Stories From the Prairie Line 1873
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth….. Bob Dylan
On Saturday afternoon November 29, 1873, General John W. Sprague approached a barricade of stacked railroad ties and angry loaded rifles blocking the construction of the Northern transcontinental railroad just 12 miles from its destination at Tacoma. Sprague had been in situations like this before and would be again.
He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bloody service during the Civil War and would later be one of few Tacomans that stood against the mob that forced the Chinese community out of the city in 1885. But on this cold day he and the county sheriff took very slow, deliberate steps along the nearly finished Prairie Line, facing fifty Winchesters with an unlikely proposition.
In the simplest sense, the tense drama was a cinematic old west standoff set eight years after the Civil War and eight years before the gunfight at O K Corral. In the realest sense, the whole episode was interwoven with the forces and failures that were bringing post war America to the brink of economic collapse. The reach of Western expansion was about to exceed its grasp and Tacoma was starting to look like the hope that never happened.
In the back of Sprague’s mind as he closed the 80 yards between himself and the “Montgomery men” was series of monumental events that complicated the fact that justice and fair play was on the other side. He was superintendent of the Northern Pacific, the highest ranking railroad builder in the Pacific Northwest but his enterprise owed a fortune to James Montogomery for building the Prairie Line this far, and the contractor owed these men months of wages. The General had hired a new force of workers to lay the final rails and finish the transcontinental in the few days left before the charter expired and the NP would fail disastrously. The problem had an easy solution, gold coin, but that was not an option for Sprague, his railroad or the country that had just plunged into the “Panic of 1873”.
It was ironic that most of the insurgents were former gold and silver miners because the flood of precious metal they had dug into the post war economy of the United States was part of the problem. So much newly discovered silver was coming out of the mines of the west that it was diluting the value of money. To slow the rapid inflation, monetary policy tightened around the gold standard and dramatically cut circulation of gold coinage and currency. The big banks in the east began hording gold and out west coinage and cash became suddenly scarce. To add insult to injury, the mints in San Francisco and Carson City began striking silver dollars solely for trade in other countries-shiploads of American silver trade dollars that never saw a till or pocket in America. Coins that were bought from the mines at low cost by banks and businesses like the Northern Pacific railroad to pay for goods and services in Asia and Europe. General Sprague’s NP used silver trade dollars to buy the Prairie Line rails in England and pay the labor contracts at Canton for thousands of Chinese workers. But when it came to gold to build the railroad, pay the workers and build a city on Commencement Bay he was playing an empty hand.
The “Panic of 1873” began with the collapse of the banking house of Jay Cook which was in turn largely caused by the overreach of building a railroad to Puget Sound. Cook’s fall was followed by the halting of trade on the New York stock exchange and a chain reaction of financial and industrial failures across the country. It spread like a panic, touching every corner of not just the United States but the entire world. Panic was the last thing General Sprauge hoped for as he stopped at the barricade and the first voice he heard warned him that touching a single tie would be risking his life.
The sheriff spoke first, informing the men behind the barricade that they were acting unlawfully and under the “Riot Act” he might remove them with force. Then Sprague spoke in a conciliatory tone, siding with them on the injustice of their situation and offering to use his influence to see them treated fairly. Three days later, the General appeared again at the barricade, this time with Territorial Governor Clinton Ferry, NP Director and author of the July telegram announcing Commencement Bay at the terminus J.C. Ainsworth and a respected territorial judge.
As a solution Sprague hired most of them on the spot and enlisted them in the coming headlong push to reach saltwater with the Prairie Line. Without gold, he offered chits from the Hanson Ackerson mill and store in Tacoma-tin stamped barter that was good in the saloons and houses anywhere along the penny less railroad.
And in the days that followed the Montgomery men cleared the barricade and picked up hammers and axes and began the press along side the NP workers that came with Sprague. Soon the former miners and soldiers were part of a 250 man workforce that became the General’s best hope for driving a steam locomotive down the modern day route of South Tacoma Way over the shoulder of the Hilltop neighborhood and down the last drop to the sea through a downtown Tacoma that was yet to be. A thousand hardened Chinese railroad men joined the final push of the Prairie Line to Tacoma and on December 16, 1873, about where the Tacoma Art Museum is today they drove the last iron spike in the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad. It was not silver or gold.
Coming Next…Mary Montgomery’s Astonishing Ride