Institute on California and the West Railroaded Workshop, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, July 9, 2011: What Is This Railroad to Do for Us?

Article excerpt

In the spring of 1868, Mark Twain and Bret Harte sat before the proofs of a new and soon-to-be-important literary magazine. The Overland Monthly was in the final stages of design and content production.

Cover art stumped the two writers--even though there was artwork tentatively chosen. A young California grizzly, the state mascot, stood in the center of the cover, snarling over his shoulder. "He was a good bear," Twain remembered later. "He was a success." But he was, Twain added, "an objectless bear--a bear that meant nothing in particular, signified nothing." What to do?

Taking a pencil, Bret Harte then did something Twain regarded as "nothing less than inspiration itself." With two hastily drawn parallel lines, Harte drew railroad tracks beneath the grizzly's feet. "Behold he was a magnificent success!" Twain wrote. Now the cover of the journal said something; now it had power and meaning. In Twain's eyes (though, being Twain, he might have been kidding), the picture now depicted an epic contest between the future and the past, between nature and inevitable human progress. Here was "the ancient symbol of California savagery snarling at the approaching type of high and progressive Civilization, the first Overland locomotive!" (1)

That is but one way to look at the railroad. If, instead, you assume that the overland locomotive represented anything but high and progressive civilization, you have a different vision of that important drawing. If the transcontinental railroad represents something different, something far lower on the ladder of progress, something darker, even more obscure, then maybe that grizzly is the noble actor in the picture. Maybe that grizzly is defending a status quo forever to be doomed by the railroad's arrival.

Think about the picture yet a third way. If the bear straddles the tracks not in defiance of the coming railroad, if the bear stands there out of loyalty or even friendship to the railroad, if the bear and the railroad are meant to suggest that nature and technology could be coexisting halves of a Gilded Age California coin, then what? And what's the bear snarling at?

That's easy: the bear is snarling at Richard White.

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"THE MOST POTENT AGENCY"

In the fall of 1886, Southern Pacific Railroad executive Alban N. Towne wrote a twenty-five-page letter to California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. (2) Bancroft had recently visited S.P. headquarters in San Francisco. Now Towne obliged Bancroft's request for "information which would better enable you to write up more fully in your great historical work the rise and progress of Railroads in California." Where to begin? Towne admitted that regarding railroad "evolutions" and their "extent and importance" to "commercial transactions," he could hardly segregate California from the nation as a whole.

Towne got right to the task, grappling with the unquestioned, even inevitable, greatness of the railroad enterprise and its history in the far West. (3) He briefly reviewed early support of a transcontinental route across the nation, though he didn't take that history back as far as he might have. He began in 1854 and advanced quickly to 1856 (he could have begun a full generation earlier had he wished, but that might have doubled the length of his long letter). He touched upon the young state of California's interest in a transcontinental "to more strongly cement the bonds of union between the Pacific and Atlantic states," noting not the rising sectional tensions between North and South but, peculiarly, the necessity of such a bond should the United States go to war with any European nation.

As he did in many a railroad letter, Towne turned quickly to numbers, detailing declining freight shipment charges for transcontinental traffic thanks to the coming of the railroad and displacement of the overland roads. He elaborated upon federal and state statute history, specifying various legislative benefits to railroad construction coming on the heels of the Civil War-era Pacific Railroad acts. …