A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Riding the Rails With the Robber Barons


My review of this book appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

THE ASSOCIATES: Four Capitalists Who Created California
By Richard Rayner
Atlas-W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95

Some stories are too good to be true, so they probably aren’t. But true or not, one that Richard Rayner tells about the California railroad baron Collis P. Huntington is key to Rayner’s portrait of the man. Huntington was in Paris in 1893, when a reporter asked for his opinion of the city’s most famous landmark.

“ ‘Your Eiffel Tower is all very well,’ Huntington told those French reporters. ‘But where’s the money in it?’ ”

Rayner begins his brisk little book “The Associates” with that story and concludes it with a similar anecdote about Huntington’s eye for profit. So although it’s nominally about the “Big Four” who made their fortunes from the building of the Central Pacific Railroad – Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins – Huntington so frames and dominates the book that it might have been called “He Saw the Money in It.”

Huntington even saw the money in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: “Confusion and dismay were another opportunity for him to exercise his habitual wiles,” Rayner observes. He exploited the chaos in Washington by pushing through an override of the Railroad Act of 1864 that would have halted the Central Pacific in Nevada. Instead, it drove on to Utah. Rayner’s Huntington is the driving force of the railroad: “Out of the narrowness of his concerns sprang a grand and greedy vision, and he was working toward it even while the success of the central stem of the enterprise, crawling forward through granite and blizzards, looked hugely uncertain.”

With Huntington as primus inter pares, the other three Associates often fade into the background of Rayner’s narrative. Hopkins, as Huntington said, “was strictly an office man,” though he was not above burning the ledgers of the Central Pacific when a congressional committee came snooping. “Huntington blithely announced that the company records had been lost. ‘My partner Hopkins is a peculiar man,’ he said. ‘He considered the paper no longer worth saving.’ ”

The corpulent Crocker is presented as a genial con artist, “the most approachable of the four men.” When a commission came to inspect the construction of the railroad, Crocker showed them the best-laid sections of the track, then invited them in for a ride while the train sped over the parts that had been poorly constructed. The inspectors were fooled, and Huntington was pleased to hear it. “ ‘I think you must have slept with them,’ Huntington wrote to Crocker. ‘There is nothing like sleeping with men, or women either for that matter.’ ”

At least Hopkins and Crocker are given credit for doing something. Rayner portrays Stanford as a blowhard and a bit of a wuss, mocked by the other Associates for his laziness. “As to work he absolutely succeeds in doing nothing as near as a man can,” Crocker said of Stanford. His desire to stay put on his Peninsula farm was especially irksome: “Huntington wanted Stanford to base himself in Salt Lake City, to make an ally of Brigham Young, and hire teams of Mormons for the advance surveys. Stanford dithered. He’d become father to a son, Leland Jr., and didn’t want to leave home.” Still, Stanford was in Utah when the golden spike was driven, and made what Rayner calls “a speech pompous even by his own standards.” Huntington was at his desk in New York “as the cannons boomed and church bells began to ring out.” He left “the champagne and absurd hullabaloo to Stanford and the others.”

“The Associates” is part of Norton’s “Enterprise” series, described by the publisher thus: “Intended for both business professionals and the general reader, these are books whose insights come from the realm of business but inform the world we live in today.” This may explain the boys-will-be-boys tone with which Rayner, a British-born novelist who lives in Los Angeles, treats his robber-baron protagonists. He notes the criticism of the Associates by writers such as Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris, as well as the San Francisco Chronicle’s attacks that led a friend of Huntington to denounce the newspaper as “a disgraceful sheet” that “believes in no honor except its own – that is to say, none at all.” Rayner also makes obligatory mention of the railroad’s exploitation of Chinese laborers, its destruction of Indian lands, and its bloody battles with settlers over land rights. He comments that contemporary analysis of the Associates and the way they worked is “ideologically pulverizing. It cuts to the heart of how we feel about business and whether political power is, or should be, the handmaiden of economic power.”

And yet the Machiavellian Huntington is something of a heroic figure in Rayner’s telling, a man who pulled off what Rayner calls “one of the great high-wire acts in the history of American business.” Stanford, the “dithering” Associate who seemed content to enjoy his wealth, is mocked as “the businessman/politician as actor, always aware that he was playing a part, … whereas Huntington was the pure product of his era, a restless commingling of intelligence and energy, of cunning and drive. Much later, in the 1880s, Stanford used his money to found the university that bears his name. Today, he’d most likely have bought a sports team.”

That’s hardly fair. Stanford may have been a windbag and he was certainly no saint, but his grief over the death of Leland Jr. was deep and genuine. And there’s a fine irony that this “laziest” of the Associates, in his impulse to memorialize his son, endowed an institution that immortalizes his name while those of the other Associates have faded. Mark Hopkins is recalled mostly because of the hotel on Nob Hill that stands where his mansion once flaunted his wealth. Crocker’s name dots the Bay Area landscape less prominently than it did before Wells Fargo gobbled up his eponymous bank. And Huntington’s name has been preserved chiefly on the plaques identifying the paintings he left to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. (He saw the money in them, but he couldn’t take it with him. It was his nephew, Henry, who used the wealth he inherited from his uncle – he also married his aunt, Huntington’s widow, merging their fortunes -- to memorialize his own name in the great library at San Marino.)

“The Associates” is a slim and lively pop history, full of fizz and sweeteners. It will do if you’re curious and uninformed about the Big Four, but its superficiality should leave you hungry for the substance of what is clearly one of the great American epics.

Afterthought: "Eponymous bank"? Wasn't he a jazz pianist?