on February 2, 2008
This is a quick well-written and readable guide to the building of the railroads as it relates to California. It tells the story of the Big 4, aka The Associates - Hunitington, Stanford, Hopkins and Crocker - four merchants who came out of almost nowhere and ended up controlling the biggest railroad empire in America. In earlier books Rayner has written about con men and the shady sides of business and I was worried that he might approach the story from that angle. But he ends up liking them, warts and all, and his picture of the scheming Huntington is especially good. Another interesting thing that Rayner points out is how our thinking about the railroads these days is almost entirely the product of the changing ways in which they've been written about in different intellectual phases of history. He gives us a tour of the sources, from the muckraking days to more modern historians who take the "greed is good" argument. Rayner doesn't take sides especially. I also have to say that as a professor of U.S. history specializing in the period in question, I found nothing to object to within these pages; the previous reviewer's complaints have the sound of someone who was trawling for things to carp about; for example, his point regarding Throg's Neck: this is a body of water and an adjoining neighborhood in the Bronx, so there is no error here at all. If you are looking for a one-volume history of the railroads in the Golden State, this is a fresh and neat little book.
on September 15, 2008
i was excited to buy the book and learn about the 'Big Four' of California. I really enjoy California history and have read many other books which touch on this subject. First disappointment of many was when I realized that instead of doing his research, the author said that a Chinese undertaker caused the crocker spite fence to go up when it was a German undertaker called Nicolas Yung. Obviously the name threw him off and the author merely assumed the ethnicity. Frustrating because the author got many other simple facts wrong and also frustrating because this is something that could have been easily researched. it kind of made me feel like the author was not really serious about writing this book.
I have lived in Northern California for forty years and knew the Big Four - Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington, and Hopkins - were instrumental in creating the transcontinental railroad and all became fabulously wealthy in the process. But like many who live here, I knew very little about the nature of their involvement and the true source of their wealth.
Since Silicon Valley was not around in the latter half of the 1800s, I knew their wealth creation story had to be different than what we see today. Author Richard Rayner in his "The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California" does a masterful job in chronicling the story of "the building of the railroad, the creation of a state, and the invention of big business" and how these four became "as fabulously wealthy as anybody in American history." This is a story of about bent laws, broken rivals, the bribery of government officials (local, state, and federal), and sanctioned murder.
Collis Huntington, the eventual ring-leader, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford all met while running successful retail and wholesale businesses in Sacramento. They were drawn into the idea of building a transcontinental railroad by Theodore Judah who was the visionary but desperately needed money. They provided the initial stake then assumed control after Judah, attempting to find capital to buy out his financial partners, died unexpectedly.
Rayner's well researched story then focuses on the building of the first transcontinental railroad - "a legendary story, a central part of the American West's creation myth"...a triumph of will, guts, the American can-do spirit, murder, fraud, and corruption "over unimaginable difficulty and danger"..."a race between the Irish navies of the Union Pacific, laying track from the east, and the Chinese coolies of the Central Pacific, advancing from the west...built by men who cared only about money and were absolutely ruthless about money"...a story of lust for money that propelled the railroad over the mountains, through the deserts, across the plains.
By the end of the Associates' run, "the railroads - the way they run and the power they had - were regarded as corrupt, cruel, implacable, and fiendish, in stark contrast to the gratitude and excitement with which they'd been greeted thirty years before."
This is a great read for anyone living in the Golden State, for those interested in the history of the "wild west," or anyone wanting to understand the birth of big business and the eventual demand for big government to control monopolists. Now when I visit Stanford University, the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, Grace Cathedral (Crocker), or the Mark Hopkins Hotel, I will be brought back to this book and what these landmarks represent in California's history.
on February 16, 2008
This book covers the history of the railroad to California, but with a special emphasis and focus on the wheelings and dealings of the railroad barons/masterminds who pulled it off. Sometimes through means (stock fraud, etc) that look pretty shady in retrospect. If you find this aspect of interest, this is the book. The author has written previously about charlatans and frauds who left little behind (see his delightful "Drake's Fortune" book). Here, to the extent the railroad barons were shysters, they also created a longstanding, monumental feat of engineering with vast economic benefits and consequences. In this, lies the tale.
on March 25, 2008
A compelling and concise history of the California railroad. One realizes that Private capital would never have been able to build the railroad. There was much financial slight-of-hand, and only a few got really rich, but the transcontinental railroad was only made possible due to govt grants and thusly it (like the Erie canal) was really a public works program, albeit a very corrupt program. But in spite of the corruption the program benefited the nation greatly.
I found myself with an odd fondness for Mr Huntington, the most tyranical of the associates. Unlike Stanford, Huntington had no pretenses about who or what he was. He worked long hours ever night at having absolute control and he did it better than anyone else. He made things happen, he willed the railroad thru the mountains. I don't believe he was in it for the money, and I know he wasn't in it for the fame....he was simply driven to dream and in so doing he changed the nation. He was so bad, he was good.
One review snobbishly slights this book because of a blunder here or there, and for overquoting. This misses the forest for the trees; If you want a great, quick, entertaining and educational read about early California this is the book for you.
on March 4, 2009
Rayner takes us into the lives of four men -- Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, known as the Big Four, or the Associates. More specifically, it focuses on how they banded together to build the Central Pacific Railroad, and then the Southern Pacific. It's a tale of rapine and greed, as all four men became fabulously wealthy -- first through the money skimmed off from government subsidies and bonds, through political corruption (copious bribes reaping huge rewards), and eventually from control over the rail monopoly in California and much of the Western US.
