When the owners of the Central Pacific Railroad drove the golden spike that completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869, they were widely hailed as heroes. Visionaries. Men of ambition, drive, and patriotism. Newspapers praised the hard work and high risks they’d undertaken to build the first railroad across the United States.
What they didn’t mention was how much cheating, perjuring, short-changing, misleading, and outright theft went into the railroad’s achievement.
For 30 years, the Central Pacific was able to shape public opinion about itself, and manipulate legislation in state and federal governments. Starting in 1896, though, its fortunes changed. Dennis Drabelle’s book, The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took On the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad, recounts how two writers helped expose the corruption of the Central Pacific to the country.
Of the two, Ambrose Bierce is probably the better remembered. In 1896, his great successes—his Civil War stories and Devil’s Dictionary—were behind him. He was a fading journalist looking to revive his career. The opportunity came when William Randolph Hearst asked him to cover a congressional funding bill and the actions of Central Pacific’s owner-builder, Collis Huntington.
The last of the Central Pacific’s founders, Huntington had arrived in Washington with an army of lobbyists, hoping to convince Congress to forgive a debt of $75 million. The government had loaned his company this amount in 1866 to build the railroad eastward over the Sierras to link up with the Union Pacific. A Supreme Court decision had freed the railroad from paying back a single penny of the loan for 30 years. Now, with that grace period about to expire, Huntington believed he could convince the government to write off the loan.
Huntington didn’t count on Bierce, who began filing scathing reports from the Washington hearings on the railroad’s misdeeds and bribery of government officials. Bierce created so much noise over the deal that legislators who’d been longtime friends to the railroad suddenly forgot who had paid for their campaigns and opposed forgiving the debt.
Unfortunately, Drabelle gives us only small samples of the fiery denunciations that Bierce served readers of Heart’s papers. Even if readers couldn’t understand all the references, they would appreciate Bierce’s skills with an acid-tipped pen.
The other author in Drabelle’s account is Frank Norris, a promising young novelist who set out to expose the corrupting influence of the Central Pacific in his 1901 novel, The Octopus. Norris further damaged the railroad’s reputation by dramatizing several events in which the railroad had imposed its will on California’s government, businesses, and communities. Unfortunately, some of the events Norris used were based more on legend than fact, as Drabelle points out. However, he includes a factual account of the shootings at Mussel Slough, which he contrasts with Norris’ fictionalized version.
The Octopus became an important bestseller in the Progressive Era, and one of the more readable muckraking texts of the early 20th century. As Drabelle points out, the novel was more than simply an attack on the railroads’ executives. Norris was chiefly concerned with how the railroad and the wheat market, as vast, inhuman forces, shaped the destiny of all who came close to it.
For both writers, their critiques of the railroads marked the high point of their careers. Bierce drifted off into war-torn Mexico and was never seen again. Norris died young, never finishing the trilogy he had begun with Octopus. (The second book, The Pit, first appeared as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post.)
Drabelle narrates this tale of railroads and reformers with enough context that the reader gets a sense of the scale of fortunes and corruption in this great American epic.
The Great American Railroad War is available on Amazon.