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Samuel Skerry Montague, 1830-1883


Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad. In charge of building the western half of the first transcontinental railroad. Leland Stanford's engineer (of Stanford University fame).


Samuel (Sam, although sometimes also referred to as "S.S.") played a key role in the formation, layout, and demographics of modern California. Samuel was one of Leland Stanford's "inner circle". He was the engineer actually in charge of building the western section of the transcontinental railroad that linked the west and east coasts of North America, specifically it linked Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. This railroad, which crossed the Sierra Nevada, was a monumental engineering undertaking that involved commitment by president Abraham Lincoln himself and was one of the issues instigating the Civil War. Samuel was one of the eight officers of the Central Pacific Railroad, which is now the Southern Pacific (mayhaps now the Union Pacific). Samuel's title was Chief Engineer; today he would probably be considered "VP of Engineering".

[Central Pacific RailRoad Photographic History Museum]
[Extract from "The First Transcontinental Railroad" (contains a description of Samuel)]

Perhaps the most authoritative modern history relating to Samuel is "Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad", David Howard Bain, Viking, 1999, HE2751.B24. Bain puts the importance of this engineering feat as follows: "After the Civil War, it was the century's most transformative chain of events." If you have ever seen the Golden Spike photograph, you've seen a picture of Samuel. Bain again:

"... the two locomotives drew together until their pilots were ... touching, and the two engineers mounted the pilots to touch the celebratory champagne bottles, while other men climbed all over the locomotives to stand and lean against the warm iron flanks triumphantly.

Grenville Dodge and Samuel Montague stood below them at the edge of the track and shook hands. Andew Russel exposed the most famous photograph of the day." (Bain)

If you've never seen the Golden Spike photograph, Business Week, 4-Oct-1999, has a very nice full page version on page 73 that introduces its cover article, The Internet Economy: the World's Next Growth Engine. Grenville's and Samuel's handshake is circled. Samuel is the one on the left looking at you, and his gaze is used as an icon throughout the article....

Samuel was born in Keene, New Hampshire, 6-July-1830 to Richard and Content Montague; the family moved to a new farm in Rockford, Illinois in 1836; Samuel was educated at the Rockford Classical School. In 1852, at 22, he started working on the Rock Island and Rockford Railroad as a surveyor's assistant. He worked for a number of railroads: the Peoria and Bureau Valley Railroad, the Rock Island and Peoria, and the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. In 1859 he went to Denver with three others in the Pike's Peak gold rush, but the group ended up continuing on to California. He started working as a location-engineer for Theodore Judah on the Folsom-Marysville extension of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. In 1862 he went to work for the Central Pacific as one of Theodore D. Judah's assistant engineers, probably working on Judah's survey of the route over the Sierra Nevada. When Judah died in November 1863, Sam was made acting chief engineer, and he formally became chief engineer in 1868 (I presume this was when he became an officer of the Central Pacific). In addition to the transcontinental railroad, he was chief engineer during the construction of numerous railroad lines in California. He died in 1883.

Many people have seen the famous "Golden Spike" celebration photo of 1869 in which a Central Pacific locomotive and a Union Pacific locomotive are touching "nose-to-nose" at Promontory, Utah. The two men shaking hands at the center of this photograph are Samuel and Grenville M. Dodge, Chief Engineer for the Union Pacific. Apparently Sam had worked for a year with (or under) Greenville Dodge, probably at the Rock Island and Peoria.

The Central Pacific Railroad and the transcontinental railroad were largely the vision and dream of engineer Theodore D. Judah. Samuel was Judah's assistant. Like many such pioneers, Judah ended up "dead in the dessert with arrows in his back" - other men were to complete and profit by his vision:

"California's natural isolation had been caused by the Sierra Nevadas... it had effectively impeded transportation ... not only for the early Europeans but for Native Americans as well. This isolation ... was... broken by the Central Pacific Railroad...

The dream of a transcontinental railroad had bestirred many men, but none so much as Theodore Dehone Judah, who had... become obsessed with the scheme of building a railroad across the Sierra Nevadas. ... he was referred to as "crazy Judah", since his only topic of conversation was the railroad. ... he surveyed the proposed route... and lobbied in Washington, D.C. His efforts were stymied until southern opposition in Congress was channeled to more violent endeavors. The passage and signing of the Pacific Railroad Act on July, 1, 1862, was a personal triumph for Judah..." (Ramirez)


"He was a visionary, undoubtedly a fanatic, and so single-minded that many people back in California had called him crazy... He was a civil engineer, a builder of railroads, and the business which brought him to the nation's capital was the Great Pacific Railroad... It was an old dream that had begun within two years of the first steam-powered train in America...

