.J. "Chris" Graves and Carol Graves.