The Railroad Empire Story
The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 quickly changed California from an agricultural outpost to an economic powerhouse. The iron horse linked California with the rest of the nation, opening the East Coast and European markets to the state's agricultural products. With it came an economic boom, and quickly thereafter, a bust that created social and political unrest that would haunt California for decades to come.
Thousands of Chinese immigrants were hired to build this empire because they were more agile than other workers, and most importantly, because they were willing to work for a lot less money. But with the completion of the line, they found themselves suddenly out of work, and migrating back to the cities in search of new jobs. Allthey found there was resentment and a mounting political opposition that culminated with the passing of a new state constitution and the federal Chinese Exclusion Act that prohibited further Chinese immigration. To make things worse, a depression hit California in the 1870's, and white Californians blamed the Chinese for the hard times. The Workingmen's Party swept to power in San Francisco demanding that “the Chinese must go.”
Helped by the federal government, the Californians who controlled this new technology became the wealthiest and most powerful men of their generation. Known as “the big four”, they not only controlled the railroad, but also came to control 11.5% of the entire land area of the state. They became by far, the largest private landowners in California. Many Californians in the late 19th Century came to believe that the Big Four had accumulated far too much wealth and power, and this was reflected in articles and cartoons of the times. Several bills aimed at silencing offending journalists were introduced in the railroad-dominated legislature, one of which became law in 1899 and remained on the books for 15 years. Allegations of wholesale corruption of national, state and local officials by the railroads were later confirmed, and anti-railroad candidates pledging to end corruption of government won wide support from their fellow Californians.
The railroads were instrumental in the early development and growth of California. The Big Four and their railroad empire helped propel the state into what it is today, the fifth largest economy in the world. But even the Big Four couldn't stop progress, and with it came the automobile and the airlines, two formidable competitors that eroded the power of the iron horse. The railroads continue to be today an essential component of the California economy, and as Californian's debate the construction of a bullet train between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin, we can only imagine what it was like in the early days, when California's railroad empire was built.