Friday, June 28, 2019

Transcontinental RR Construction Trains

As part of my ongoing series of posts to celebrate the sesquicentennial celebration of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, I have been spending hours transcribing what I consider interesting information. I have learned bits and pieces about the living conditions of the men who actually did the labor. However, I ran across a description of the Union Pacific dining car which really caught my eye. Here is what I have learned about the construction train and living conditions for both the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Casement Brothers Construction Train for the UPRR with three engins
Everything the railroads needed had to be hauled to the worksite. The Central Pacific Railroad needed to receive its supplies from the east, first by steamship around the Horn, and then by wagon or railroad. The Union Pacific needed many of its supplies from back east. Until there was a railroad bridge across the Missouri River, they needed to be brought up by boat to Omaha, Nebraska. These supplies were stored on the construction trains that traveled with the crews involved in constructing the railroads.

Central Pacific Railroad Construction Trains and Camps:

The CPRR paid its Chinese laborers less than either railroad paid its workers of European descent. In addition, the Chinese were required to provide their own food.

Chinese Construction Camp and Sleeping Cars

Instead of the regular pay of $45 a month plus food for Western laborers, the Asians were paid $30 to $35 a month, and they had to pay for their own food. Chinese were divided into groups of 30 men. Each group selected a leader who received all wages and bought group provisions. The Chinese workers are credited for saving $20 a month. Every night before supper, the Chinese workmen enjoyed hot baths in used powder kegs. Warm tea was available at the work site (Kraus 1969b:41).

Purchasing their own food proved to be a benefit in many ways for the Chinese. They bought from Chinese merchants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Their diet consisted of rice and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Unlike the Western workers who ate a diet of primarily beef, potatoes, beans and coffee, they tended to stay healthy and avoided many of the diseases that plagued the Westerners. Also, they never drank water straight from a stream, lake for pool (think buffalo bathroom, or drinking fountain with animal slobbers). They always boiled water to make tea to drink. In fact, some Chinese workers had as their sole duty to make the tea and carry it in buckets for the other workers to drink on the worksite.

Union Pacific Construction Trains and Camps:

Unlike the Chinese, the Westerners were a motley and grungy bunch. They bathed only when they were near enough to the river to make it possible, and they almost never washed their clothes. They lived at the end of the track in boarding cars and tents that were moved forward very few days. The boarding cars were 85 ft long and contained tiers of 144 bunks three deep.

Some men slept under and over the cars for better ventilation and relief from lice and bedbugs. One car contained an office and a kitchen, and another served as the mess hall. Stacked in the ceilings of the cars was a veritable arsenal of 1000 rifles. The immense train was powered by two engines, 117 and 119. The men were well organized and operated with military-like discipline and precision, since the chief of nearly every unit was a former military officer.

The Union Pacific used this large work train that was a combination of factory, hotel, restaurant, and administrative center. It's more than 20 cars, some of them oversized and packed with heavy equipment, required both locomotives to keep them moving. Some cars were divided into offices, store rooms, and shops for blacksmiths, carpenters, and saddler's. Real hands boarded in huge sleeping cars packed with, and were fed in a massive dining car.

Track workers awoke to the sound of an alarm Bell at 5:30 a.m. About 125 men at a time could eat breakfast at a single table that ran all the way down the length of the 75 foot long dining car.

A reporter in 1867 wrote of watching the staff rushing around the kitchen car to make breakfast for the crew. “Cooks with paper turbans, and waiters with gunny sack aprons, are flying busily around.” Steaks broiled on three gigantic stoves alongside steaming “great coppers of coffee”. Bread was baked “by the wagonload”. Potatoes and onions were served as well. The kitchen car shared space with a food store room and an engineering office. Quarters of beef from freshly-slaughtered cattle covered the outside of the car.

About every three feet along the table was a wooden coffee bucket, and platters of bread and meat. A dozen waiters kept the coffee buckets and platters filled. Diners serve themselves by dipping their coffee cups into the bucket.

Dining etiquette was very basic. Half the men ate along the side of the long table that was hemmed in by the wall. When a diner was ready to leave, he stuck his foot across the table and climbed over it to get out. “As long as he doesn't put his foot into somebody else's breakfast”, wrote a reporter, “it is all right”.

Moving west with the railroad crew was a carnival of saloons, brothels, and gambling dens. Each day the proprietors of the tents and shanties that had their businesses moved and set up again a bit further down the line. The moving town created the expression “Hell on Wheels”.

