Southern Pacific Railroad completes New Orleans to California route


Year
1883
Month Day
February 05

The Southern Pacific Railroad completes its transcontinental “Sunset Route” from New Orleans to California, consolidating its dominance over rail traffic to the Pacific.

One of the most powerful railroad companies of the 19th century, the “Espee” (as the railroad was often called) originated in an ambitious plan conceived in 1870 by the “Big Four” western railroad barons: Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins. A year earlier, the Big Four’s western-based Central Pacific had linked up with the eastern-based Union Pacific in Utah, creating the first transcontinental American railway. With that finished, the “Big Four” began to look for ways to increase their control over West Coast shipping, and decided to focus their efforts on extending the California-based Southern Pacific southward.

By 1877, the Southern Pacific controlled 85 percent of California’s railroad mileage. Huntington, who now dominated the company, saw an excellent opportunity to create a transcontinental line through the southern United States. Huntington had to act fast if was to beat the competition. The Texas and Pacific Railroad was already pushing westward toward the Pacific at a fast pace. Marshalling his awesome energy and financial resources, Huntington began driving his Southern Pacific line eastward. He won the race in 1881, when he linked the Southern Pacific to the Santa Fe Railroad at Deming, New Mexico, creating the second American transcontinental railway. Two years later, on February 5, 1883, Huntington gained full control of a number of smaller railroads, creating the Southern Pacific’s “Sunset Route” from New Orleans to California.

With the “Sunset Route,” Huntington confirmed his domination over California rails. He had taken considerable financial risks to build the Southern Pacific system, and he collected very considerable financial rewards. The Southern Pacific had a near monopoly over rail service to California, and Huntington and his associates took advantage of the situation by charging high shipping rates.

Termed “the Octopus” for its tentacled stranglehold on much of the California economy, the Southern Pacific inspired Californians to create some of the first strong public regulations over railroads in American history. But despite the anger and outrage Huntington’s exploitation inspired, few would deny that the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad played an essential role in fostering the growth of a vibrant California economy for decades to come.

READ MORE: 10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America

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Wounded soldiers evacuated from the Little Big Horn by steamboat

Year
1876
Month Day
June 30

After a slow two-day march, the wounded soldiers from the Battle of the Little Big Horn reach the steamboat Far West.

The Far West had been leased by the U.S. Army for the duration of the 1876 campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes of the Northern Plains. Under the command of the skilled civilian Captain Grant Marsh, the 190-foot vessel was ideal for navigating the shallow waters of the Upper Missouri River system. The boat drew only 20 inches of water when fully laden and Marsh managed to steam up the shallow Big Horn River in southern Montana in June 1876. There, the boat became a headquarters for the army’s planned attack on a village of Sioux and Cheyenne they believed were camping on the nearby Little Big Horn River.

On June 28, Captain Grant and several other men were fishing about a mile from the boat when a young Indian on horseback approached. “He wore an exceedingly dejected countenance,” one man later wrote. By signing and drawing on the ground, the tribesman managed to convey that there had been a battle but the men did not understand its outcome. In fact, the Native American was Curley, one of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s Crow scouts. Three days earlier, he had been the last man to see Custer and his 7th Cavalry battalion before they were wiped out during the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The following day, Grant received a dispatch from General Terry, who had found Custer’s destroyed battalion and the surviving soldiers of the 7th Cavalry. Terry ordered Grant to prepare to evacuate the wounded soldiers. Slowed by the burden of carrying the wounded men, Terry’s force did not arrive until June 30. Grant immediately received the 54 wounded soldiers and sped downstream as quickly as possible. With the Far West draped in black and flying her flag at half-mast, Grant delivered the wounded to Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, North Dakota, at 11:00 p.m. on July 5.

The fast and relatively comfortable transport of the wounded by steam power undoubtedly saved numerous lives. Yet, Grant was also the bearer of bad news. From Fort Abraham Lincoln, General Terry’s report of the disaster was telegraphed all over the country. Soon the entire nation learned that General Custer and more than 200 men had been killed along the Little Big Horn River.

READ MORE: What Really Happened at the Battle of the Little Bighorn?

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Secretary Fall resigns in Teapot Dome scandal


Updated:
Original:
Year
1923
Month Day
January 02

Albert Fall, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, resigns in response to public outrage over the Teapot Dome scandal. Fall’s resignation illuminated a deeply corrupt relationship between western developers and the federal government.

