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Mark Arax on California’s Capitalist Founders

Posted on Feb 7, 2008
book cover

By Mark Arax

  You don’t have to be a fly on the wall to know what the editors and marketers at Atlas Books/W.W. Norton were thinking when they first kicked around the idea of their “Enterprise” series. The question before them was the same one that confounds every book publisher and newspaper in the country today. How to compete in an America besotted with gadgets and gossip? How to tailor stories for a public mind jammed by the racket of cell phones and MySpace?

  Whether it is really true that technology’s thrall has changed what people are willing to read, the newspaper where I worked for 20 years, the Los Angeles Times, has already thrown overboard its tradition of literary journalism. Gone are the 10,000-word features and investigative pieces that accounted for so many Pulitzer prizes. So it is understandable, if not entirely laudable, that a publisher such as Atlas/Norton, seeking to widen its audience for business books, would launch a series devoted to the proposition of Narrative Lite.


book cover


The Associates


By Richard Rayner


W. W. Norton/Atlas & Company, 224 pages


Buy the book



  The execution is rather straightforward. Turn loose some of America’s most engaging writers on epic stories of empire building—the only constraint being that their narratives cannot be epic in scale but rather 200 pages or fewer. If the fit is right, the thinking goes, it doesn’t matter how worn out the subject. This is how Tim Parks came to do the Medici clan, and George Gilder plunged into the Microchip Swashbucklers and Stanley Bing pursued the rise and fall of Rome Inc.

  Now comes Richard Rayner, with a novelist’s fine eye, tackling the tale of four men—the fixer, the politician, the contractor and the accountant, otherwise known as Huntington, Stanford, Crocker and Hopkins—whose improbable railroad, the Central Pacific, connected the American West to the world. At the outset, Rayner, the author of one other work of nonfiction and five novels, sweats a little too much trying to justify a story told with far more deliberation in a score of previous books, including Oscar Lewis’ “The Big Four” (1938), David Lavender’s “The Great Persuader” (1970) and David Haward Bain’s “Empire Express” (1999).

  “It’s been told many different ways,” Rayner writes in “The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California.” “As a kind of triumph of will, guts, and the American can-do spirit over almost unimaginable difficulty and danger; as a tragedy involving the virtual elimination of Native American culture; as a race between Irish navvies of the Union Pacific laying track from the east and the Chinese coolies of the Central Pacific advancing from the west.

  “All these versions have some validity. But really it’s a story about cash, about rapacity. The railroad was built—actually built, as opposed to dreamed of and talked about—by men who cared only about money and were absolutely ruthless about money. They didn’t care about the railroads as such. They wanted to line their own pockets, to do business.”

    Hype more or less out of the way, Rayner begins his energetic portraits of the four merchants—also known as The Associates—who had come to California not to dig gold from the earth but to sell the pickaxes and shovels, at rip-off prices. It is a treat to watch a writer have fun with his subjects, and Rayner has great fun bringing to life Collis Huntington on the East Coast, tickling the palms of congressmen, and Charles Crocker on the western slope of the Sierra, directing 8,000 Chinese in a triumph of engineering that reads no less mind-boggling for the 150 years of feats that have followed.

  “No railroad in the world had tackled anything like this before,” he writes. “Crossing the Sierra became the CP’s epic. The drifts were so deep that five locomotives coupled together could not push them aside. There were forty-four storms; temperatures dropped to thirty below. The hard granite in the tunnels bent steel drills like licorice. Ten inches a day was excellent progress. Many days saw the tunnel grow by only two or three inches.”

  Mammoth, too, was the swindle by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific, headed by Thomas Clark Durant, mastermind of one of the truly ingenious shell games in American history. Reading how easy it was for the two behemoths to hoodwink a federal government predisposed to the righteousness of a transcontinental railroad and preoccupied with civil war, you cannot help but recognize a strange inevitability to the family of crimes and criminals to follow. So this was the forebear of the monumental frauds of, say, Halliburton.

  Robber barons and their monopolies, Huntington would concede, are part of America’s DNA. Capitalism was not meant to be democratic. “It seems to be assumed that competition, which may be called a state of war of capital, is a good thing in itself, and is to be promoted and intensified by Acts of Legislature,” Huntington said. “Competition is killing.”

  The easy criticism would be that for a story so grand, 200 pages is a piffle. But I read it in the same spirit that I travel the interstate, to get from vista to vista without a whole lot of meanderings in the middle. That is not to say that Rayner doesn’t manage several scenic byways. There are wonderful side portraits of Theodore Judah, whose harebrained scheme it was to traverse the Sierra with rail, and Ambrose Bierce, the San Francisco writer whose attacks on a decrepit Huntington are perfectly scabrous:

  “The spectacle of this old man standing on the brink of eternity, his pockets loaded with dishonest gold which he knows neither how to enjoy nor to whom to bequeath, swearing it is the fruit of wholesome labor and homely thrift, was one of the most pitiable it has been my lot to observe. He knows himself an outmate of every penal institution in the world; he deserves to hang from every branch of every tree of every state and Territory penetrated by his railroads, with the sole exception of Nevada, which has no trees.”

  Rayner packs a lot into compressed space without ever making the story feel crowded. To indulge in the thinking of the day, it is just such a breezy and smart account that a kid in high school might be required to read and, finding himself sufficiently enthralled, might work his way back to the tomes. But if those heavier volumes are not forthcoming, the kid could do far worse than Rayner’s account as the final word on the railroad that made the West.

  Mark Arax, author and journalist, is finishing his third book, a collection of essays on California to be published by PublicAffairs. He is the author (along with Rick Wartzman) of “The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire,” also published by PublicAffairs.