In so doing, however, they did in fact define the face of California, by choosing where and when to put in rail lines, often based on trying to outsmart potential competing lines (when they couldn't manipulate Congress, the Administration, or state governments) or from out-and-out blackmail against communities that might -- with sufficient cash incentives -- get the rails coming through. The "Octopus" of the Central and Southern Pacific Railroads dominated the state, economically and politically, for many years.
The audaciousness of the men involved -- master planner Huntington, quiet cooker-of-books Hopkins, vain politician Stanford, and construction boss and group moderator Crocker -- is astonishing, both in what they tried to do (and accomplished), and in their utter shamelessness in theft, fraud, corporate malfeasance, bribery, political corruption, and personal vendetta.
For all of that, it turned out to be hollow, as none of the men ended up personally happy nor, for that matter, that well-known today, at least compared to the Eastern robber barons. But all of the Associates, through their machinations, left an indelible mark on the state of California that persists to this day.
Rayner's work is a relatively quick read, easy in style. It's well-researched, and gives a good, somewhat vivid narrative of the rise and fall of the four men and their partnership, but it still feels more of a survey than an in-depth tale of either the men or their deeds. It is, however, a great book for anyone who wants a solid introduction to know more about California's history, corporate shenanigans in the Gilded Age, or the building of the railroads in the West. Recommended.
on June 18, 2008
Richard Rayner's "Associates" is a detailed, well researched, compilation of letters, news articles and historical references to describe an era that made the American west that developed into the modern Silicon Valley. The parallels of Silicon Valley's boom and bust and sometimes unscrupulous business ventures are perfectly matched. This is a true book of scholarship written in an exciting narrative.
There is rarely a time when a historian can get into the mind of a great individual; except by inference. Rayner did the remarkable research and has brought us better than a glimpse into the minds of the Big Four or the Robber Barons. Without them, good or bad, California and Silicon Valley would not be the world's leader in technology advancement.
Author, SILICON VALLEY: 110 Year Renaissance
on September 10, 2012
In 1860 Ted Judah convinced Collis Huntington, a Sacramento shopkeeper, to invest in the mad-cap idea of building a railroad from San Francisco over the Sierra Nevada mountains and stretching across the continent of America. Huntington enrolled three fellow grocers in his plan, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, and all four became known as the Associates. They established the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CP), which would begin the line in California while the Union Pacific would begin in Missouri and the two would meet at the California border.
America's Congress facilitated the plan by passing the Railroad Act in 1862 which provided for rights of way, grants of federal land and grants of government bonds; and the Associates established a complex web of subsidiaries to ensure CP's contracts were awarded to themselves. The Associates bribed Congress for the amending Railroad Act of 1864 which saw the meeting point of the two lines extended eastward (thus giving CP more land grants and more freight traffic) and the grants of public land and money doubled. As construction progressed the Associates tightened their monopoly over railroads into and out of California, buying up competitors and corrupting legislators, while all the while frequently laying sub-standard line. Once the railroad was completed, in 1869, the Associates became fabulously wealthy due to their virtual monopoly of Western rail traffic, a monopoly sustained through keeping public legislators paid off.
One of the most compelling of the Associates was Collis Huntington, a man of Iago-like magnetism and ruthlessness. One of the book's highlights is the descriptions of Huntington: his masterful control, his bitterness and his ruthless vengeance on his enemies, and one of its pleasure is the description of how, through crusading journalism, Ambrose Bierce defeated Huntington's last attempt to buy Congress.
It's a great story with compelling central characters and it is a story well served by Rayner. He sticks to the essentials and stays focused on the facts, resulting in a briskly paced, engaging account of a fascinating period in American history that is equally ugly and inspiring.
on October 10, 2010
Like another reviewer here, I've lived in CA for most of my life, yet I was only superficially aware of the history of these "Associates". This book was a great introduction. After reading it, I was left both awed and repulsed by the actions of these men. Awed because of the incredible things they accomplished and the obstacles they overcame. Repulsed because of HOW they were accomplished and overcome - usually by keeping the government in their pocket. As historian Carey McWilliams wrote in 1929, "Everyone was a kept lobbyist for the railroad. Such political corruption and bribery were perhaps never witnessed in an American commonwealth as occurred in California during these years".
Although the building of the railroad is at the heart of this story, equally interesting is the personal lives of the Associates - how they spent their money, and what happened to their extraordinary wealth after their deaths. I was astonished to read that Leland Stanford at one point paid a San Francisco journalist $10,000 a year just to compose prose comparing Stanford to Alexander the Great and Confucius.
There are several books listed in the Bibliographical Notes that will lead readers to other books related to this subject. An entertaining, enlightening, and well written book.
on September 4, 2009
If you ever forget the names of "The Big Four",a good mnemonic device is to walk your
mind up the last blocks to the crest of Nob Hill on California Street in San Francisco past the STANFORD Court Hotel,the Mark HOPKINS Hotel,the HUNTINGTON Hotel and diagonally
across Taylor Street to Grace Cathedral(be SURE to see the Ghiberti "Gates of Paradise"Doors or you'll have to go to Florence)and you have to know that CROCKER donated the land for the Cathedral where his Mansion once stood.(The Pacific Union Club,the last original Mansion extant on Nob Hill was James Flood's-he was silver wealth ,not railroads.)
Richard Raynor's non-fiction prose flows with facts,but also gives a real feel for the
reality of the Robber Baron's era.I did not know that Abraham Lincoln's support was critical to the Transcontinental Railroad venture.I did not know the actual depth of the political machinations,direct payoffs and corruption,contractual and cash.And as happens so often in American industrial history,the guy with the actual vision gets screwed out of the big rewards.There is so much more,and the Railroad was a seminal achievement in American History.Raynor provides great history and great writing.