Grenville Dodge: Surveyor of the Transcontinental Railroad

We dismounted and started down the ridge, holding the Indians at bay, when they came too near, with our rifles. It was nearly night when the troops saw our smoke signals of danger and came to our relief; and in going to the train we followed a ridge out until I discovered it led down to the plains without a break. I then said to my guide, that if we got out alive I believed we had found the crossing of the Black Hills—and over this ridge, between Lone Tree and Crow Creeks, the wonderful line over the mountains was built. For over two years all explorations had failed to find a satisfactory crossing of this range. The country east of it was unexplored but we had no doubt we could reach it.
—Grenville M. Dodge from How We Built the Union Pacific.


The Indians called him "Level Eye," a nickname derived from a practiced eye for the lay of the land that served him well as both a surveyor and military strategist. He was of medium height, solemn and swarthy, and wore a full beard during his military days. Weighing 130 pounds, he was stoop-shouldered from days spent over a plane table or drafting board. Given to stubbornness, his tact could be questioned at times, but his courage and determination never were. Grenville Dodge wore many hats in the course of American history, including Indian fighter, Civil War Major General, and U.S. Congressman, but perhaps his most important role was as the surveyor who located the Union Pacific's line in its drive to lay the first transcontinental rails.

Interests Lay in Accomplishing the Task
Unlike many of the major figures in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, Dodge's interest lay in accomplishing the task rather than in financial gain. He became wealthy in the process, but I suspect that he would have undertaken the project without any prospect of wealth. The same cannot be said for many of the financiers of the railroad.

During the 1840s and 1850s there was considerable discussion of a connection of the East and West Coasts of this country with a transcontinental railroad. The idea was appealing because of the tremendous difficulty of passage at the time. The only means of reaching the West Coast from the East was by arduous wagon train journeys, or by ship, either sailing around the Cape of South America, or by sailing to Central America and taking a "shortcut" by land through disease-infested jungles of the Isthmus of Panama, then continuing by sea on the Pacific side if and when ship travel was available.

A transcontinental railroad was considered a folly by many knowledgeable people who considered the difficulty of crossing the western mountain ranges to be insurmountable. Nevertheless, the government sponsored several surveys during the 1850s seeking a likely passage across the country. The actual route chosen was roughly along the 42nd parallel of latitude and was surveyed over a 15-year period under the direction of Grenville Dodge. It was a huge task. The line was limited by law to a maximum gradient of 116 feet per mile, and climbed over mountain passes as high as 8,000 feet. The survey parties worked well ahead of the construction crews in difficult terrain, inclement weather, and the presence of hostile Indians. Perhaps of even greater concern than the Indians was death by disease or accident. All hands worked from daylight until dark. A typical party in open country ran from eight to twelve miles of line a day on preliminary surveys and from three to four miles on location.

Dodge's Background
Grenville Dodge graduated in 1851 from Norwich University, a military and engineering school in Vermont. Like so many people of the era, Dodge traveled west for opportunity and adventure. He began his career as a surveyor in 1850, taking a job as an axeman on a survey party for the Illinois Central Railroad. He left the Illinois Central after a year and went to work, again as an axeman, for the Rock Island Line. He worked under the tutelage of Peter Dey, a surveyor and engineer who quickly recognized Dodge's talent. Dey was soon offered a position with the Missouri & Mississippi and took Dodge with him as his principal assistant. Dodge and Dey worked at the Missouri & Mississippi for an executive named Thomas Durant. Durant knew little about the layout and construction of a railroad and never displayed any particular desire to learn. A graduate of medical school, he preferred the title "Dr. Durant," although the medical field never really held his interest. What did hold his interest was money, and great sums of it. Durant was in reality a crooked financier, and in the 1860s he conspired to rob the coffers of the Union Pacific, leading it to the brink of financial ruin. But if Durant was a crook, he was also a visionary. He began to privately finance surveys by Dodge across Iowa and up the Platte River Valley in search of a line that would eventually reach the West Coast. Dodge would spend the remainder of the 1850s exploring this route, and in 1858, he traveled to New York City to present his findings to the Board of Directors of several western railroads. Dodge reported that there was such a lack of interest in the project that most of the directors left the room before he was halfway through his presentation. Nevertheless, Durant and Dodge didn't lose faith and they continued to survey the route until interrupted by the Civil War.

Dodge joined the Union Army in 1861 as the colonel of the 4th Iowa Infantry. He had a chance to prove his mettle at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in the spring of 1862. Dodge and his men were detailed as pioneers at Pea Ridge the night before the battle. They were the first to discover the Confederate Army marching around the entrenched Union troops in a flanking movement. Dodge's early warning allowed the Union troops to reverse their position and receive the attacking force head on, an advantage that many historians believe saved the outnumbered Union Army. During the battle the next day, Dodge and his men fought doggedly to hold the Union line at Elkhorn Tavern. As he rode along his line, exposed to gunfire, he was wounded twice and had three horses shot from under him. Despite his injuries, Dodge remained in command and encouraged his troops with his bravery. Pushed in on all sides on the first day, the Union troops revived the second day and drove the Confederates from the field, preserving Missouri and North Arkansas for the Union. For his actions at Pea Ridge, Dodge was promoted to brigadier general a month later. He was promoted to major general in 1864 and spent the remainder of the war repairing bridges and railroads destroyed by the retreating Confederates. He served as commander of the Department of the West after the war and resigned his commission in 1866 to take a position with the Union Pacific Railroad.