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By Blackspeare, February 15, 2008 at 10:00 am Link to this comment

Another book along the same lines is Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert which tell the story of the development of the west by creating water sources (dams and lakes) for irrigation and electric power (hydro-electric) for revenue.  And which, in essence, resulted in the rise of Las Vegas and southern California——not to mention some robber barons along the way.

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By Paracelsus, February 11, 2008 at 2:12 am Link to this comment

We are often ruled by evil as rulership is monopolized by the evil. A sort of winnowing process blights those of goodwill either through assassination, slander or corruption. Postions of power are like demon magents. Utopias are best imagined rather than enacted. Capitalism is the structure money builds. Without money, there could not be slavery nor cities nor armies for we could not put price on a gaggle of bureaucrats, or a handful slaves or the price of a standing army. No sane savage would claw at hard rock for a few nuggets of gold, when he should be out hunting for deer to feed his family. Our evil is the legacy of Cain from which culture and markets derive, for what is more a spur to human civilization than murderous envy.

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By Gregorio, February 10, 2008 at 9:58 pm Link to this comment

You must see the movie in order to see the personification of the ‘virtues’ needed to wrest wealth - money and power - from what others are either not aware of (in terms of resources underfoot), or don’t care that much about.  These virtues include vision, ruthlessness, sociopathy, treasuring emotional distance and isolation from one’s fellows.  Some of these virtues are found in explorers, whether they are out conquering or enduring the elements.  These virtues are also detectable in Charles Manson, Henry Ford, Dick Cheney, Joseph Stalin, and Donald Trump, to one degree or another.

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By robert m puglia, February 10, 2008 at 9:16 am Link to this comment

i’ll have what he’s having

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By Expat, February 10, 2008 at 6:11 am Link to this comment

^ read what Fadel Abdallah wrote and more importantly understand it?  Your seething hatred makes you more blind than a man without eyes.

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By Chris Bieber, February 9, 2008 at 11:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

and the left and the right use MARXIST definitions and arguments to paint them(these 4 statists) as “capitalists”..

they ALL used, legally and illegally, the power of the purse to COOPT and UTILIZE the power of the GOVT to gain wealth and POWER..which is the REAL is means NOT the end…  these 4 statists did NOT believe in the free market - they believed in a CONTROLLED one and ONE TO USE ON CURRENT and FUTURE aid and abet thier BUSINESSES and their POLITICAL control..

they ALL TOOK AND USED GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES(tax dollars) for themselves and their business..and LOOK HOW CORRUPT and FINANCIALLY CORRUPT their businesses were…

Frank Hill of the Pacific Northern took NO subsidies and HIS railroad was NOT encumbered with tangling and stiling controls and corruption…his railroad was cleaner faster built and resulted in profits and jobs and contracts…unlike the corrupt and unethical Union and Pacific railroads…

Mr. Hills embrace of the market and REJECTION of statism glaringly puts these 4 megalomaniacs to shame literally and figuratively…

the left and the right are today all Keynesians and Mussolinians now…..

a strong centralized planned community of regimentation and controls…

how ‘capitaliat”

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By Expat, February 9, 2008 at 3:25 am Link to this comment

^ you have summarized our predicament as well as any I’ve seen.  Thanks.

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By Fadel Abdallah, February 8, 2008 at 5:58 pm Link to this comment

To be sure, two institutions are always overrated and over-glorified: extreme capitalism in the economic sphere, and democracy in the political sphere. Exploitation in the capitalism sphere produces the story Mark Arax writes about and the Halliburton of Dick Chaney and thousands of other sad and tragic stories in between.

Exploitation in the democracy sphere produced Hitler, George Bush and political Zionism just to mention few from among the many other stories about the failures of democracy.

The problem for humanity lies in the continued mutual alliance between the shortcomings of imperfect democracy and the shortcomings of extreme capitalism. If we can find a way to prevent the marriage of these two, then there might be hope that humanity might be able to reap the good fruits that might be inherent in both.

Moreover, humanity will be well-served if we find a way to prevent two other types of marriages: The marriage of crude and chauvinistic nationalism to political power, and the marriage of religious fanaticism to political power. When humanity experienced one of these two types of marriages, there were the evils of the Inquisition, the Crusades, Nazism, Fascism, Communism, Colonialism, Zionism, terrorism and the WWI, WWII and the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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By Douglas Chalmers, February 8, 2008 at 7:49 am Link to this comment

The typical “settler society” which is uterly focussed on “Its either them or us” instead of the common good. Having already taken the land by force and by usurpation and overwhelming migration, the moral imperative is forever slanted in the favor of the oppressor.

Thus, the concept of “terra nullius” which was so much touted in exclusivist white WASP Australia in the 1800’s was also seen in the USA as a real estate agents’ dream. The land is empty - its free! - you can do what you want, uhh! Who cares how it came to be empty, uhh?

That is then converted into the greed of individual possession and so the common land is carved up into lots and “ownership” is sold at a price. In reality, land can never belong to any individual. That IS the illlusion of white European settler society, Jews included.

From there, slavery is reborn economically and the haves and the have-nots disenfranchisement is pursued by the powerful monied interests and by the state as their servant. The wages slaves are forever bound by “their” system which they are deluded into perpetuating.

How can FREEDOM ever exist in the minds of capitalists or imperialists??? Having selectively impoverished other for the sake of a few, the real agenda is their power and their indulgence of it in whatever ways thay can imagine.  The rest is enforcement of their right to do so.

Thus, legalism is created and all the systems of tenure, restriction and imprisonment and punishment are developed to ensure the hegemony of the glorious few. The rest can go to hell. Did you really think that the judiciary ever care? They are servants of the very system designed to enslave you all.

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By Expat, February 8, 2008 at 6:46 am Link to this comment

^ and might enlighten us to the realities of todays world.

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