President Lincoln signed the bill into law... and over the wires of the Pacific Telegraph to Sacramento went Judah's victory message, exultant and ... a little cryptic:

"We have drawn the elephant. Now let us see if we can harness him up."" (McCague)

"Signed by the President on July 2, 1864, this act doubled the resources made available to the railroad... The companies were now to receive 20 sections of land per mile - 10 alternate sections on each side of the track." (Utley and Ketterson)

It was Judah that sold the idea to 4 merchants in Sacramento, after he had been turned down by San Francisco investors. The 4 were grocer Leland Stanford, hardware dealer Charles Crocker, and hardware merchants Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington. These 4, known as The Associates expected to get rich on traffic to the Comstock Lode in Nevada, and "insanely rich" on traffic between Europe and the Orient. The Associates ended up owning the entire Central Pacific. Leland Stanford was the President of the Central Pacific. These 4 Sacramento businessmen had come together in the formation of the Republican Party in California (Lincoln's Republicans were the party essentially formed to undertake the northern cause during the Civil War).

Judah died and his understudy Samuel became chief engineer:

"... Par value of the stock shares was set at one thousand dollars each, capitalization of the company to be $100,000,000...

Construction was to be finished ... by July 1, 1867, or all work... was forfeited to the federal government.

Stock subscriptions failed to take the expected upward spurt. Six hundred new shares were sold, and that was all. Of more ominous implication still, only ten of them were sold in San Francisco...

...wealthy capitalists in San Francisco were putting their money into Comstock mining shares and getting back returns of 24 percent...

He (Judah, ed.) was carried from the steamer ... hopelessly ill of yellow fever...

... The concept of the Central Pacific as the transcontinental railroad's western link was his exclusively... to a man of his vision and whole-souled dedication ... the profit motive was secondary.

It was not so with the Associates. If Judah had devoted the best years of his life to the dream, they were in the process of gambling everything they owned on its practical accomplishment. The difference in points of view was fundamental and irreconcilable...

The wry fact is that Judah was not missed on the Central Pacific. His assistant, a young man named Samuel S. Montague, was promoted to the post of chief engineer." (McCague)

Although things didn't quite work out as intended, the Associates ended up with a monopoly on California railroads, and also as the largest land-owners in California. The questionable business practices no doubt raised many an eyebrow, but it may have been necessary to "cut corners" to pull off such an audacious enterprise. For instance, Charles Crocker, the Associate who effectively was the "VP of Operations", gave a lot of the Central Pacific's support business to his own inexperienced formed-for-the-purpose railroad construction company. The financing schemes, the incestuous role of high-ranking government officials, and the monopolies that resulted from the transcontinental railroad were later to have serious repercussions, but at the time the financial situation was often desperate:

"... On the eve of the incorporation of the Central Pacific... Stanford was elected governor of California.

It was evident to the Associates, as the completion of the transcontinental line neared, that the riches envisioned, ... was not to be. Only a few months after the rails were joined in Utah, the Suez Canal was opened. Valuable oriental merchandise could be brought to market faster using the canal. If the railroad were to pay a profit... a new strategy had to be devised.

What was put into practice was a policy of monopolization of the California marker..." (Ramirez)

The transcontinental rail-road was one of those heroic engineering endeavors that forever changed the world, yet at the time was considered rather insane:

"The men who built the Pacific Railroad rank among the most dynamic, brilliant, and resourceful of the 19th century." (Utley and Ketterson)

"Critics... broke out in another bombardment... Bishop, the San Francisco and Washoe's chief engineer, repeated his public statement to the effect that the Judah survey line through Donner Pass was impossible...

... Stanford issued denials. The board (promised, ed.) that the work would be paid for out of their own private means... heavily mortgaged though those already were.

No doubt they were encouraged by the report of George E. Gray, former chief engineer of the New York Central Railroad, whom Stanford had engaged as a consultant... It seems very probably... motivated by the desire for some sort of authoritative answer to Bishop's odious statements. Possibly ... he was seeking to stiffen his own and his directors faltering faith. None of them, after all, were either engineers or railroad men; for all they knew Judah might have been wrong, and his successor, Montague, was a young man, experienced but comparatively short on reputation.

... Gray's report was an unqualified blessing. He gave as his opinion that the Central Pacific's completed section was the equal of any railroad in the United States; ...