The prime attraction of Hell on Wheels was “the Big Tent”. This giant portable Saloon was 40 feet across and 100 feet long. Its lumber frame came with a plank floor and a canvas roof.

If you walked into the Big Tent, on the right you'd see “a splendid bar, with every variety of liquor and cigars, with cut glass goblets, ice pictures, splendid mirrors, and pictures rivaling those of our Eastern cities.” In the back of the tent was the dance floor. There was always music, with a brass band or a string band playing on a raised platform near the door. The rest of the Big Tent was filled with gaming tables, where track workers spent much of their wages on Faro, Monte, the fortune wheels, and rondo-coolo, a game played by rolling numbered balls on a billiard table.
UPRR Construction Train sits on Devils Gate Bridge in Utah

Working on the Transcontinental Railroad was hard work. For the Westerners, at least, it was an excellent-paying job for the time. Living on the Transcontinental construction trains and visiting the camps was quite a ride.

My most recent book, Virginia’s Vocation, is now available on Amazon. In 1859, when Virginia, escorted by her older brother, Jefferson, travel from Missouri to Ohio, the train that had almost reached St. Joseph, Missouri was the most westerly point served by a railroad east of the Missouri River. When the Union Pacific Railroad construction began, supplies from the east still needed to be brought to Omaha up the Missouri River due to the lack of a railroad bridge across the river.

To read the book description and access the purchase link, please CLICK HERE.


“Linked by the Golden Spike: Building the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads”; History  of Railroads (Moorshead Magazines, Ltd.:Toronto, ON, Canada & Niagara Falls, NY, United States, 2013) pages 16-17, 19.

Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009), Pg. 412.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Horse Queen of Idaho

At the turn of the twentieth century, Kittie Wilkins (Katherine Caroline Wilkins) was a horse breeder in Idaho, something that women didn’t do. During those years, she was the only American woman who made her living solely by selling horses.

Kittie was born in Jacksonville, Oregon, near Medford, in 1857 and spent most of her childhood moving from place to place in Idaho and Oregon. Kittie’s father owned and was successful in several businesses, but became interested in the Bruneau area in the 1880s.

John Wilkins built a ranch near Murphy Hot Springs, close to the Nevada/Idaho border. Official records state, “J.R. Wilkins acquires Wilkins Hot Springs/Kittie’s Hot Hole; 120 acres on Robinson’s Fork (Jarbidge River) of the Bruneau River, 100 yards from Sommercamp house”

A quote from the Coeur d’ Alene, Press says, “She wasn’t a suntanned, masculine-looking, rough-talking, gun-totin’ woman of the Old West; she was feminine, pretty, blond haired with blue eyes and still part of the Victorian Age — wearing long dresses and the latest fashions, rode side-saddle and at first was even against women voting.

Her father realized Kittie had a special knack with not only horses, but she was a genius at marketing. Because of Kittie, the Diamond brand of the Wilkins Company became well known all across the country for quality horses. At one time, the Wilkins owned ten thousand horses.

In 1885, Kittie told a newspaper interviewer that, although the ranch raised cattle and horses, she wasn’t a cattle queen as some newspapers had called her. Her specialty was horses. The headline referred to her as The Horse Queen, and she was called that for the rest of her life.

Unheard of at the time, she became a very successful woman in a man’s business. To make the Diamond Brand the top of the line, Kittie played on the fact that she was news to further advertise her business.

The Wilkins imported registered stock early on to upgrade their herds. They raised Percherons and Clydesdales for heavy hauling and Morgans for saddle horses. During the time they were in business, which lasted over thirty years, the Wilkins Ranch sold thousands of horses all across the United States and Canada.

In South Africa, in 1900, fighting in the Boer War was intense. The military needed horses. Kittie filled an order for 8,000 head for a buyer in Kansas who sent them to Africa. She could have been the war’s biggest supplier of horses.

Kittie not only ran the horse operation, she handled all the marketing and sales. Never married, she almost always traveled by herself, which was not done by women of that era.

The invention of the automobile caused a decline in sales of horses, but during World War I, the Diamond brand had a revival as Kittie sold thousands of horses to the Army.

This amazing woman appeared in public for the last time at the Fort Boise Centennial Celebration in 1934 and died two years later in Glenns Ferry, Idaho.

Her name is misspelled on the headstone, but they got the title right.