Born in Kentucky in 1861, Albert Fall moved to New Mexico in 1887 because doctors told him the dry desert air would improve his health. Fall thrived in his new home, quickly building up a large ranching operation near Las Cruces and investing in silver mining and other ventures. By the turn of the century, Fall was a well-respected and powerful western businessman, and he used his considerable resources to win a seat in the U.S. Senate when New Mexico became a state in 1912.

In Washington, D.C., Fall quickly discovered the enjoyable prerogatives of power. He made several powerful allies, including President Warren G. Harding, who appointed him secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior in 1921. As secretary of the interior, Fall was responsible for managing the government’s vast western land holdings in the public interest. Unfortunately, Fall’s close ties with western developers tempted him to abuse his position. Ostensibly acting to ensure adequate oil supplies for the navy in the event of war, Fall set aside a large oil deposit in Wyoming known as Teapot Dome. Secretly, he then began to sign leases with big western oilmen allowing them to exploit the supposed reserve.

When news of the secret leases leaked out, Fall claimed he had signed them with the best interests of the public in mind. Subsequent investigations, though, threw Fall’s integrity into question when they disclosed that many of his investments in New Mexico had recently collapsed, and he was on the verge of bankruptcy. Desperate for money, Fall had accepted “loans” of about $400,000 from the same oil men he granted access to Teapot Dome, two of whom were old friends from his New Mexico mining days. Fall insisted that the loans were unrelated to his granting of the Teapot Dome oil leases, but conservationists and government reformers were outraged. Such conflicts of interest were inevitable, they argued, when western developers were given control over federal agencies responsible for managing western natural resources.

Forced to resign his office in shame, Fall spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild his fortune and redeem his tarnished reputation. He died in near poverty in 1944.

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Transcontinental railroad completed, unifying United States

Year
1869
Month Day
May 10

On May 10, 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads meet in Promontory, Utah, and drive a ceremonial last spike into a rail line that connects their railroads. This made transcontinental railroad travel possible for the first time in U.S. history. No longer would western-bound travelers need to take the long and dangerous journey by wagon train, and the West would surely lose some of its wild charm with the new connection to the civilized East.

READ MORE: 10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America

Since at least 1832, both Eastern and frontier statesmen realized a need to connect the two coasts. It was not until 1853, though, that Congress appropriated funds to survey several routes for the transcontinental railroad. The actual building of the railroad would have to wait even longer, as North-South tensions prevented Congress from reaching an agreement on where the line would begin.

One year into the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act (1862), guaranteeing public land grants and loans to the two railroads it chose to build the transcontinental line, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. With these in hand, the railroads began work in 1866 from Omaha and Sacramento, forging a northern route across the country. In their eagerness for land, the two lines built right past each other, and the final meeting place had to be renegotiated.

Harsh winters, staggering summer heat, Indian raids and the lawless, rough-and-tumble conditions of newly settled western towns made conditions for the Union Pacific laborers–mainly Civil War veterans of Irish descent–miserable. The overwhelmingly immigrant Chinese work force of the Central Pacific also had its fair share of problems, including brutal 12-hour work days laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On more than one occasion, whole crews would be lost to avalanches, or mishaps with explosives would leave several dead.

READ MORE: 10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America

For all the adversity they suffered, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific workers were able to finish the railroad–laying nearly 2,000 miles of track–by 1869, ahead of schedule and under budget. Journeys that had taken months by wagon train or weeks by boat now took only days. Their work had an immediate impact: The years following the construction of the railway were years of rapid growth and expansion for the United States, due in large part to the speed and ease of travel that the railroad provided.

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Future president Zachary Taylor fights the Battle of Palo Alto

Year
1846
Month Day
May 08

Before the United States formally declared war on Mexico, General Zachary Taylor defeats a superior Mexican force in the Battle of Palo Alto north of the Rio Grande River.

The drift toward war with Mexico had begun a year earlier when the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas as a new state. Ten years before, the Mexicans had fought an unsuccessful war with Texans to keep them from breaking away to become an independent nation. Since then, they had refused to recognize the independence of Texas or the Rio Grande River as an international boundary. In January 1846, fearing the Mexicans would respond to U.S. annexation by asserting control over disputed territory in southwestern Texas, President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to move a force into Texas to defend the Rio Grande border.

