After a false start in mining, Crocker settled into the more
leisurely pursuit of dry goods merchant. He also joined Sacramento's
emerging Republican party, where he became aligned with fellow
businessmen Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins.
When Huntington offered him a piece of the railroad in 1860,
Crocker leapt aboard. Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Bill
in 1862, and the board of the Central Pacific, called the Associates,
looked for construction contractors right away. All eyes fell
on Crocker, and though he was a board member and had not done
a day of construction in his life, he agreed. "I had all
the experience necessary. I knew how to manage men; I had worked
them in the ore beds, in the coal pits, and worked them all
sorts of ways, and had worked myself right along with them."
There were advantages to hiring a friend; contractors were typically
paid in railroad securities, so absolute control would only
stay within the group if an Associate handled the contract.
Moreover, whatever percentage of government bonds a contractor
might embezzle, well, that money would go to Crocker, again
remaining in house.
Feel for the Job
Crocker resigned his position on the board to avoid the obvious
conflict of interest. His brother Edwin Crocker filled his place,
and in December 1862, the Central Pacific awarded its first
construction contract to Charles Crocker & Company. The
choice enraged Judah and marked the beginning of the engineer's
estrangement. Crocker shrewdly subcontracted the first 18 miles
to firms with actual experience. When grading began, he rode
alongside, "supervising" their work, watching and
learning. As he pressed forward, Crocker gained a feel for the
job. He hired James Harvey Strobridge as construction boss.
Strobridge's style was to intimidate workers. If intimidation
failed, he regularly fell back on physical violence. But Crocker's
next move was his canniest. Facing a labor shortage in 1865,
he hired Chinese workers. When the first men proved suitable,
he sent recruiters across California and into China. Crocker
and Strobridge soon had thousands of men at their command, and
it was the Chinese men and their back-breaking work that would
get the railroad through the Sierra Nevada.
Overseeing physical construction of the rail line was a large
burden for a large man. Surmounting Donner Pass was at times
an infinitesimally slow process, and the Associates applied
constant pressure to meet time or geographical deadlines. Cutting
grade, building snowsheds, blasting through hard rock and laying
track through snow -- these tasks occupied Crocker into 1868,
while his crews worked ahead of him in Nevada, hoping to push
forward in the race
for territory against the encroaching Union Pacific.
Crises were often beyond Crocker's control -- especially crises
involving railroad-building supplies. All Central Pacific supplies
came from the East, and the Panama Canal shortcut did not exist.
Until 1868 all material, rails, rolling stock, and machinery
was shipped around Cape Horn at South America's southernmost
tip, en route to California. River steamers took the material
upriver to Sacramento where it was offloaded to platform cars
to go into the mountains. If a single shipment didn't leave
the East Coast on time (and often it didn't), or if an accident
occurred in the shipping, the resulting delay could be crippling.
Frequently Crocker cut corners, telling his crews to spike only
seven of every ten rails, or allowing shoddy work along the
Crocker took intense pride in the ability of his men. While
mired in the mountains, he had heard tales of Union Pacific
track-laying feats. When the lines finally neared, Crocker decided
to prove something to Jack Casement and his Union Pacific workers.
On April 20, 1869, thereafter known as "Victory Day",
Central Pacific crews laid an extraordinary ten miles of track
across the Utah desert between sunrise and sunset. The unheard-of
feat brought Central Pacific rail within ten miles of the Union
Pacific line, ensuring the Union Pacific could not hope to replicate
Charles Crocker was the first Central Pacific Associate to ride
the completed transcontinental road, tracing his former wagon
route back east. In 1870, he and his invalid brother resigned
their positions in the company. Charles Crocker would return
three years later to a ceremonial position, which he occupied
happily until his death in 1888.