A man of humble origins back east, Charles Crocker became a titan in California, spearheading construction of the Central Pacific railroad and accumulating ever more wealth and power every decade of his life.
Crocker was born into a modest upstate New York family in 1822. When he was fourteen, the family moved west to a farm in Iowa. Crocker soon became independent, working on several farms, a sawmill, and at an iron forge. In 1845 he founded a small, independent forge.
When news of the fortunes to be made in California spread across the nation, Crocker led a party of Forty-niners overland to the Pacific coast, arriving in 1850. Two years in the mines convinced him that mining was no way to make a fortune, and so he opened a store in Sacramento. By 1854 he was one of the wealthiest men in town and had a strong business relationship with Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford -- who together with Crocker came to be known as "The Big Four" for their prominence in California's stunningly rapid economic development.
Political positions and further business opportunities accompanied Crocker's initial economic gains. In 1855 he was elected to Sacramento's city council, and in 1860 to California's state legislature. In the early 1860s, the Big Four began to plan and manage the construction of the Central Pacific railroad, which was to cross the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains and meet with the Union Pacific headed west from Nebraska.
Crocker managed the actual construction of the railroad. He overcame shortages of manpower and money by hiring Chinese immigrants to do much of the back-breaking and dangerous labor. He drove the workers to the point of exhaustion, in the process setting records for laying track and finishing the project seven years ahead of the government's deadline.
With this success, Crocker's business activities reached a new level. He became president of the Southern Pacific railroad, helped connect San Francisco to Portland by rail, became involved in banking and northern California industry, and made even more money as a real estate speculator. He was an early proponent of the massive irrigation projects which eventually transformed California into a fruit and vegetable growing center. In 1886 he was seriously injured in a New York City carriage accident. He never fully recovered, and died two years later.
Program | People | Places
| Events | Resources | Lesson
Plans | Quiz|
© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA