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Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow
The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroads
By Dee Brown
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Dee Brown
All rights reserved.
The Iron Horse Comes to the Waters of the Mighty Mississippi
"Amid the acclamations of a multitude that no man could number, and the roar of artillery, making the very heavens tremble, punctual to the moment, the Iron Horse appeared in sight, rolling with a slow yet mighty motion to the depot. After him followed a train of six passenger cars crammed to the utmost with proud and joyful guests, with waving flags and handkerchiefs, and whose glad voices re-echoed back the roar of greeting with which they were received. Then came another locomotive and train of five passenger cars, equally crowded and decorated. This splendid pageant came to a stop in front of the depot, and the united cheers of the whole proclaimed to the world that the end was attained, and the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad was opened through for travel and business."
In 1854 many Americans were alive who had been born in the lifetime of George Washington, and celebrations of his birthday were still occasions of patriotic rejoicing and respect. That was why the builders of the first railroad from the East to reach the Mississippi River seized upon February 22 as the day to celebrate the "nuptial feast of the great Atlantic Ocean to the mighty Father of Waters." The track layers worked overtime to complete the final link, and the last rail was spiked to the ties only an hour before the Chicago & Rock Island's Locomotive No. 10, decorated with wreaths, garlands, and patriotic bunting, came whistling into view of the great river.
Hock Island, Illinois, was a town of between four and five thousand, a rival of Davenport across on the Iowa bank. The towns lived off steamboating, and numerous citizens of both communities hated railroads because of their threat to the thriving steamboat monopoly that dominated the Mississippi and its tributaries. It had been the same back in the East—rivermen, canalers, and wagoners all feared and hated the railroads that kept moving westward. And now at Rock Island the iron tracks had reached the river heart of the republic. The Iron Horse was the marvel of the age, a metal monster panting as though energized with the forces of life, exhaling steam and smoke, its centered oil headlight reminding some observers of the one-eyed cannibal giants of Homer—the Cyclopes. To those more familiar with biblical references, the engine was Behemoth, its bones strong pieces of brass and bars of iron, and it could draw up the Mississippi into its mouth.
The presence of Locomotive No. 10 on the bank of the great river that day portended more than any man or woman there could have dreamed of. Its Cyclopean eye faced westward to the undulating land that flowed into a grassed horizon and curved over the limitless expanse of the Great Plains a thousand miles to a harsh upthrust of Shining Mountains, the Rockies, and then down to the Western Sea—that goal of European wanderers and seekers across North America for three centuries, the great ocean that Ferdinand Magellan named the Pacific.
Since the coming of the Europeans, the pioneers pushing always westward had been bound by waterways; the settlements they built were strung along the water routes like successive beads. Beyond the Mississippi, the Missouri River was the way West. Since Lewis and Clark, traders had marked overland trails to Santa Fe for trade with the Spaniards, to Oregon for furs, and to California for gold. Yet, compared to river commerce, the overland wagon caravans were insignificant. Away from the rivers few towns flourished. The American West was a vast and virginal land, awesome, beautiful, unbounded, and filled with immeasurable riches above and below the ground. Its ecosystem was a delicate balance of animals, grasses, shrubs, trees, and streams, with several dozen native civilizations—the American Indian tribes—blending into the whole. Even as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, the white invaders had brought no more change to the Western land than might have been accomplished by a handful of ants. Their puny wagon trains and their steamboats struggling against the Missouri currents left but slight traces of their passage. Even in the California goldfields, the seekers of wealth were as pygmies in a giant's land, building and abandoning camps in their restless searches, the wounded earth healing itself behind them.
Only the demonic power of the Iron Horse and its bands of iron track could conquer the West, and on this cold sunlit February day in 1854, Locomotive No. 10 stood on the edge of the frontier, softly breathing smoke and steam while its load of rejoicing passengers detrained to celebrate. An awaiting group of musicians struck up "Hail, Columbia," and the local dignitaries and those who had come from the East pushed into the spacious new depot where banquet tables awaited them.
The speakers that day were well aware that the occasion they celebrated was epochal. The human race had moved itself another notch forward in its long quest for the Western Sea. "If the roar of artillery and the scream of the Iron Horse which are now awakening the echoes of the Mississippi Valley," said one, "could alone awaken the spirits of departed pioneers, what would they now behold! In the place of the immigrant wagon, conveying his single family, he would witness a vehicle conveying a family of cities, and drawn by an agent more powerful than Behemoth himself. He would be told that where he took months to perform his journey it was now done in a less number of days." Numerous references were made to the "iron steed" following the Star of Empire, to bands of iron binding ocean to river, and to the marking of an era in the history of the world's progress. One speaker compared the event to Venice's annual espousal with the Adriatic in celebration of that city's commercial prosperity.
As was the custom of the times, toasts were offered to everybody from George Washington down to the lowliest local politician. They toasted "the Press, the Telegraph and the Steam Engine, the three levers which move the world of modern civilization." The governor of Illinois toasted his state and eulogized the West, predicting that "the child is now living who will see this continent inhabited by four hundred millions of people, three hundred millions of which will be found in the Mississippi Valley." Fortunately, the governor was wrong; otherwise, his descendants in the late twentieth century would be living under population conditions similar to those of Asia. For years, however, the opening of new railroads would inspire politicians to orate upon the glories of unlimited growth.
After each toast, a man stationed near the depot entrance would signal the engineer on the Iron Horse outside to applaud with an ear-splitting blast from the whistle. And then the lively brass band would follow with a few bars from its favorite new march tune, "The Railroad Quickstep."
Excepting the long-winded and now long-forgotten politicians, the hero of the day was Henry Farnam, a forty-nine-year-old Easterner who had brought the first railroad into Chicago two years earlier and who was largely responsible for the building of the Chicago & Rock Island. A descendant of New England pioneers, Farnam was an earnest, strong-jawed, clear-eyed man who believed in honesty and hard work. Like the youthful Abraham Lincoln, he had read and studied by the dancing light of an open fireplace. After teaching himself mathematics he became a surveyor, got into canal building, and then foresaw the future and switched to railroads.
In the Rock Island depot that evening when Farnam was called upon to speak, he responded briefly, giving his associates most of the credit for completion of the railroad and expressing mild amazement over the rapidity with which the Iron Horse had crossed half the continent. Among his associates were four men whose names would become well known to most Americans during the next decade, when the building of the first transcontinental railroad attracted national attention. They were Thomas Clark Durant, skillful promoter of stocks and bonds; Peter Anthony Dey, surveyor and locating engineer; Grenville Mellen Dodge, who was Dey's assistant; and Samuel Benedict Reed, construction engineer. They all were vigorous young men, their ages ranging from the early twenties to middle thirties, and like Farnam they were Easterners from New England and New York State. Together they possessed a store of hard experience at canal and railroad building and financing. Dey and Dodge were already in Iowa, surveying a line westward, and Durant was negotiating for stock sales and land grants to construct a railroad from Davenport on the Mississippi to Council Bluffs on the Missouri. Soon they would change the name of the Chicago & Rock Island to the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. The C.R.I. & P. would never reach that Western Sea on its own tracks, but many of the men who built the Rock Island would be in the forefront of the great transcontinental railroad race.
After the banquet was ended that evening, Henry Farnam and his friends walked along the streets of Rock Island town. The dwellings and public houses were brilliantly illuminated to honor the great occasion, and across the dark river the lights of Davenport were equally bright. It was toward the West that the railroad builders' thoughts were inclined to run. None of them realized that they had fixed the destiny of Chicago as the railroad center of the continent and had guaranteed that the port city of New York would now become the commercial center of the young republic. The citizens of New Orleans had yearned for that power, built upon water traffic, and St. Louisans had dreamed of creating a Queen City of rivers and railroads extending to lakes and oceans and gulf. But in Council Bluffs, the friends and associates of the firm of Farnam & Durant were already arranging for establishment of an incorporated town directly across the Missouri River in Nebraska Territory. Out of a rude collection of ramshackle dwellings, livery stables, fur-trading posts, and grog shops, they created a town to ensure that the railroad from the East would be logically impelled to cross the Missouri at that point and continue toward the Western Sea. On land taken from the ten clans of the Omaha nation of Indians, the new town was named for that dispossessed tribe, a precedent in railroad building that would continue across the West for another generation. Farnam and Durant were now ready to extend their railroad across Iowa. At the same time, they had to construct a connecting bridge, the first such structure to span the broad Mississippi.
It was mainly because of the island—Rock Island—in the middle of the river that Farnam and his locating engineers had chosen the town of that name to be the river terminus of their railroad. A bridge there, they reasoned, would be easier and less costly to construct and should offer a minimum hazard to steamboat navigation. Yet, before construction could begin, loud outcries arose from steamboat owners in St. Louis who saw the railroad as a threat to their booming freight monopoly. They charged that the bridge was "unconstitutional, an obstruction to navigation, dangerous, and it was the duty of every western state, river city, and town to take immediate action to prevent the erection of such a structure." As soon as Farnam's Railroad Bridge Company began construction of piers and the first superstructure, a stronger opposition came from Southern sectionalists, who for a decade had been fighting to ensure that the first transcontinental railroad would originate in the slave-holding South and cross the southern half of the country. Leader of this opposition was none other than Jefferson Davis, who seven years later, at the beginning of the Civil War, would become President of the seceding Confederate States of America. In 1854, Davis was in a strategic position to block the bridge; he was Secretary of War, and because the island in the Mississippi had once been used as a military reservation he informed Farnam's railroad company that Rock Island could not be used in construction of a river bridge.