... a hard core of tough and knowledgeable leaders was shaping up, men fortified by experience and committed to seeing the job through... Samuel Montague, Judah's old understudy, was proving an able and dedicated chief engineer..." (McCague)

Samuel was a fairly young man with much responsibility:

... Samuel S. Montague, selected as chief engineer ... might be regarded as an experiment equal to that of the road. He was a young man, without name as a railroad engineer. He proved worthy of his trust - "faithful, honest, and proficient." (Sabin)

"... Evidence of the confidence he inspired may be seen in the cordial approval given the relocation of part of the line by George Gray, the consulting engineer. Storbridge, the superintendent of construction, who took a slightly dim view of engineers generally, simply said that Montague "was a smart man but had not had much experience when he commenced on the Central Pacific." (Galloway)

One of the side-effects of the transcontinental railroad effort was the decision to use Chinese laborers. Both the Civil War and the Nevada gold rush were consuming men, and laborers could not be kept on the job:

"... when news of new Nevada silver strikes spread, "signing up with the C.P." became the favorite method for free transportation to the railhead... For every 1,000 white workmen signed up in the Bay towns that spring, 100 stayed on the job longer than a week; the other 900 went "over the hill." (Howard)

"Charles Croker had conceived the idea of employing Chinese... in 1865 nothing was scarcer in California than labor....

Chief construction engineer Montague, in his annual report of 1865, said: "It became apparent early in the season that the amount of labor likely to be required during the summer could only be supplied by employing the Chinese element in our population. Some distrust was at first felt regarding capacity of this class for the services required, but the experiment has proved eminently successful. They are faithful and industrious, and under proper supervision, soon become skillful in the performance of their duty. Many of them are becoming very expert in drilling, blasting, and other departments of rock work." (Kraus)

How Reno, Nevada, was named:

"Crocker and Montague cantered through Truckee Canyon out into the green Nevada meadows... Comstock miners had named the place Lake's Crossing. The name wouldn't do, Crocker ruled; the land was now Central Pacific property by virtue of Federal land grants... The new name should be patriotic and American. One of Montague's assistants was a Mexican War veteran who had served with Jesse Lee Reno, a general later killed in the Civil War battle of South Mountain. Why not name the new town for General Reno?" (Kraus)

There was a lot of politics and high-level politicians mixed up in the whole business. For instance, Cisco, California, was named for John J. Cisco, assistant treasurer of the United States, who just happened to also be treasurer of the Union Pacific.

Although the Union Pacific did not have as difficult a route as the Central Pacific, they had their problems, among which were hostile indians. Apparently, their work crews were often Irish Civil War veterans and their work-cars were heavily armed and armored:

"... the Union Pacific faced an obstacle that never troubled the Central Pacific... The Sioux and Cheyenne Indians possessed a strength and a will to resist that the Paiutes of Nevada had long since lost. As the U.P. invaded their country, the dullest native soon understood what the rails meant to the Indian way of life. War parties swept down on surveyors, graders, and tracklayers.... Generals Grant and Sherman stripped the frontier of troops to place large forces on the line of the Union Pacific. Forts sprang up... Soldiers guarded the construction workers and rode with the surveyors.

... the surveying parties, with their small cavalry escorts, bore the brunt of Indian hostility..." (Utley and Ketterson)

A 'typical' incident:

"The general delivered rapid orders, rallied the train crew and the discharged laborers, discovered that everyone obeyed the order to "Fall in", and proceeded carefully to the scene, deployed his force as skirmishers, and retook the train, or what was left of it.

"They went forward as steadily and in as good order as we had seen the old soldiers climb the face of Kenesaw under fire," he praised..." (Sabin)

And finally, the Golden Spike:

"The crews moved out at dawn... The display was superb ballet... the coolies and irishmen were demonstrating the time-and-motion studies and assembly-line formula that the Casements had pioneered by the invention of the work train in 1866, and both lines had perfected through experimentation and open spying on each other." (Kraus)

"... representing the Central Pacific were Stanford, Strobridge, Montague, and Gray; (Utley and Ketterson)

"With one exception the Pacific Railroad confirmed the expectations of its advocates and justified the participation of the U.S. Government. Politically, the Railroad Act of 1862 ... undoubtedly insured... the continued allegiance of the Pacific Coast ... during the Civil War. Militarily, the railroad... provided the key to conquering the Indians... Commercially, it permitted a vast and profitable trade... between East and West. Only in the confident assurance of a huge trade with Asia - the principal motive - were the promoters... disappointed.

... The Union Pacific and Central Pacific hastened the end of the continental frontier....