After a last-minute effort to settle the dispute diplomatically failed, Taylor was ordered to take his forces up to the disputed borderline at the Rio Grande. The Mexican General Mariano Arista viewed this as a hostile invasion of Mexican territory, and on April 25, 1846, he took his soldiers across the river and attacked. Congress declared war on May 13 and authorized a draft to build up the U.S. Army.

Taylor, however, was in no position to await formal declaration of a war that he was already fighting. In the weeks following the initial skirmish along the Rio Grande, Taylor engaged the Mexican army in two battles. On May 8, near Palo Alto, and the next day at Resaca de la Palma, Taylor led his 200 soldiers to victories against much larger Mexican forces. Poor training and inferior armaments undermined the Mexican army’s troop advantage. Mexican gunpowder, for example, was of such poor quality that artillery barrages often sent cannonballs bouncing lazily across the battlefield, and the American soldiers merely had to step out of the way to avoid them.

Following his victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, Taylor crossed the Rio Grande and took the war into Mexican territory. During the next 10 months, he won four battles and gained control over the three northeastern Mexican states. The following year, the focus of the war shifted elsewhere, and Taylor’s role diminished. Other generals continued the fight, which finally ended with General Winfield Scott’s occupation of Mexico City in September of 1847.

Zachary Taylor emerged from the war a national hero. Americans admiringly referred to him as “Old Rough and Ready” and erroneously believed his military victories suggested he would be a good political leader. Elected president in 1848, he proved to be an unskilled politician who tended to see complex problems in overly simplistic ways. In July 1850, Taylor returned from a public ceremony and complained that he felt ill. Suffering from a recurring attack of cholera, he died several days later.

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Yellowstone Park established


Year
1872
Month Day
March 01

President Grant signs the bill creating the nation’s first national park at Yellowstone.

Native Americans had lived and hunted in the region that would become Yellowstone for hundreds of years before the first Anglo explorers arrived. Abundant game and mountain streams teaming with fish attracted the Indians to the region, though the awe-inspiring geysers, canyons, and gurgling mud pots also fascinated them.

John Colter, the famous mountain man, was the first Anglo to travel through the area. After journeying with Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, Colter joined a party of fur trappers to explore the wilderness. In 1807, he explored part of the Yellowstone plateau and returned with fantastic stories of steaming geysers and bubbling cauldrons. Some doubters accused the mountain man of telling tall tales and jokingly dubbed the area “Colter’s Hell.”

Before the Civil War, only a handful of trappers and hunters ventured into the area, and it remained largely a mystery. In 1869, the Folsom-Cook expedition made the first formal exploration, followed a year later by a much more thorough reconnaissance by the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition. The key to Yellowstone’s future as a national park, though, was the 1871 exploration under the direction of the government geologist Ferdinand Hayden. Hayden brought along William Jackson, a pioneering photographer, and Thomas Moran, a brilliant landscape artist, to make a visual record of the expedition. Their images provided the first visual proof of Yellowstone’s wonders and caught the attention of the U.S. Congress.

Early in 1872, Congress moved to set aside 1,221,773 acres of public land straddling the future states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho as America’s first national park. President Grant signed the bill into law on this day in 1872. The Yellowstone Act of 1872 designated the region as a public “pleasuring-ground,” which would be preserved “from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.”

For a nation bent on settling and exploiting the West, the creation of Yellowstone was surprising. Many congressmen gave it their support simply because they believed the rugged and isolated region was of little economic value. Yet the Yellowstone Act of 1872 set a precedent and popularized the idea of preserving sections of the public domain for use as public parks. Congress went on to designate dozens of other national parks, and the idea spread to other nations around the world.

READ MORE: The National Park Service

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Wyatt Earp dies in Los Angeles


Year
1929
Month Day
January 13

Nearly 50 years after the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp dies quietly in Los Angeles at the age of 80.

The Earp brothers had long been competing with the Clanton-McClaury ranching families for political and economic control of Tombstone, Arizona, and the surrounding region. On October 26, 1881, the simmering tensions finally boiled over into violence, and Wyatt, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and his close friend, Doc Holliday, killed three men from the Clanton and McLaury clans in a 30-second shoot-out on a Tombstone street near the O.K. Corral. A subsequent hearing found that the Earps and Holliday had been acting in their capacity as law officers and deputies, and they were acquitted of any wrongdoing. However, not everyone was satisfied with the verdict, and the Earps found their popularity among the townspeople was on the wane. Worse, far from bringing an end the long-standing feud between the Earps and Clanton-McLaurys, the shoot-out sparked a series of vengeful attacks and counterattacks.

