Category Archives: U.S.

The Imperial Japanese Red Cross

From Faces Along the Way, by Ferdinand Micklautz (Miko Oriental Art and Publishing, 2010), pp. 187-189:

When I arrived in Tokyo in the fall of 1947, they gave me a billet over at the Dai-Ichi Hotel, in with field-grade officers, and an office at the Red Cross headquarters at Shiba Park. I dumped my bags at the billet and went straight over to the office, where I sat down and immediately got to work.

It was a real eye-opener for me to see how the Japan Red Cross was set up. It couldn’t have been more different from the Korean Red Cross. In Korea, the Red Cross was a fairly democratic organization (and we had taken pains to make sure of that); but in Japan, the Red Cross was a very stratified operation, beginning at an extremely high level.

The Japan Red Cross, from its inception in 1887, had been under the direct patronage of the Imperial family – as it still is. Traditionally, the Empress is honorary president of the Japan Red Cross, and other members of the Imperial family are honorary vice-presidents. This Imperial patronage, of course, gave the organization the ultimate in prestige, but that was only the start of it.

When I first began working with the Japan Red Cross, its president was Prince Tadatsugu Shimazu. He was from Kyushu, born into a powerful family that had ruled Satsuma prefecture for quite literally centuries and had many ties to the Imperial family through various marriages over the years. Another prominent patron of the Japan Red Cross was Prince Iemasa Tokugawa, whose father had been head of the Japan Red Cross before the war. Prince Tokugawa was a direct descendant of the Tokugawa shoguns who had ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868, and his wife was a Shimazu from Satsuma.

We didn’t call Iemasa Tokugawa “Prince,” because the postwar Constitution of Japan, written largely by General MacArthur’s people, had abolished titles of nobility for everyone except the immediate Imperial family. But with or without his title, Tokugawa had direct personal access to the Emperor, which was of tremendous use to us. When necessary, he also functioned as an unofficial diplomatic liaison between certain of the people at SCAP (that was General MacArthur’s title, “Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers,” which was extended to refer to the organization under him) and the Japan Red Cross, and this again was of great service.

I worked closely with Iemasa Tokugawa, and as a person I liked him very much. He wasn’t just a man born to wealth and position; he was a good man as well, highly educated and cosmopolitan, with a great deal of charm. We were fortunate to have him working with us.

There was a problem with all this lofty patronage, however. Though it underscored the importance of the Japan Red Cross, it also inhibited people from the lower ranks of Japanese society, who were as a rule the people most in need of help. It made them reluctant to avail themselves of the society’s services, no matter how badly they might need them. This was something that had to be overcome.

In addition, the Japan Red Cross’s high connections exacerbated one of the first and most serious problems I encountered when I began work in Japan. This was, that the Japan Red Cross was almost entirely government-controlled. It had no funds of its own to operate with; all funding for the Japan Red Cross came from the central government. Most of the councillors of the Japan Red Cross were ex-members of the Japanese Diet, and so were the board of directors.

The situation was the absolute antithesis of how a private service organization should operate. We wanted to put the Japan Red Cross back on its proper footing: that of a non-governmental agency, supported by public funds from voluntary donations.

Available by print-on-demand from Lulu.com. Newly available in Japanese translation.

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Varied Local Responses to the 1918 Flu

From Clara’s Journal and the Story of Two Pandemics, by Vickie Oddino (Dobson St., 2021), pp. 26-28, 123-125:

Halloween was cancelled in 1918 just as it was canceled in 2020. The celebration of Halloween differed from the Halloween we are familiar with today. “In the early 1900’s, towns began the practice of community Halloween celebrations, parades, and parties.” It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that Halloween revelers caused mischief and pulled pranks, and trick-or-treating did not gain popularity until the 1940s and 1950s.

Clara expresses the same frustration and confusion that people, especially 18-year-olds, currently have as announcement follows announcement of cancellations, more often in some states and cities than in others. And in 1918, cancellations and restrictions varied across the country as well.

