By John S. Hittell.
The death of Leland Stanford, which occurred on the 20th of June, is a notable event in the history of California. During more than a quarter of a century he was the most distinguished citizen of our State, the one who did most to stimulate its industries and to increase its wealth. In many respects his career is one of the most remarkable of our time which abounds with remarkable careers. That he was governor of California in the critical period of the civil war; that he was twice elected to the Senate of the United States; that commencing life as a poor young man, he accumulated a fortune of many millions; these are minor points in the interest with which he will be regarded in coming centuries.
His chief monuments are the Central Pacific Railway and the Leland Stanford Junior University. They are prominent and permanent institutions of our continent; they are marked on our maps; their names are familiar to journalism and to common speech in every continent. They will continue to exist to distant times, and while they exist Leland Stanford will not be forgotten.
Although he had associates in the construction of the Central Pacific road, the main credit for the success of the enterprise belongs to him. In fact as well as in name he was the head of the company, the one best known at home and abroad, the one whose position and reputation inspired confidence, the one best fitted for the general control of a very extensive business, employing thousands of men, and highly complicated in its legal and political relations. And those in whose midst he stood conspicuously eminent were not small men. C. P. Huntington, who alone of the five now survives, Mark Hopkins, Edward B. Crocker, and Charles Crocker, each had a remarkable combination of character and capacity. Everyone of them proved to be extremely able in his department; everyone of them commanded the confidence of the others; and all his associates deferred to Mr. Stanford.
In estimating the value of the public services of Leland Stanford, we must remember that at the time of the organization of the Central Pacific Company our State was twenty-three days from New York for travel by way of Panama, and for freight four months by way of Cape Horn; and that the construction of a railway across the continent was indispensable to the proper development of the industries of California. The prospect of the iron road was constantly before the public mind and its importance was universally admitted, and. yet the leading merchants and all the millionaires of San Francisco failed to devise a feasible plan of construction, or to organize a company on a substantial basis. Many that declared themselves in favor of the project on general principles also said in confidential conversation that there were insuperable difficulties in each of the three main branches of the project, the legal, the pecuniary, and the engineering; and that the great work must therefore be left to a later time, and perhaps to a later generation. And this opinion was accepted by most of the wealthy men in other parts of the State as well as in San Francisco.
Thus the little association in Sacramento had the field to themselves. No other company competed with them for the right of way; nobody wanted their stock as an investment. Among the capitalists of San Francisco Samuel Brannan distinguished himself by subscribing for a few shares, because he thought the enterprise should be encouraged on general principles. There were sympathetic people who expressed regret that the Central Pacific people should waste their money and time in making surveys, preparing bills, collecting information, sending agents to Washington, and obtaining a recognized position in the State and Federal councils.
But these surveys were not made, these bills were not prepared, these offers and claims of their company were not presented in different departments of the government, until the directors of the company had seen that success was possible. By studying the subject carefully they learned the precise nature of the obstacles before them, and they saw how these obstacles might be surmounted. They prepared themselves for different contingencies which other persons had not anticipated, and when the contingencies arrived they acted promptly and judiciously. The result was that these five men, who together, a few years before, had not credit for a million dollars, found themselves controlling one of the greatest railway systems of the world, and controlling it with consummate ability. Without counting what they did farther east, they built 4,500 miles of road west of Ogden and EI Paso, thus creating a large part of the wealth of California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. The government enriched them, and was abundantly repaid by development of national resources, and the unification of national interests. The locomotive, as Mr. Stanford often said, is a great civilizer. It creates trade, stimulates agriculture and manufactures, increases the value of land, attracts people, builds cities, and develops all material resources. It is also an important factor in polity. In a very extensive country like ours, it is the most secure bond of political union between the East and the West. And it is in a region like that part of our country west of the Rocky Mountains, where the rivers are small and few, and the mountains high and numerous, that the iron track is particularly beneficial. Mr. Stanford had a right to be proud of the benefit which his roads had conferred on California and the adjacent States.
He had a rare talent for organization. He knew how to select and govern men. He wanted the best engineer to take charge of his road building, the best lawyer to conduct his lawsuits, the best road superintendents to manage his different divisions, and so on through all departments. He gave them authority, paid them well, and made them responsible for results. He gave them every inducement and every opportunity to do good work. His career indicates that he adopted the rule that, whenever circumstances permitted, his work should be done with the highest obtainable technical still, after the most, careful study, and in the most durable manner. He wanted no temporary successes; he made few promises; he cared little for the hurrah of momentary excitement. It was his ambition to do creditable and solid work, and the more he did the more he wanted to do. When he sought franchises it was presumably in the belief that the public interest demanded them, and in the intention of paying well for all he got. The solidity and sincerity of his character are shown in his work.
Though many improvements have been made in cable traction since the California Street road was built, under his direction, that road has been the model for all the well built roads of later date. Many of its features were new, and its excellence as a whole is marvelous. His organizing talent was not limited to railroads, but achieved import ant results in many other directions. The idea of showing animal motion by successive instantaneous photographs originated with him, and the main credit for all the notable discoveries made by such illustrations belongs to him. His horse farm is the largest and most successful establishment in the world for breeding fast horses, and yet he did not bet on races.
The same thoroughness which pervaded the industrial enterprises of Mr. Stanford appears also in the University which, though named after the much lamented son and only child, is really the monument as well of the parents, who combined their purposes and their fortunes in its foundations and organization. To his wife Mr. Stanford left a supervisory care during her life, with the privilege of completing its endowment. The decided merit of many original features in the plan of the University is admitted; and the unequaled beauty of its quadrangle makes a great impression on every visitor.
The daily press has accused the Central Pacific directors of using discreditable means to obtain franchises and judicial decisions, but these accusations have been grossly exaggerated in many points, have been actuated by partisan , malice in many cases, and have not been sustained in any material specification by a complete statement of evidence. The questions of fact and law involved in them are numerous and complicated, . and the time has not come for pronouncing final judgment; but the presumptions indicate that Mr. Stanford did what he believed was best for the general welfare, and what other business men of equal ability and of good repute for integrity would have done under the same circumstances.
Assertions have been made that the influences by which Mr. Stanford attained the national Senate were not entirely creditable to him, but in this matter there is no testimony save which cannot by verified, and which in some material points is evidently improbable. Until conclusive proof is produced, the presumption of reputation, and general conduct are entitled to preponderance.
As governor of California in 1862 and 1863, Mr. Stanford performed his official duties creditably. His administration was able and honest. There was no rumor that he was influenced corruptly in any of his official actions. He did not make a great reputation as a war governor, as did Morton in Indiana, and Curtin in Pennsylvania, and Andrews in Massachusetts; but he did not have their opportunities. His part was well done. As member of the United States Senate he did not distinguish himself. He did not enter that body until after he had passed the years of his greatest physical and mental activity. He had no preparatory familiarity with the details of national legislation. He was not a skillful and indefatigable manager of committee work as were Gwin, Conness, and Sargent, the most efficient senators California has ever had; nor was he a brilliant orator like Newton Booth. And yet Mt. Stanford's extensive experience and sound judgment were valuable in the Senate, and his presence in it added to the dignity of the body.
Mr. Stanford's reputation in social and commercial circles was exceptionally good. His intimate acquaintances regarded him as not only honest and truthful, but as remarkably considerate of the feelings of others. The sentiment of philanthropy was an important part of his mental constitution. He took pleasure in doing good, a fact well known to many people who lament his death. So far as his neighbors and friends knew he had no weaknesses of character, no vanity, no fondness for ostentation, no delight in boisterous company, no fondness for amusement which might be innocent, and yet would take him away from his home. Club life had no attraction for him. That he was secure in his social and pecuniary credit was a well known fact; and this knowledge saved him from personal mention in many cases where abuse was heaped on the Central and Southern Pacific companies.
Looking over the list of those Californians now deceased, who will probably have the most secure place in the memory and gratitude of the residents of our State in a remote future, three names seem to me permanent. These are James W. Marshall, the discoverer of the gold of the Sierra Nevada; James Lick, the founder of the Lick Observatory and of various notable institutions in San Francisco; and Leland Stanford, founder of the University at Palo Alto and the chief railroad builder of California.
Originally published in the Overland Monthly Magazine. September 1893.