From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 203-205:
WHILE JUST ABOUT EVERY OTHER railroad in America was customarily topped by just one man, be it Strong, Palmer, or Jay Gould, the Southern Pacific had four, the “Big Four” as they were known, when they weren’t more dryly referred to as “The Associates.”
The Big Four had all once been Sacramento shopkeepers who’d come west in the gold rush, only to realize that the real money was not likely to come from panning for gold, but in selling dry goods to the fools who didn’t know any better. “I never had any idea or notion of scrambling in the dirt,” said the best-known of them, Collis P. Huntington. When the gold showed signs of petering out, the Big Four turned to the next big thing: the Central Pacific Railroad, which, unlike the gold, could be all theirs, every bit of it.
With the Federal government on the hook for so much of the construction money, the Big Four needed to scrounge up just $300,000 among them to buy a controlling interest in the railroad and win a broad swath of federal land on either side of the tracks. That land amounted to one-eighth of the state—the most valuable one-eighth, since it was the portion served by the railroad. Once they snapped up the subsidiary lines to control the state’s traffic, they effectively took charge of the state itself. Even in its earliest incarnation as the Central Pacific, the company was called the “third party” that actually ran the state, topping whichever of the two political parties foolishly imagined it was in power. It was said that before an elected California official went to Washington, the Central Pacific placed a collar around his neck bearing the words “Central Pacific” “so if he is lost or strayed he may be recaptured and returned to his lawful owners.” When the state created a three-man railroad commission to investigate the monopoly prices imposed by the Big Four, two of them were on the Central Pacific payroll. Rates, needless to say, remained untouched.
On the all-important greed scale, Mark Hopkins ranked lowest of the Big Four. He was a gaunt, lisping vegetarian of abstemious habits and a bookkeeper’s caution. He was also the first to go, dying in his sleep in his private railroad car in 1878. Then came Charles Crocker—or Charley, the only Associate personable enough to get a nickname—a former newsboy who turned lazy with wealth. “His feet are more often on the desk than under it,” the San Francisco Examiner once wrote. Shortly after, Crocker cashed out and went off on a two-year sojourn to the honey spots of Europe before buying back in. He was best known for putting up a $2.3 million house on a solid block of San Francisco’s Nob Hill, where he installed a forty-foot “spite fence” facing his neighbor, a Chinese undertaker who’d refused to sell him his parcel. (The undertaker retaliated by placing a coffin atop his roof and flying over it a flag of a skull and crossbones.) Next came the handsome, confidently full-bearded Leland Stanford. He had a touch of public-spiritedness, trying for the governorship before becoming a US senator, as well as enlisting the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge to take the now-famous shots of galloping racehorses that led to moving pictures. He also created Stanford University to memorialize a son who died young. He had a gargantuan Nob Hill mansion of his own, albeit a more tasteful one, with Italianate architecture and a stone entrance hall inlaid with signs of the zodiac in black marble.
Collis P. Huntington was without question the greed champion. The Great Persuader to some, the great conniver to others, he stood a robust six feet, with metal-gray eyes, and dressed in funereal black, as if preparing to bury his many enemies. The only speck of cheer on him was a gold pinky ring. If there was ever a trace of human sympathy on his face, his heavy beard concealed it. Born to a broken-down farmer in Poverty Hollow, Connecticut, Huntington went West via Panama to get in on the gold rush. But there were no carriages waiting to carry the ship’s passengers across the isthmus, and, stranded in the boiling heat for two months, passengers fell to famine and disease until Huntington hacked thirty-nine miles through the jungle to find food to sell to starving customers for a three-fold markup. The money bankrolled his first store. Collis P. Huntington.
With Huntington leading the way, the Big Four used their railroad monopoly to preserve their influence, forcing communities to pay exorbitant fees for tracks, and then charging outrageous prices to use them. And death to any invader. The first to try was Tom Scott, the domineering head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then the country’s largest train company. Two years before the Pacific Railroad was complete, Scott wanted to join the Pennsylvania to the Central Pacific at Denver to create the nation’s second transcontinental. Huntington got his friends in Congress to kill his bid.