One example from 1918 comes from Philadelphia and St. Louis, cities that famously handled the outbreak completely differently. Wilmer Krusen, Philadephia’s public health director, assured the city that the flu was isolated to the military and that it would not spread to civilians. Despite reports that contradicted his views of the disease’s spread, Krusen insisted on continuing with plans to host the Liberty Loan parade, which he predicted would raise millions of dollars in war bonds. And indeed, although city officials anticipated 10,000 spectators, the popular parade drew over 200,000.

Three days after the 1918 Philadelphia parade, all the hospitals in Philadelphia were at capacity. And within a week of the parade, 2,600 people had died. In the meantime, St. Louis immediately closed schools and cancelled other public gatherings. As a result, over the course of the pandemic, Philadelphia had more than twice as many deaths per 100,000 people than St. Louis.

According to the South Dakota State Historical Society,

“The Home Guard (the equivalent of today’s National Guard) roamed through the streets of Rapid City, fining and arresting people who were not abiding by the cities [sic] newly created “sanitation laws.” City residents were fined or arrested for “expectorating” (spitting) on the sidewalks of Rapid City. As the local paper noted, “The Guard will be out in full force today to see there is no breaking of the quarantine regulations.” On October 27, 1918, one Rapid City man was charged with “flagrant violation of the anti-spitting ordinance.” Even a Rapid City police officer was arrested by the Home Guard for violating the anti-spitting ordinance and paid the customary fine of $6.”

In 1919, the University of Minnesota shut its doors, the University of Montana held classes outdoors, the University of North Carolina went under quarantine, and Smith College closed down completely. At Stanford University, everyone, including professors, were required to wear masks of risk being fired.

Some cities, mostly in the West, also required masks in public….

According to the Sacramento Bee,

“In San Francisco, 100 people were arrested in October [1918] – reported in the news as “mask slackers” – and nine of them were sent to jail. In Stockton, California, one policeman apparently found his own father to be a mask slacker, and he arrested him.”

Officials did their best to turn masks into fashion statements. “In October 1918, the Seattle Daily Times carried the headline ‘Influenza Veils Set New Fashion: Seattle Women Wearing Fine Mesh With Chiffon Border to Ward Off Malady.’”

Early in 1919, some people had had enough, so a woman in San Francisco “organized an Anti-Mask League whose purpose was to ‘oppose by lawful means the compulsory wearing of masks.’”

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How Aberdeen SD Became “Hub City”

From Clara’s Journal and the Story of Two Pandemics, by Vickie Oddino (Dobson St., 2021), pp. 97-98:

When the Milwaukee [RR] was surveying its line through Brown County in 1880, conventional wisdom held that the line would be routed through Columbia, which was the county seat. Columbia’s town fathers, feeling that they were in a strong negotiating position, refused to provide the Milwaukee with land for a right of way and a depot free of charge. C. H. Prior, then chief surveyor of the Milwaukee, resurveyed the main line to bypass Columbia and then platted a rival town (on a tract of land owned by his wife) some 12 miles from Columbia. This site became the City of Aberdeen, which was designated as a railroad division point, became the junction for several Milwaukee lines, and eventually became the third largest city in the state. Columbia stagnated and lost the county seat to Aberdeen several years later.

One of Aberdeen’s claims to fame is that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, lived there from 1888-1891 with his wife and two sons (the couple would have two more sons while in South Dakota). While there, he opened a gift shop, Baum’s Bazaar, and when it closed after two years, he purchased the weekly newspaper the Dakota Pioneer and changed its name to Saturday Pioneer. Believe it or not, this paper was one of Aberdeen’s seven weekly papers and two dailies at the time.

