The Kenwood Press
: 11/01/2012

The west was young

Number five in a series

Doug Offenbacher

The portraits of California's 19th century power figures, graying and stern-faced, suggest they were men of little patience, well into their senior years, and armed with the wisdom and experience of age. Their wealth and accomplishments would support that assumption, as would the reputations of many as being brash and intimidating.

Morry Strauss (left), and Doug Offenbacher (far right) of the Kenwood Community Club were joined by Barbara and Bob Bledsoe from the San Carlos History Museum. San Carlos’ Depot is the twin of our Kenwood Depot. Photo by Alec Peters.

So it's surprising (at least it was to me) to find that many if not most of those legendary figures were much younger men when they took on the challenges that would propel them to greatness. The wisdom and experience accredited them may have been instead an irresistible adventurism. As older and wiser men they might well have thought differently of their exploits.

Premiere among these were, “The Big Four,” a small group of Gold Country merchants who took on the unimaginable challenge of building a railroad over the Sierra Nevada. Inspired by the engineering and enthusiasm of a young surveyor, they saw opportunity where others saw the impossible.

They were men of the times, visionaries driven by the excitement of a west coast that was theirs for the taking, a wild land still, where they could operate in a near lawless fashion with little accountability. But were it not for them, California history would have taken a very different course and, closer to home, our stone depot would never have been built.

Headlining this real life drama was Leland Stanford, 36, Charles Crocker, 38, Collis Huntington, 39 and senior among them, Mark Hopkins, 47. The inspirational surveyor and civil engineer whose ingenuity made possible the transcontinental railroad was Theodore Judah, only 34 in 1860 when he secured the financial backing of the others.

Sadly, Judah would not live to see his dream a reality and his contribution to the history of this country continues to be under-acknowledged. But those whom he convinced of his vision saw it through and joined the nation's east and west rail lines nine years later at Promontory Summit in central Utah - Leland Stanford driving the legendary Golden Spike.

It was a feat unlike anything before and established the Big Four as dominant in California's business and political circles.

There would be nearly two decades of growth throughout California and the west before the railroad would reach Sonoma Valley, but when it did, it did so in style. The new town of Los Guilicos was awarded one of only two stone depots in the West, sharing an architectural legacy reaching back to Boston and Charles Coolidge, protégé of Henry Hobson Richardson and, at only 28, the designer of Stanford University.

Next we'll meet young Charles Allerton Coolidge, our “Sister Depot” in San Carlos, and some notable cousins in the Boston area.

Send comments to doug@kenwooddepot.com. The Kenwood Depot is managed and preserved by the Kenwood Community Club, your club. Please join today by going to www.kenwooddepot.com. Save the date, December 1, and be sure to attend our Kenwood Holiday Party, “Christmas 1887,” at the Kenwood Depot. Advance tickets will be available soon at the Kenwood Press.