Collis P. Huntington 18211900

William Keith (18381911)
Gelatin silver print, c. 1900

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

“Buckle on your armor for the fight, for the ground once lost is lost forever.” It was this sentiment that guided financier Collis P. Huntington, one of the so-called “Big Four” who oversaw the construction of the western portion of the transcontinental railroad.

Having joined the California Gold Rush in 1849, Huntington had limited success operating trading posts in and around Sacramento. Eventually partnering with Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Leland Stanford, he helped to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad in 1861.

After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act the following year, the Central Pacific began to lay tracks eastward from California while the Union Pacific Railroad moved westward from midcontinent. Sensitive to this rivalry, Huntington pushed crews on the Central Pacific—including two thousand Chinese laborers—to complete as much track as possible. In 1869 the two lines met at Promontory Point, Utah, where a great celebration was held.