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U.S. vs. Japanese Fighter Planes, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 100-101:

American aviator Jim Morehead flew P-40s over Java and Darwin and was taken aback by the ability of the Japanese enemy, completely at odds with what he had been led to expect: “Before the war officers assured us that American pilots were flying some of the best planes in the world. Everyone underestimated the Japanese and the Zero was a real shock,” he told an interviewer later. “I remain bitter that our government, backed by the most advanced economy in the world, would send their men to war in aircraft that were inferior to that of the enemy.” Australians who had arrived from Europe tried “Battle of Britain” tactics against Japanese pilots and often paid with their lives when discovering the great maneuverability of the enemy’s aircraft. “We told them the basics,” an American pilot said later. “Don’t think that because you could turn inside a German fighter that you could do the same with a Zero.”

This changed with the battle of Midway. Although it was a myth that the elite of Japanese Naval aviation was wiped out in the fateful encounter in June, enough pilots were killed to make it impossible for Japan to ever again recover its greatness in the skies. At the same time, US pilots proved to be quick learners and began showing awe-inspiring ability. A case in point were the “Cactus” pilots on Guadalcanal dubbed after the island’s codename. “It is necessary to remember that the Japanese Zero at this stage of the war was regarded with some of the awe in which the atomic bomb came to be held later,” according to an early account. “The Cactus fighters made a great contribution to the war by exploding the theory that the Zero was invincible.”

US technology also showed its enormous potential. The twin-engine P-38 was not just a piece of state-of-the-art engineering but also entailed a peculiar psychological boost. Since it had two propellers, the pilot could afford to have one engine shot out or otherwise malfunction, and still be able to make it home over hundreds of miles of ocean. This was reassuring for pilots who otherwise would face the prospect of making a forced landing, in which case Japanese patrol boats might not even be the biggest horror. “You look down from the cockpit and you can see schools of sharks swimming around,” said George C. Kenney, commander of MacArthur’s air forces. “They never look healthy to a man flying over them.” All in all, it added up to one thing: towards the end of 1942, the Allies were close to achieving air superiority in key theaters of war in the Pacific. On December 3, a Japanese soldier on Papua wrote jealously in his diary: “They fly above our position as if they own the sky.” Even before the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, when Japanese planes had roamed at will over the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific, the Allies were winning the war in the air.

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U.K. vs. U.S. Views of Alliance with China, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 33-35:

China’s willingness to hurl millions of its own people into a long, bloody war was a major asset to its new American and British allies. “The stubborn resistance of the Chinese,” a US State Department memorandum declared, “destroys Japan’s claim that she comes to emancipate either China or Asia!”19 At the same time, a track record of having stood up to Japan for more than four years prior to Pearl Harbor gave China new confidence. This was in evidence shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific war when Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of British forces in India, visited Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing, carrying only news of endless defeats and setbacks. “You and your people have no idea how to fight the Japanese,” Chiang told his British guest in language that was only slightly mitigated by the nervous translator. “Resisting the Japanese is not like suppressing colonial rebellions… For this kind of job, you British are incompetent, and you should learn from the Chinese how to fight against the Japanese.”

China was a prominent issue dividing the United States and Britain from the outset. Churchill and Roosevelt did not see eye to eye. On his trip across the Atlantic for the Arcadia Conference, the first summit on British-American strategy after the US entry into the war, the British prime minister later said, “If I can epitomize in one word the lesson I learned in the United States, it was ‘China’.” Britain’s lukewarm attitude towards the Chinese friend was a mirror image of its denigration of the Japanese foe, partly borne out of more than a century as a colonial power in Asia, which had led to an ingrained feeling of cultural and even racial superiority. In conversations with Roosevelt in Washington DC, Churchill stretched as far as he thought he could on the issue, which was not much: “I said I would of course always be helpful and polite to the Chinese, whom I admired and liked as a race and pitied for their endless misgovernment, but that he must not expect me to adopt what I felt was a wholly unreal standard of values.”

