To Leland Stanford, in Salt Lake City, it became more and more apparent as 1868 drew to a close that the Union Pacific would reach Ogden first. At this time the Big Four still hoped that Huntington's maneuvers in Washington would checkmate their opponents. But Secretary Browning's vacillation, culminating in the appointment of the Warren Commission in January 1869, made this hope increasingly bleak. "I tell you Hopkins the thought makes me feel like a dog," wrote Stanford, looking at the darkening picture. "I have no pleasure in the thought of railroad. It is mortification."
Stanford had already turned his attention to the country west of Ogden, rather than the Wasatch Mountains, as the area where the contest would be decided. By occupying and defending the line from Monument Point to Ogden, the Central Pacific might yet gain enough bargaining strength to get into Ogden too, or at least to block the Union Pacific from moving west of Ogden.
The first 48 miles west of Ogden offered no construction problems. The line crossed a level sagebrush plain skirting mudflats north of Bear River Bay. But between Blue Creek and Monument Point stood the Promontory Mountains, a rugged landmass extending 35 miles south into the Great Salt Lake and ending at Promontory Point. A practicable pass separated the Promontory Mountains from the North Promontory Mountains. The summit of this pass lay in a circular basin at 4,900 feet elevation, about 700 feet above the level of the lake. On the west the ascent could be made in 16 relatively easy miles; but on the east, where the slope was more abrupt, the ascent required, for an airline distance of 5 miles from Blue Creek to the summit, 10 tortuous miles of grade with a climb of 80 feet to the mile. Between Monument Point and Blue Creek the Central Pacific and Union Pacific attacked the last stretch of difficult country. Here sheer momentum and public encouragement carried them to the finish line of the great railroad race, even though it had been called off, a draw, in Washington a month earlier.
Stanford had turned his attention to the Promontory on November 9, 1868. He had a long talk with Brigham Young, who at length agreed to furnish Mormon labor for grading the Central Pacific line from Monument Point to Ogden, and promised, in allocating forces, to give preference to neither the U.P. nor the C.P. With Young's backing, Stanford had no difficulty contracting for this work with the firm of Benson, Farr and West, which was headed by Mormon bishops. The contract called for Mormon gangs to prepare the line for track under the supervision of C.P. engineers.
The Union Pacific was calling in its crews from Humboldt Wells, Nev., in order to work west of Ogden. Stanford promptly sent a gang of graders to the Promontory to take possession of strategic points. Then, in mid-November, he went there himself. With Lewis M. Clement, whom Montague had put in charge at the Promontory, and Consulting Engineer George Gray, Stanford carefully inspected the preliminary line run by Butler Ives in 1867. This line, he found, required an 800-foot tunnel through solid limestone. It would cost $75,000 to blast and, moreover, delay track-laying at a critical time. Stanford ordered his surveyors to stake out a new line at the expense of alinement in order to avoid tunneling. Even so, a fill of 10,000 yards of earth (later famous as the "Big Fill") would be necessary, and rock cuts would consume 1,500 kegs of black powder.
By the end of the year the Central Pacific was well in control of the line from Monument Point to Ogden. It had men on the entire line. About two-thirds of the grade in each consecutive 20 miles had been finished. Blasting and filling at the Promontory, however, moved slowly. The contractors gave many excuses, but Stanford "started Brigham after them," and they began to work faster. Nevertheless, Stanford believed that Strobridge and the Chinese would have to put the finishing touches on the grade.
As late as mid-January the Union Pacific still had no graders west of Ogden, although its surveyors were running lines parallel to the Central Pacific grade. Stanford lamented on January 15 that:
In February the Union Pacific finally put crews west of Ogden. By early March its grade was nearly completed to the eastern base of the Promontory. In mid-March the Mormon company of Sharp and Young, under contract to the Union Pacific, began blasting at the Promontory. Stanford complained on March 14 that, "The U.P. have changed their line so as to cross us five times with unequal grades between Bear River and the Promontory. They have done this purposely as there was no necessity for so doing." But, he said, "we shall serve notice for them not to interfere with our line and rest there for the present."
During March 1869 both companies went to work on the Promontory with a vengeance. A letter to a Salt Lake newspaper recalls the scene vividly:
The companies encountered the heaviest work on the east slope of the Promontory. Grades of each company, ascending the slope side by side, went down within a stone's throw of each other. They snaked up the face of the mountain, blasting through projecting abutments of limestone, and crossing deep ravines on earth fills and trestles. At the crest they broke through a final ledge of rock to enter the basin of Promontory Summit. The last mile, across the level floor of the basin, required little more than scraping.
Of unfailing interest to observers were the Central Pacific's "Big Fill" and the Union Pacific's "Big Trestle," which crossed a deep gorge about halfway up the east slope. Central Pacific began work on the Big Fill, which Stanford had predicted would require 10,000 yards of dirt, early in February 1869 and was almost finished when a reporter visited the scene in mid-April:
The Big Trestle was of even greater interest than the Big Fill. The Union Pacific lacked the time to fill in the deep gorge as the Central Pacific had done. Union Pacific therefore decided to bridge the defile with a temporary trestle, which could later, after the roads had joined, be replaced with an earth fill. On March 28, with the Big Fill still under construction, they ordered work begun on the Big Trestle. Situated about 150 yards east of and parallel to the Big Fill, it also required deep cuts at each end.
Finally completed on May 5, the Big Trestle was about 400 feet long and 85 feet high. To one reporter, nothing he could write "would convey an idea of the flimsy character of that structure. The cross pieces are jointed in the most clumsy manner. It looks rather like the 'false work' which has to be put up during the construction of such works. . . . The Central Pacific have a fine, solid embankment alongside it, which ought to be used as the track." Another correspondent predicted that it "will shake the nerves of the stoutest hearts of railroad travellers when they see what a few feet of round timbers and seven-inch spikes are expected to uphold a train in motion."
Meanwhile, the rails came forward steadily and rapidly. The Union Pacific entered Ogden on March 8, 1869. By March 15 it was at Hot Springs; by March 23 at Willard City. On April 7 the first train steamed across the newly completed Bear River bridge and entered Corinne. At the same time the Central Pacific was still about 15 miles west of Monument Point. Two days later, on April 9, Dodge and Huntington worked out their compromise in Washington. The U.P. grading crews received orders on April 11 to stop all work west of Promontory Summit. Three days later Stanford ordered all work on the C.P. halted east of Blue Creek, on the eastern base of the Promontory.
The agreement removed all cause for continued competition in grading and tracking. But competition had become a habit, and each company strained to reach Promontory Summit, the agreed meeting-place, before the other. The Union Pacific had won the race to Ogden, but the heavy work on the east slope of the Promontory prevented its winning the race to the Summit. And now, ironically, the U.P. was, in effect, a contractor for the C.P. Its gangs worked with the knowledge that the line from Ogden to Promontory Summit would, according to the Dodge-Huntington agreement, be turned over to the Central Pacific.