... the first transcontinental railroad ... made the first serious and permanent breech in the frontier, and it established the process by which the entire frontier was to be demolished. (Utley and Ketterson)

A lot of hard-ball politics/economics went into the layout of the railroad (it's not clear that California has changed much!):

"... They stopped... and introduced themselves... They asked if the track was going to be laid along the line of stakes which pointed to Visalia. The "Kid" informed them that the line of stakes had been followed all the way from Lathrop... (one of the Visalia businessmen, ed.) finally said, "Hell! There's no use looking any further. Stakes are set and they can't give the only town on the line a go-by". ... That evening, Mr. Casey ... received a full report of the conversation. About a week later an engine with a passenger car came up to the front. It proved to be Chief Engineer Samuel Montague. He stopped the work and laid out a new line of stakes which left Visalia about seven miles to the east. ... The committee of citizens of Visalia came, frothing at the mouth... They were evidently greatly disappointed... and we soon understood the reason. It was stated that the railroad had demanded that a certain sum in money or in bonds be paid before the track should be laid into Visalia. The committee reported against the outlay, believing that the road would not avoid Visalia even though the contribution were not made." (Wooster)

Two letters from Leland Stanford to Mark Hopkins (Treasurer of the Central Pacific and one of the Associates):

Salt Lake, Jany 29,1869
Friend Mark

I have been in hopes for some time that I should be able to answer all your letters in person, but this commission has detained me and now I shall probably be in California the middle of Feb. with good luck. On Monday, Feb. 1st, we start to examine the lines from end of U.P. track in Weber canon through to our track. It is not expected that we will make more than (20) twenty miles a day. The Commissioners propose to make a critical examination. From the instructions and straws I fear the thing is set up against us. The far off distance of our track and slow progress make against us with great force. It is trying to our nerves to think of. The U.P are detained for probably (10) ten days more at a cut in Weber canyon, after that they say there is nothing to stop them in track laying. They are making extensive preparations to push through this valley and have been surveying for light work upon 116 feet grades at the Promontory. I will send you a copy of the instructions of the Sec. of the Interior to the Commisioners. Huntington sent them to me under date of the 18th, of course he had then just arrived. He inclosed them without remark and I have had nothing further from him. I fear he is having a hard time in trying to save what a want of foresight has jeopardized if not lost. I tell you Hopkins the thought makes me feel like a dog, I have no pleasure in the thought of Railroad, It is mortification.

It is not safe to take money from here to pay off Carter and Shurtleff. The green backs will have to come from California. I have written Montague to have the work estimated up to Feb. first. The amt. advanced from here is (10,500) ten thousand five hundred dollars. I have told Montague what to do. I think he had better telegraph you after the estimate is made and the accounts for supplies all in for the amount of currency money required to pay off and then for you to send it as you may think best. If any difficulty of consequence arises from any cause about settling the work then let it remain until I arrive. But I think Montague understands the contractors and sub contractors and the classification so that he being present there will be no difficulty. The sub contractors must be present at the payment and receive then their money.

Yours truly,

Office Central Pacific Railroad

Corner Front and California Streets.

San Francisco, Feb. 5th, 1867.

Friend Mark
I rec'd a letter this morning from the Judge stating that he and Montague were intending to start for Benicia to determine what surveying is necessary to locate the most direct line to Goat Island. Now my idea is that we should at once extend our line to Goat Island and announce the fact. But it is useless to talk of a route by the way of Benicia. First because the ground is already occupied, 2d because to cross the straights by bridge is so costly as to render it substantially impracticable, besides if the Straights were not crossed by a bridge a Steamboat starting from here would reach Benicia as quick if not quicker than you could go by rail and two ferries -- the Judge says Charlie ways wait until we reach the Summit before we haul iron over to Truckee. I thought the matter was settled that the iron was to be hauled from Cisco. Unless Huntington is successful in his negotiations, it is imperative that we must do that which will soonest give us money.

Yours truly,
Leland Stanford

Central Pacific Railroad site resources:

A letter from Chief Engineer Samuel Montague, dated November 10, 1866, giving a gift for Lewis M. Clement's baby boy.

A descendent of Richard Montague (of Hadley, Mass., 1658).


A Sketch of the Life of Theodore D. Judah, Wheat, California Historical Society Quarterly, 1925.
Building the Pacific Railway, Edwin L. Sabin, 1919.
Building the Railroad down the San Joaqin in 1871, Wooster, California Historical Society Quarterly, 1939.
Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, David Howard Bain, Viking, 1999, HE2751.B24.
Golden Spike, Robert M. Utley and Francis A. Ketterson, Jr., 1974, National Park Service, Historical Handbook Series No. 40.
High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific (now the Southern Pacific) across the High Sierra, George Kraus, 1969.
Letters of Leland Stanford to Mark Hopkins, Clark, California Historical Society Quarterly, 1926.
Moguls and Iron Men: The Story of the First Transcontinental Railroad, James McCague, 1964.
The First Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific - Union Pacific, John Debo Galloway, 1950.
The Great Iron Trail: The Story of the First TransContinental Railroad, Robert West Howard, 1962.
The Octopus Speaks: The Colton Letters, Salvador A. Ramirez, 1982.

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