Local News

March 4, 2012

Railroad adventure takes author to gold country

Editor's Note: This is the final installment in a series detailing Richard Frost's cross-country train trip.

Two mornings after departing Omaha, Neb., our train rolled on past Dutch Flat in the heart of California gold country.

Next stop, Colfax, named for a former congressman and vice president. Originally a railroad town and now a fruit-shipping center, Colfax lies just west of the Sierras. More relevant to us, it signaled the approach to Sacramento. Within half an hour, we disembarked in California's capital.

Big four connections

The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 led to the rapid growth of Sacramento. Twenty years later, completion of the transcontinental railroad solidified the city's early importance. While Thomas Durant dominated behind-the-scene activity of Union Pacific construction west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, a group of four businessmen spearheaded the Central Pacific's progress from California east toward Promontory Point, Utah.

All of the so-called "Big Four" had northern New York connections. Charles Crocker, born in Troy, headed west with the Gold Rush. Along with Mark Hopkins, originally from Henderson in St. Lawrence County, he found it more profitable to "mine the miners" than mine for gold.

Collis Huntington wasn't born in upstate New York, but he had the most pronounced long-term presence here. In pre-Gold Rush days, he owned a store in Oneonta. While labor proceeded on the railroad in the West, he was the person who stayed in the East raising funds. Later in life, he owned Pine Knot, one of the first classic Adirondack Great Camps.

We visited the Huntington and Hopkins Hardware Store, originally located on K Street, then moved to Old Sacramento State Historic Park along the Sacramento River. An exhibit called "Hardware in the Nineteenth Century" explained the revolution in retailing that brought so many articles formerly available from only skilled artisans and specialized merchants for sale at one place. Think of this as the progenitor of superstores like Wal-Mart and Target.

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