She lived the way she wanted, was close to family and friends, and gave generously to the poor and unfortunate. When you think of women who broke the mold, think of Kittie Wilkins, The Horse Queen.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Do you recognize this man?

He worked at many professions from a brothel keeper, saloon owner, miner for gold and silver, teamster, buffalo hunter, boxing referee, and professional gambler to name a few. While widely known in the American Southwest, this cowboy spent his early life in Pella, Iowa. He ended up on the wrong side of the law after his first wife died before their child could be born.

 Perhaps it was his depression, perhaps his sorrow, but he began treading the dangerous down hill spiral of amassing a police record. From horse thief, jail escapee, to running a house of "ill fame", he found his name plastered in local papers with the nickname of " old offender" to the  "Peoria Bummer" all of which at that time meant a hustler or bum.

Still looking for a profession, he hope to bring himself out of the gutter by moving to Kansas. There he took on a common law wife and was appointed a constable on the police force. Despite his wife's occupation at a "Soiled Dove", he developed a reputation and earned respect as a solid lawman. This title was to come in handy later in life. Sadly, a fist fight with a political rival ended his tenure on the police force. Leaving his "wife" he found solace with his brothers on the right side of the law.

They moved from boom town to boom town, taking jobs of enforcing the law. In the year 1881 an incident in a boom town in Arizona would change his life forever. Ninety seconds would be all it took, but when the smoke cleared, one brother would be maimed another murdered and he would swear in a federal posse bent on revenge until the last of the outlaws in the gang known as the Cowboys was wiped out.

Still chasing a happier life, he moved from one gold or silver rush to another. From Nome, Alaska to Nevada, he tried to find happiness. Finally, he made his way to the hills of California and staked a claim in Vidal. There, he and his third and final common law wife, Josephine Marcus settled down to mind for riches in the winter and spend the summer in Los Angeles. He became friends with the likes of Tom Mix and other early movie cowboys. His exploits were put on film and later on early black and white TV.

On January 13th, 1920, he passed away peacefully leaving his modern day reputation as the Old West's toughest and deadliest gunman, who was never wounded in a shoot out. Who does this reputation belong too?

Wyatt Earp

Image found

Image found

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Different Kind of Fireworks Show - by Kristine Raymond

On the evening of July 4, 1991, one month into our dating relationship, my then-boyfriend/now-husband drove me to the top (or pretty darn close) of Mt. Elden so we'd have a clear view of the fireworks show put on by the city of Flagstaff.  It soon became apparent that every other couple in town had the same idea and finding the prime viewing area congested, we set out in search of a new lookout.

Locating what he thought was the perfect spot, my future hubs parked his Ranchero alongside a few other vehicles just as the first 'BOOM' rumbled out into the night.  Perfect timing, or so we thought.  As it turned out, the road we'd followed had led us to the opposite side of the mountain, leaving us a clear view not of Flagstaff and the fireworks, but of a vast stretch of empty sky.  Disappointed by our wrong turn and contemplating a return to civilization, the night (and quite possibly our future was saved by a flash of light to the south. No; it wasn't fireworks.  It was a storm rolling across Sedona 33 miles away.  Snuggling together for warmth (see #1 below), 'oohing' and 'ahhing' at the unexpected display, it occurred to me that sometimes wrong turns turn out right.
Stock image - Deposit Photos
There are four things I took away from that night:

1) Always bring a warm change of clothing on a date.  Recently transplanted to Flagstaff from New England, I had no idea it would be freezing (literally) on the side of the mountain (9000 ft) in July; something my suitor neglected to inform me before we left for our outing.  I can still recall shivering for hours clad in my shorts and a t-shirt, though true gentleman that he was (and is), he did lend me his jacket.

2) Always bring a camera on a date.  My now-hubs enjoyed surprising me with excursion dates, and after being taken off-guard a couple of times, I learned to be prepared though, unfortunately, not on that night.  I have only the images in my memory of that spectacular light show.

3) Sometimes the unexpected can turn into something pretty amazing.  Having spent almost my entire life living at sea-level, I was still acclimating to the wide open spaces of my new home.  As anyone who lives or has visited the western half of the United States can tell you, the views are expansive, and to be witness to Nature's fury (and beauty) from the side of that mountain was both breathtaking and humbling.