Encouraged by this official contravention, the steamboat interests late in 1854 secured a federal injunction that charged the bridge builders with illegal trespassing, destruction of government property, and obstruction of steamboat navigation. When the case was brought to court in July 1855, however, the judge ruled for the Railroad Bridge Company, declaring that the bridge was not an obstruction to navigation and that "railroads had become highways in something the same sense as rivers; neither could be suffered to become a permanent obstruction to the other, but each must yield something to the other according to the demands of the public convenience and necessities of commerce."
Nine months later, Farnam's 1,535-foot-long bridge was completed, and on April 22, 1856, he was one of the passengers on the first train approaching it from the East. A newspaper correspondent described the crossing:
Swiftly we sped along the iron track—Rock Island appeared in sight—the whistle sounded and the conductor cried out: "Passengers for Iowa keep their seats." There was a pause—a hush, as it were, preparatory to the fierceness of a tornado. The cars moved on—the bridge was reached—"We're on the bridge—see the mighty Mississippi rolling on beneath"—and all eyes were fastened on the mighty parapets of the magnificent bridge, over which we glided in solemn silence. A few minutes and the suspended breath was let loose. "We're over," was the cry. "We have crossed the Mississippi in a railroad car." "This is glory enough for one day," said a passenger, as he hustled his carpet bag and himself out of the car. We followed, to view the mighty structure.
In Davenport and Rock Island, church bells began ringing and crowds that had gathered along both banks of the river broke into enthusiastic cheers. Telegraphers flashed the news back to cities in the East, where it created much excitement. "Civilization took a railroad trip across the Mississippi," declared the Philadelphia Bulletin. "The great bridge over the great river ... was completed and a train of cars passed over it, carrying a load of passengers—commonplace passengers enough, perhaps, but passengers who will always look back exultingly and toast to their children and grandchildren that they were in the first train of cars that ever crossed the Mississippi." Like most Americans, the Philadelphia editor had his eye on the Western Sea: "Now that civilization has got safely over the Mississippi by steam, we see no reason why we may not live to see her take a first class ticket in a lightning train for the shores of the Pacific." He ended by predicting that "twenty years hence" railroad men would be tunneling the Rocky Mountains. His estimate was conservative; in less than ten years track crews would be blasting tunnels through the Rockies.
If Farnam and Durant believed their troubles with the Mississippi rivermen were behind them, they must have suffered a sharp jolt a few days later. Early on the morning of May 6, a persistent blowing of steamboat whistles and ringing of alarm bells brought the townspeople of Rock Island and Davenport out of their houses. Black smoke was boiling skyward from the new bridge. Just after dawn, the packet boat Effie Afton, out of New Orleans, had collided broadside against the bridge, the crash knocking down her chimneys and overturning her stoves, which set the vessel afire. Within minutes the blaze spread to a wooden section of the bridge, and while crowds watched from the bridge ends, one flaming span fell into the river. Both boat and bridge span went floating away with the current.
Up and down the Mississippi that morning, steamboat captains blew triumphant blasts on their whistles, arousing railroad partisans' suspicions that the collision had been intentional, that the Effie Afton had been sacrificed for the purpose of destroying the bridge. And they must have been convinced of a plot by the rivermen when the steamboat Hamburg raised a large banner that read: MISSISSIPPI BRIDGE DESTROYED. LET ALL REJOICE.
Believing that they now had the railroad company on the run, the steamboat interests opened a barrage of public attacks upon Farnam's Railroad Bridge Company. In St. Louis, rivermen and businessmen passed a joint resolution to take all necessary legal steps to have the bridge removed. A committee of steamboat pilots and captains inspected the bridge and solemnly reported that the structure was "a great and serious obstacle to navigation." And then the owner of the Effie Afton brought a heavy damage suit against the bridge company, charging that, among other things, the presence of the piers created a swift river current that had swept the packet boat out of control.
Farnam and his associates immediately sought out a first-rate lawyer, one who had a reputation for winning most of his cases. They found him in Springfield, Illinois, and his name was Abraham Lincoln.
Excerpted from Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1977 Dee Brown. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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