In late December 1881, the Clantons and McLaurys launched their vendetta with a shotgun ambush of Virgil Earp; he survived, but lost the use of his left arm. Three months later, Wyatt and Morgan were playing billiards when two shots were fired from an unknown source. Morgan was fatally wounded.

As a U.S. deputy marshal, Wyatt had a legal right and obligation to bring Morgan’s killers to justice, but he quickly proved to be more interested in avenging his brother’s death than in enforcing the law. Three days after Morgan’s murder, Frank Stillwell, one of the suspects in the murder, was found dead in a Tucson, Arizona, rail yard. Wyatt and his close friend Doc Holliday were accused—accurately, as later accounts revealed—of murdering Stillwell. Wyatt refused to submit to arrest, and instead fled Arizona with Holliday and several other allies, pausing long enough to stop and kill a Mexican named Florentino Cruz, who he believed also had been involved in Morgan’s death.

In the years to come, Wyatt wandered throughout the West, speculating in gold mines in Idaho, running a saloon in San Francisco, and raising thoroughbred horses in San Diego. At the turn of the century, the footloose gunslinger joined the Alaskan gold rush, and he ran a saloon in Nome until 1901. After participating in the last of the great gold rushes in Nevada, Wyatt finally settled in Los Angeles, where he tried unsuccessfully to find someone to publicize his many western adventures. Wyatt’s famous role in the shootout at the O.K. Corral did attract the admiring attention of the city’s thriving new film industry. For several years, Wyatt became an unpaid technical consultant on Hollywood Westerns, drawing on his colorful past to tell flamboyant matinee idols like William Hart and Tom Mix how it had really been. When Wyatt died in 1929, Mix reportedly wept openly at his funeral.

Ironically, the wider fame that eluded Wyatt in life came soon after he died. A young journalist named Stuart Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, a wildly fanciful biography that portrayed the gunman as a brave and virtuous instrument of frontier justice. Dozens of similarly laudatory books and movies followed, ensuring Wyatt Earp an enduring place in the popular American mythology of the Wild West.

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Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst is born

Year
1863
Month Day
April 29

The newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst is born in San Francisco. He was the only son and principle heir to western mining magnate George Hearst.

George Hearst had made a fortune with his shrewd investments in successful western mining operations. His son William, however, had little interest in the mining industry. While attending Harvard, he became an admirer of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and briefly worked as a reporter for the paper after being expelled from college. In 1887, he returned to San Francisco and convinced his father to put him in charge of the Examiner, a paper that the senior Hearst had bought to back his successful 1886 bid for the U.S. Senate.

With a tremendous fortune at his disposal, William Hearst spared no expense in obtaining the best eastern reporters and techniques for the Examiner. Eager to give the people what they wanted, he filled the pages of the newspaper with sensationalism and scandal. Some complained that he showed poor taste, but many San Franciscans considered the paper to be required reading.

Having made the Examiner a brilliant success, Hearst began acquiring newspapers elsewhere in the country. He soon controlled one of the largest newspaper empires in America. Like his father, Hearst also used his papers to promote his political ambitions. Relocating to New York, he twice won election to the House of Representatives, in 1902 and 1904. Although some championed him as a possible presidential candidate, Hearst’s failed attempt to win the New York governorship in 1906 raised questions about his chances in a presidential campaign. He tried to win the presidency by organizing his own Independence Party in 1908, but his third-party candidacy gained few followers. For all his wealth and influence, Hearst could not obtain the political power he craved.

Returning to California, Hearst continued to expand his media empire and contented himself with being a behind-the-scenes political powerbroker. When his mother died in 1919, he inherited the family ranch at San Simeon. During the next six years, he built a massive castle on a hill at the ranch. In 1924, he became involved in the Hollywood movie industry by relocating his motion picture company to Los Angeles. A year later, he took charge of the Los Angeles Examiner, and he soon controlled many of California’s top newspapers.

With a vast media empire at his disposal, Hearst exercised tremendous influence over California and national politics during the 1930s. Often the subject of news stories in his own right, Hearst was one of the most prominent Americans to emerge from the Far West during the first half of the 20th century.

READ MORE: Did Yellow Journalism Fuel the Outbreak of the Spanish-American War?

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Western author Larry McMurtry is born

Year
1936
Month Day
June 03

Larry McMurtry, one of the most talented modern writers working in the western genre, is born in Wichita Falls, Texas.

