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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 159

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This is the grave of Collis Huntington.

One of the most corrupt capitalists of the Gilded Age, Collis Huntington was born in 1821 in Harwinton, Connecticut. He traveled around a lot as a young man, from Virginia to New York, before heading to California during the gold rush. There he had success running a hardware store and eventually he joined forces with other young, albeit not particularly bright or qualified men such as Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, to create a group interested in bringing a transcontinental railroad to California. They became the Central Pacific Railroad. Now, you might think that these were some genius guys. They were not. As Richard White discusses in detail in his marvelously angry book Railroaded, which usefully punctures the myth of American capitalists being some sort of worthy class, the Big Four were basically corrupt opportunistic morons who were genuinely stupid people but who understood at least that they could buy and cheat their way to the top. All Republicans (in fact, the California Republican Party started at Huntington and Hopkins’ hardware store), they understood that they could use political connections to get rich. They got the contract to build out the Central Pacific from San Francisco east, as far as they could before it met with the railroad heading west from Omaha. They did so through driving Chinese labor into the grave and bribing anyone who got in their way. They also tried to cheat each other. Finally, in 1869, the railroads met in Utah.

Getting spectacularly rich off the Central Pacific and the huge land grants given to the railroad to pay for it, Huntington invested in many other railroad operations, including the Southern Pacific to bring a railroad to Los Angeles, as well as the Chesapeake and Ohio that connected Richmond, Virginia to the Ohio River. Those land grants were the brain child of Huntington and his partners and resulted in the greatest land giveaway in American history, helping just a few capitalists become stinking rich. As White points out, there was no economic reason to even build these railroads. It was not until well into the 20th century that the economic activity of the West required such an investment. Yes, there were nationalistic reasons to do so, but the already growing naked corruption of the capitalist class before the Civil War created enormous opportunities for personal profit during and after it and Huntington was a master of this. Not only did it also lead to the massive and grotesque exploitation of Chinese laborers (when they went on strike because they were dying all the time on the railroad, the Central Pacific forced them back to work by a) not feeding them and b) sending cowboys to round them up like cattle as they walked back toward San Francisco from the Sierra Nevada) and significantly sped up the genocidal campaign against Native Americans after the Civil War.

Huntington moved to New York and lived the life of a baron. All of this was funded through open corruption. After the death of one of his frequent associates, David Colton, in 1883, the latter’s files were opened because it was discovered that he had been defrauding investors. In them was endless discussions of Huntington engaging in bribery, particularly of Congresscritters. He paid off newspapers to write positive editorials about his actions. In fact, even in building the Central Pacific, Huntington was charging the government about twice what it actually cost. There was a hearing in 1887 after Grover Cleveland ordered an investigation and Huntington went to what became a standard operating procedure for cheats and other rich and powerful criminals–he claimed he couldn’t remember anything. There were attempts to get Huntington and the rest of the Big Four (or their survivors at this point) to repay the government. But Huntington’s power and cash kept them at bay for a decade. Finally, in 1899, after 12 years of delay, Congress finally passed a bill to demand the money back. Of course, by this point, they had all made so much money off the railroad that it hardly mattered to them and their survivors.

Huntington respected power. That’s about all he respected. The Central Pacific and his other railroads were constantly in debt and using shady financing to keep things going. He and his partners wouldn’t even take their own railroad stock as payment. Huntington moved to New York originally to manage the business there, working with such shady characters as Jay Cooke and Jim Fisk. He continued investing in railroads and established what are today two regionally important cities to serve his interests–Huntington, West Virginia and Newport News, Virginia.

Frank Norris based his character Shelgrim in The Octopus on Huntington, one of the greatest villains in Gilded Age literature. Ambrose Bierce also frequently wrote about him with great contempt and disgust. He used all that money to invest in art and engage in philanthropy, giving himself a much better name than he deserves today. When Huntington died in 1900, he was worth $100 million, one of the richest men in the history of the nation.

Collis Huntington is buried in a typically over the top mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

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