Meetings with Abraham Lincoln
In 1859, Dodge and Abraham Lincoln met in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and discussed Dodge's surveys and the possibility of building the railroad along his line. In 1863, while in Corinth, Mississippi, Dodge was called to Washington for a council with Lincoln, where they finalized plans for the Union Pacific's line along Dodge's route, setting the eastern terminus at Omaha, Nebraska. The Union Pacific had been created by an act of Congress in 1862, and work on the line began soon afterward. However, because of the war and the lack of labor and materials it caused, little had been accomplished. During the war, Dodge's former boss, Thomas Durant, had managed to gain control of the Union Pacific by illegally purchasing stock in his friends' names until he had a controlling interest. He created the Credit Mobilier to contract to the Union Pacific for the construction of the railroad. In effect, the Union Pacific, controlled by Durant, contracted to the Credit Mobilier, also controlled by Durant, to build the railroad. Durant and his cronies made inflated construction claims to the Union Pacific and pocketed the difference, cheating the honest stockholders of the Union Pacific. Dodge's old friend and mentor Peter Dey was in charge of the construction. Dey was an honest man, however. He was aware of Durant's manipulations and resigned in disgust in 1866. Durant, remembering Dodge's abilities, offered him the huge salary of $10,000 a year to take Dey's position, promising to throw in 100 shares of Credit Mobilier stock. Durant quickly forgot this promise once Dodge was on board.

Establishing the Central Pacific Railroad
On the West Coast, Theodore Judah's fanatical belief in a transcontinental railroad had earned him the nickname "Crazy Ted." Judah had, among other things, surveyed a short-line railroad from Sacramento to the gold diggings east of town and platted the townsite of Folsom, California. Judah finally obtained the backing of four Sacramento businessmen—Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Charles Crocker. They would be called the "Big Four." Together they established the Central Pacific Railroad with plans to build east. Judah went into the Sierra Nevada and mapped the route over the mountains that the Central Pacific would follow. Unfortunately, Judah did not live to see the completion of the railroad he dreamed of. He died for the want of that dream, contracting yellow fever in the Isthmus of Panama on a trip from California to New York. Nevertheless, his survey made possible the Central Pacific's route over Donner Pass and in the process, made the Big Four wealthy men.

Soon after Dodge began work for the Union Pacific, he packed his survey instruments and traveled west to locate the line's route through the Rocky Mountains. He located a Western Division roundhouse and repair facility at a new town, that he designated Cheyenne, in what is now Wyoming. Cheyenne was also the most logical place for a spur line to the small, but thriving city of Denver, Colorado. While away on this survey, Dodge was elected to Congress by the state of Iowa and soon left for Washington to serve his term.

The Credit Mobilier was paid for construction based on mileage of track laid, and the U.S. Government also provided generous land subsidies along the right of way of the Union Pacific tracks. Dodge was a practical and efficient surveyor who surveyed his lines to provide the shortest and best route for the line. This, however, was not in the best interest of Thomas Durant's designs to make money. Durant had long been disgusted with Dodge's unwillingness to facilitate his schemes. With Dodge away in Washington, Durant had his chance. He had a new route surveyed, considerably increasing the mileage of track to be laid as well as the money which was to roll into the Credit Mobilier. He also changed the repair facility designated for Cheyenne to Laramie, platted the land, and began to sell lots at outrageous sums.

Dodge soon learned of Durant's actions and packed his bags and headed west for a confrontation with Durant. Arriving in Cheyenne, Dodge began countermanding Durant's orders and then left for Laramie for a showdown with Durant. Finding Durant on the streets, Dodge told him in plain English that he would remain in control of the location of the line. Durant reportedly said nothing and continued on his way.

The feud wasn't officially settled until a council was held at Fort Sanders, in the Wyoming Territory, a few months later. The council was headed by General Ulysses Grant and attended by Generals Philip Sheridan, William Tecumseh Sherman, and William S. Harney. Before the council was held, Durant had contacted Grant and asked for his assistance in ousting Dodge. Dodge had served under Grant and Sherman in the war, and both men held him in high regard. Grant refused Durant's request and the council was held. Durant opened the proceedings by accusing Dodge of running poor and inefficient lines. Dodge had spent the better part of the last fifteen years surveying the best route he could, and we can imagine his anger when he stood and replied, "If Durant or anyone with the Federal Government changes my lines I will quit the road." The room was quiet for several moments and then Grant said, "The United States Government expects the Union Pacific to meet its obligations and it expects General Dodge to remain in control of the location of the line." Durant was a smart crook and he knew when he was whipped. Grant was the commanding general of the U.S. Army, and was expected to be the next president. Durant acquiesced and Dodge remained with the Union Pacific until the final spike was driven at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869. The Union Pacific's tracks met there with the Central Pacific tracks of Theodore Judah and the Big Four, and the country was finally connected with a rail link from east to west.

A Safe Passage for Many
Durant retired to the life of an aristocrat, never having been scathed by the corruption he instituted. Dodge continued with his work for several railroads, notably the Texas and Pacific, and lived well into the twentieth century. For many years he was a popular speaker at veterans groups' meetings and civil affairs. When the Transcontinental Railroad was finished, it finally provided a safe, quick, and economical passage across the country. Although, like Durant, many of the characters in the building of the railroad were not humanitarians, it did serve a humanitarian interest. Both wealthy aristocrats and poor immigrants traveled on the railroad. They traveled in different styles, of course, but it served both their purposes and helped make cross-country travel a possibility for all.


Kevin Burgess is a crew chief and land surveyor for Sacramento County, California.

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