The two leaders and their governments had entirely different views on the value of China as an alliance partner. United States envisaged a major role for China in the war in East Asia and expected it to become one of the predominant Allies setting the tone for the entire effort to defeat Japan. Britain, on the other hand, expected little from China and often treated it as something in between an annoyance and a strategic competitor. When China offered to send two armies to the British colony of Burma, which had up to then largely escaped Japanese aggression, Britain initially turned down the offer. This was based on the belief that Japan was too tied up elsewhere to attempt a major offensive onto Burmese territory. In this perspective, a Chinese presence on British-controlled soil was a price not worth paying considering expectation of only meager payoff.

In spite of the British reservations, Sino-American cooperation was beginning to materialize in a small way, even as Roosevelt, Churchill, and their aides were talking in the US capital. For Claire Chennault, the former Army aviator who had been hired to head a group of American volunteer pilots in China, the time had now come to put his men into action. One morning a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, staff at his airbase near the city of Kunming in southwest China received reports from a network of Chinese observers on the ground that ten unescorted Japanese bombers were heading in his direction. He ordered one squadron of P-40 planes in the air to intercept the approaching aircraft. “This was the decisive moment I had been awaiting for more than four years,” Chennault wrote in his memoirs. “American pilots in American fighting planes aided by Chinese ground warning net about to tackle a formation of the Imperial Japanese Air Force, which was then sweeping the Pacific skies victorious everywhere.”

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Hirohito’s War Information Sources

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-82, 108:

At home in Japan, the defeat at Midway only sank in slowly, partly because of reluctance to lose face, and partly because of continued problems with communication and cooperation among the different services. “I did not hear of the Midway defeat till more than a month after it occurred,” Prime Minister Tōjō said after the war. Hirohito, by contrast, was informed immediately about the disastrous defeat, including the loss of the four aircraft carriers. With access to more unbiased information than perhaps any other person in his empire, he was the only one to receive reports from the chiefs of staff of both the Army and the Navy, whereas the services were usually careful not to volunteer information to each other. This placed Hirohito in his own private tragedy: fully aware of how desperate the situation was becoming, but unable to do much about it.

On December 12, Emperor Hirohito went to the Grand Shrine at Ise, a city west of Tokyo. It was one of the holiest places for the official Shintō religion, and a suitable venue for the ruler to consider the position of the nation that saw him not just as a leader but a god, and had already sustained terrible sacrifices in his name. Performing rites going back many generations, he was now staring down into an abyss darker than any of his ancestors ever had to contemplate. The night before, he had spoken with complete candor to his military aide-de-camp, Colonel Ogata Kenichi. The emperor had recounted the numerous battles that had consumed Japan for more than a decade, beginning in Manchuria, then in the rest of China and now all of the Pacific. “It is easy to start a war but hard to end it,” the dejected ruler had said.

The fall months, filled with interminable and increasingly hopeless fighting in the deep south far from Japan’s own shores, had seen Hirohito subtly change his mind about the war. The setback on the Kokoda Trail had come as a particular shock. “From the time our line along the Stanley Mountain Range in New Guinea was penetrated, I was anxious for peace, but we had a treaty with Germany against concluding a separate peace, and we could not violate an international commitment. This was the dilemma that tormented me,” Hirohito told close collaborators after the war. Even small victories could not lighten his mood. After the Santa Cruz battle, in which his warriors had sunk the Hornet, he had congratulated them in a statement, which, however, also carried a cautionary note: “We believe the war situation is critical. Officers and men, exert yourselves to even greater efforts.”

The start of the year 1942 had seen the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy in triumphant mode. As the months passed, it had begun to take on the form of an annus horribilis. However, as his view of the war turned bleaker, Hirohito decided to up the ante. Gamblers come in two categories. There are those who decide to cut their losses when their fortunes fail them, and then there are others who raise the stakes. The Japanese ruler belonged to the latter type. On the last day of the year he met with his senior commanders and agreed that the Guadalcanal operation must be called off. Instead, greater emphasis would be placed on New Guinea. Hirohito was hoping for, if not actively seeking, a big all-or-nothing battle with the Americans that could shock them, and their casualty-averse public, into agreeing to a negotiated end of the war. The year 1943 would put that notion to the test.