McMurtry’s family had been involved in Texas ranching for three generations, and he was exposed to ranching life from an early age. McMurtry, however, ultimately proved more interested in books than in cattle. After studying at Rice University, McMurtry traveled to California, where he joined Wallace Stegner’s creative writing program at Stanford University. Stegner, who had written several highly successful western novels, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), recognized McMurtry’s talent and encouraged his ambitions to write about the modern West.

Uncertain if he could make a living solely through writing, McMurtry established bookstores in Texas and Washington, D.C., and divided his time between the two areas. In his early fiction, McMurtry also combined a rural and urban perspective, giving rise to what some have called the “urban western.” The impact of modern society on the traditional ways and ideals of the American West fascinated McMurtry. The West of his novels is a place where cowboys on horseback confront wealthy oilmen in Cadillacs; where the sons and daughters of ranchers prefer the glitter and flash of the movie palaces to a hard life living off the land.

Of McMurtry’s early novels, his best known was Horseman, Pass By (1961), which became the basis for the popular movie Hud. Homer Bannon, an elderly Texas rancher who symbolizes the courage and endurance of the Old West, refuses to allow oil drilling on his ranch. His stepson, Hud Bannon (played by Paul Newman in the movie), scorns Homer’s values and cares only about the potential profits of oil. He begins legal proceedings to have his stepfather declared incompetent and make himself the executor of the estate.

Many of McMurtry’s other novels, including Leaving Cheyenne (1963), The Last Picture Show (1966), and Moving On (1970), reflect a similar concern with the place of traditional western values in a ruthless modern world. McMurtry’s most successful novel, however, is set in the late 19th century during the early days of the open-range cattle industry. Lonesome Dove (1986) tells the story of two aging Texas Rangers who embark on an epic cattle drive north to Montana where they plan to start anew. More heroic than McMurtry’s earlier novels, Lonesome Dove nonetheless defies the conventions of the traditional western novel with its often starkly realistic and brutal portrait of life in the Old West.

In his 1988 novel, Anything for Billy, McMurtry continued to undermine the mythic view of the Old West. A sophisticated and historically informed portrait of Billy the Kid, Anything for Billy portrays the famous gunslinger as a charismatic but confused young man swept along by social and political forces he cannot control or really understand. McMurtry gives a similar treatment to the popular myths concerning Calamity Jane in his 1990 novel, Buffalo Girls.

A sophisticated observer of both the “Old” and the “New” West, McMurtry has also written several essays on western cultural life and western films.

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Warren Earp killed in Arizona

Year
1900
Month Day
July 07

Warren Earp, the youngest of the famous clan of gun fighting brothers, is murdered in an Arizona saloon.

Nicholas and Virginia Earp raised a family of five sons and four daughters on a series of farms in Illinois and Iowa. Three of the Earps’ sons grew up to win lasting infamy. On October 26, 1881, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp fought a brief shoot-out with the Clantons and McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona. The Earp brothers, along with their friend Doc Holliday, managed to kill all three of their opponents. The gun battle—which was named after a nearby livery stable called the O.K. Corral—later became a favorite topic of sensationalistic dime novel writers and moviemakers. Ever since, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan have been icons of the Old West.

The youngest Earp brother, however, did not share in the fame of his older brothers. Warren Earp was probably in Tombstone on the day of the famous gunfight, but for reasons that remain unclear, Warren did not join in the gunfight (the eldest Earp brother, James, did not participate either). Warren, however, was involved in the bloody series of revenge killings that followed the shoot-out.

Within six months of the first gunfight, Morgan Earp was assassinated and Virgil Earp was badly wounded. Wyatt presumed the Clantons and McLaurys were behind the attacks. Determined to strike back, Wyatt turned for help to his little brother, Warren. Together with Doc Holliday, the two brothers took their vengeance, killing two men suspected of having been behind Morgan’s murderer. In danger now of being arrested for murder, the three men fled to Colorado.

After he parted ways with Wyatt in Colorado, the record of Warren’s life becomes obscure. He apparently traveled around the West for several years before finally returning to Arizona. On this day in 1900, Warren reportedly had too much to drink at the Headquarters Saloon in Willcox, Arizona. He began to abuse some of the customers, and a man named John Boyett killed him in a gunfight. Later, Boyett was tried for murder and found innocent on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense.

REA MORE: 6 Things You Should Know About Wyatt Earp

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