4) If I were smart, I'd marry that guy.  Twenty-eight years later, I'm glad I took my own advice.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pleasant Stories from an Unpleasant Beginning: The Many Lives of Mary Ellen Pleasant

By Andrea Downing

Mary Ellen Pleasant
It never ceases to amaze me how some people can cram in about three lifetimes of a normal person into their one. I constantly feel as if I just haven’t done enough living. And doing the research on Mary Ellen Pleasant made me feel like that, especially as there are so many conflicting stories.
Pleasant was born either in Philadelphia, which she claimed in her autobiography, or Virginia, either in 1812 or 1814 (you begin to see the problem here, right?) either to a LA African American woman and a Kanaka Hawaiian father or to the son of the Governor of VA and a Haitian voodoo priestess in VA, or into slavery in GA. My pick is the first one. No matter, at some stage (aged between 10 & 13) she was sent to Nantucket RI as a bonded servant to the Hussey family, Quaker abolitionists who ran a store. There she not only met many abolitionists on this stop on the Underground Railway but she learned how to act with people, studying men and women, their manners and speech.
Sometime in the 1840s, when Mary was in her twenties, she had worked out her contract and the Husseys helped her obtain a position in Boston working for a tailor. She also became a paid soloist in a church where she met and eventually married James Henry Smith. While Smith was of mixed race—part mulatto Cuban, part white—both he and Mary were able to pass as white. Smith was a flour contractor and also had inherited a plantation near Harper’s Ferry from his white father (where he had freed his own slaves). A wealthy man, he was also an abolitionist, working a track on the Underground Railroad that took runaway slaves up to Nova Scotia. However much he believed in free men, he was apparently somewhat restrictive of Mary and some believe she was ‘responsible’ for his death four years after they wed. Whatever the truth of that, he certainly left her a fortune in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Mary continued her abolitionist work. There is some evidence to support her life as a ‘slave stealer,’ masquerading as a jockey and taking enslaved persons to freedom. But in 1848 she married another abolitionist, John James Pleasant, and with slavers after them, they went first to New Orleans where Pleasant had family, including, apparently, Marie Laveau. Then it was on to San Francisco around 1852.  West at last!
The Gold Rush had begun and with women at a premium, Mary saw her opportunity to make more money. She continued to pass as white in order to avoid California’s Fugitive Slave Act. She initially worked as a boarding house steward and cook but eventually opened various dining establishments for miners, moving on to restaurants for wealthy and influential men. There she picked up tidbits of gossip helping her to make various investments in the surging economy, in everything from laundries to Wells Fargo. She also anticipated the need for oil and invested in that. She teamed up with a young Scots banking clerk, Thomas Bell, whom she had met on the ship to CA, and together they made millions. This association would have benefitted Mary in not bringing her finances to the attention of the white populace. It would have been difficult for her as a black woman to make such investments. Her husband, J.J., passed away in 1877, by which time Mary had changed her ethnicity in the city directory to black--the Civil War was over!
Pleasant in her later years

But let’s back-track for a moment. From 1857 to 1859 Mary returned east to help John Brown in his cause.  She donated some thirty thousand dollars to his abolitionist movement. When Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859, a note was found in his pocket: ‘The ax is lain at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck there will be more money to help.’ It was believed at the time it had been written by some northerner but Mary Ellen Pleasant was apparently the author.
When she and another black woman were forcibly ejected from a San Francisco streetcar in 1866, she sued both the streetcar company and the city.  Her case was won although the damages awarded her were reversed.  Still, that case was used as precedent to win another suit as late as 1983. Further lawsuits in San Francisco depleted her fortune, including one brought by the  
The Bell/Pleasant home around 1870
widow of Thomas Bell, who had started a smear campaign against her. Pleasant and Bell’s fortunes were so entwined that when he passed, there was no telling who owned what. His widow, being white, won the case and left Pleasant with a greatly depleted bank account.
Mary Ellen died in reduced circumstances in 1904.
Pleasant is considered the Mother of California Civil Rights.  She had been befriended by the Sherwood family and is buried in their family plot in Napa, CA, with a brass plaque to mark the spot.  The site of her former mansion, now demolished, is marked with a small park in San Francisco, which also has a Mary Ellen Pleasant Day. She has been mentioned in numerous literary works as well as in films.
In 1965, her gravestone was amended with a line she had requested on her deathbed, 'A Friend of John Brown.’

First photo provenance unknown
2nd photo public domain via wikimedia
3rd photo courtesy SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library,  SFG City Guides