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Flying from New York to Calcutta, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 104-105:

The United States retained high hopes for China’s potential, and for the overall importance of what was known as the China-Burma-India Theater. From early 1942, large numbers of American personnel were sent to the region, primarily India. Given the conditions, a world at war, moving from one theater to another was a drawn-out affair. The China specialist John Paton Davies Jr, who was assigned as political attaché to Joseph Stilwell, described the 13-day trip from New York to Calcutta: “We flew by one of Pan American’s original clippers, a flying boat, to Belém at the mouth of the Amazon—moist, mossed, suffocating, hyper-tropical—then Natal, and across the Atlantic to somnolent Fisherman’s Lake in Liberia. The remainder of the trip was by two-engine C-47 transport planes to Kano and then Maidugiri, both in Nigeria, across the scrubby wilderness of Chad to Khartoum dominated by the Nile, up to Cairo, swarming with handsome British staff officers whom the troops called the gabardine swine, over to Tel Aviv, down to Shatt-al-Arab, carrying the mingled waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, out above the azure-emerald Persian Gulf to Sharjah’s desert airstrip manned by an RAF ground crew of a forlorn half dozen and a gazelle, along the desolate, jagged coast of Iran and Baluchistan to Karachi, and finally trans-subcontinentally to teeming, beholy-cowed Calcutta.”

The main priority for the United States was to keep China and its vast manpower resources in the war. Since the late 1930s, one of the main routes for keeping China supplied from the outside world had been the Burma Road, linking Burma to Chiang Kai-shek’s landlocked government in southwest China. “Though maladministration and corruption had reduced its inherently low capacity,” according to the official US history of the China-Burma-India theater, the road had for years “had great symbolic value as China’s last tie with freedom.” It had been built by hand for more than 700 miles through inhospitable terrain by tens of thousands of workers and had proved an invaluable asset, even though it had been closed briefly in 1940 by the British government, bowing to Japanese pressure.

By the time of the US entry into the war, the Burma Road was again in operation, and it had to be constantly maintained, again with the help of China’s most abundant economic resource: manual labor.

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Few Troops in the Philippines, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle p. 15:

The Japanese pilots flying over the Philippines in the days after Pearl Harbor were experiencing an entirely new form of war. Many of them were veterans from the long conflict in China, where they had been facing Chinese and sometimes Soviet aviators in Russian-built planes. Now, in the midst of the crucial battle for control of the Philippines skies as a prelude to the planned invasion of the islands, they were up against Americans in US-built aircraft. They found to their relief that their own Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter was a more than adequate match for the American P-40, as the Japanese plane outshone its US counterpart in everything except diving acceleration. “The confidence of our fighter pilots continued to grow, nurtured by the absence of effective opposition,” wrote Shimada Kōichi, on the staff of the Eleventh Air Fleet, which had the responsibility for air operations over the Philippines.

The Philippines, under the overall command of General Douglas MacArthur, was not Wake. And yet, despite its much larger size and more awe-inspiring defensive potential, it was essentially just another piece of US-held territory that the military planners in Washington had to effectively abandon beforehand. In the tense years prior to the outbreak of war in the Pacific, the US government, faced with the likelihood of being sucked into the ongoing war in Europe, had been forced to allocate desperately scarce military resources elsewhere. “Adequate reinforcements for the Philippines at this time,” according to General George C. Marshall, the US Army’s chief of staff, “would have left the United States in a position of great peril should there be a break in the defense of Great Britain.” What was not clear at the time was the fact that the Japanese were similarly constrained, and that the Japanese high command intended to take the Philippines with the smallest feasible number of troops.

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L.A.’s Railroad Boom, 1887

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. 261-267:

Always before, the Santa Fe’s arrival in a new town set off metaphorical fireworks. But at Pueblo, Raton, and the many other towns along the Santa Fe line, the display had amounted only to a bang and a shower of sparks. L.A. was the ultimate, and the Santa Fe’s arrival there produced a grand finale of thunderous booms and sizzling meteors and bursting flower blossoms and dazzling curlicues and startling zigzags that lit up the sky not just for the spectators gazing up from below but for the whole country watching from afar. The trains unleashed a torrent of newcomers like nothing America had ever seen, or ever would see again. Four jam-packed Santa Fe trains a day pulled into its spanking new L.A. station, and, not to be outdone, the Southern Pacific sent in no fewer. Between them, the two lines brought in 300,000 people just over the first six months, ten times the city’s resident population. The new arrivals filled hotels and boardinghouses as fast as they could be put up, some of the guests reportedly sleeping in bathtubs. And plenty of these newcomers built houses and stayed. Two thousand real estate agents saw to that. By 1890, the L.A. population had shot up to over 150,000, more than five times what it had been five years before, with most of the growth coming since the Santa Fe’s arrival in 1887. It made for the biggest surge in population of any city in the history of the United States.

Of all the places in the West, Los Angeles was least likely to disappoint. That was its appeal. It was not paradise, but by eastern standards, it came damn close. It had a superb climate—not too hot, not too cold, but just right practically all year round.

The grand vision took few years to fully settle in. Initially, the frenzy for Los Angeles real estate, sparked by the miracle of California for a dollar [thanks to cutthroat competition between the two railway companies], was oddly formless but was such an electrifying phenomenon that it acquired a new word to describe the frantic buying: “boom!” (usually with the exclamation mark included). There had been real estate bubbles before, but they had always popped. L.A. real estate, and the land around it, really was worth buying at ever-higher prices—and, indeed, they’ve almost never come down since. The boom had its publicists in town—every real estate salesman and developer doubled as one—but the unusual thing was that it had infinitely more boosters all over the country. It seemed an entire industry had sprouted up to promote the wonders of L.A. in printed matter of every type—brochures, posters, features, editorials, newspaper items, all adorned with copious illustrations of the good life and detailed maps showing potential real estate buyers what was where. Of all the endorsements, though, by far the most effective were the letters back home from people who actually had moved to L.A. They were so delighted with their new lives in the warm air, they wanted their friends and family to join them. In just the first six months of 1887, a staggering $100 million worth of Los Angeles property was sold. A typical lot on Seventh Street in downtown L.A. zoomed from $11,000 in 1886 to $80,000 a year later, post Santa Fe. The venerable pueblo turned itself into a true city almost overnight, as plans almost immediately came forth for a new city hall, a new courthouse, more schools, proper sewers, and, finally, paved streets.

Between January of 1887 and July of 1889, sixty brand new towns came into existence in Los Angeles County, twenty-five of them along the Santa Fe tracks to San Bernardino. They appeared “like scenes conjured up by Aladdin’s lamp,” went one contemporary account. They popped up everywhere—“Out of the desert, in the river wash, or a mud flat, upon a barren slope or hillside.” It seemed the Santa Fe created a land boom wherever it went, creating handsome, thriving places like Lincoln Park, Monrovia, Glendora, Altadena, Duarte, and Pomona, whose Congregational Church sprouted a college that then spawned Claremont and four more. In his excitement, [William Barstow] Strong sent tracks nearly everywhere in greater L.A. He ran a line out to the Pacific coast to build up Santa Monica, turning the site of the early American colony into a hotspot, and another southwest to Redondo to inspire a spectacular hotel on the beach. He sent yet another southeast to Santa Ana and then farther down the coast to San Diego to give that city a second train, along the way building up Anaheim, previously just a vineyard tended by a few hundred German immigrants, the Quaker-founded Whittier, and the new city of Orange. He even sent a train out just to do a crazy loop around newly burgeoning Riverside.

The BNSF Railway’s Southern Transcon route from Chicago to L.A. was later roughly paralleled by U.S. Route 66, the “Mother Road” that carried so many people west during later decades.

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Central Pacific Railroad’s “Big Four”

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.

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