Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn

From: "David Mathes"

Dear CPRR Museum

Please remove the works of ET Strobridge until he has finished his research. The rough drafts are not to scholarly standards. There are many questions yet to be answered. And there appears to be the assumption of personal experience in the 20th century inserted into the 19th century.

I have no agenda, work for no group, belong to no minority and have no financial interest. I simply think that in reading this account it does not belong in a museum but in a chat room. Please do find scholarly works to publish.

David Mathes


As a rail buff I am aware that the Legend of Cape Horn is controversial. Your research raises more questions than it answers as any attempt to prove a negative would do so. However, in the account and research of the Legend of Cape Horn there seems to be huge gaps in understanding and research as if this was a hastily written article to promote - without evidence - your childhood experience in landsurveying and development.

While you are entitled to your opinon, I expect a higher standard from the museum and ask that the article be withdrawn from the website and museum as heresay and personal opinion. The research is in adequate, the account is personalized, and the results do not pass the proverbial smell test nor English 101 standards.

In my opinion you overlooked a number of obvious things in your assessment. I am a bit disappointed on this article. You have presented the barest of evidence and in fact rely on the absence of evidence in order to prove a negative.

Now, I'm not a historian nor an asian, nor do I even care about railroad history normally. Yet, I realize that myths come and go, and we may never know the "truth" as it were of what really happened. However, this article leaves open all sorts of windows while trying to slam the door on a supposed myth.

If only the rocks could talk...perhaps a future archeological dig will find at the botton of the heap the right type of markings in making blast holes...still wouldn't tell us whether rope, basket or bosun chair was used.

Two interesting items are the "bosun's chair" and the name Cape Horn itself. How did it get that name? And what is a bosun's chair.

Sailing was a well developed means of travel in the 19th century requiring lots of rope to hoist and control the sails. The Chinese sailed from China; the Europeans sailed around Cape Horn. Working with ropes was nothing new and in fact, quite easy for most of the actual workers (non-surveyors).

I have been on survey crews in California. We didn't climb over cliffs on ropes to do surveys. In my opinion you are replacing one myth with another.

In the prelaser days we used triangulation even to draw contours. I know of no account of any survey crew using ropes for the actual survey. I'd like to see the proof that a California survey crew did just that and the earliest account.

Furthermore, I have walked that area. The place is slipper in the driest of summers. We almost lost a car over the side in one section where the same material is. So it's reasonable that the CPRR did not want to lose any equipment OR people, and roped them both up just in case they needed to haul them back up the mountain.

Where did the rope, the bosun's chair, and the baskets come from?

Well, the Gold Rush created a huge amount of stuff left over from the ships sailing around Cape Horn to the Gold fields. The closest you could get was Sacramento in a ship, and eventually San Francisco Bay was so full that many ships were simply burned for various reasons.

Typically, the ships were stripped of rope and cloth. Levi's came out of sail cloth. And the ropes were used for construction of all sorts as well as transportation. Rope was a necessity of life in California whether it was unloading the ships, mining the Gold Fields, building San Francisco, or even traversing sections of the Sierra.

So, rope was available, CPRR wanted to do things cheaply, the merchants of San Francisco had multistory mansions and used various seafaring laborers who were used to bosun's chairs...

But a bosun's chair requires all the tools and equipment be lowered to you by rope. Wouldn't it be more efficient and cheaper to use a "basket" of some sort? Now, you might want to disprove the basket theory by lack of bamboo. Yet, many of the Indian tribes had basket weaving. I wonder if the Chinese and Indians ever got together to trade baskets.

Then again, the "crows nest" on sailing vessels were refered to as a basket. A ncessary and vital part of the ship, these could be stripped to carry stuff having already provde themselves worthy at sea.

Also, the Chinese used baskets for shipping goods. Were any of these baskets even available for use? Where they a "poor man's" duffle bag? How much weight was allowed in a basket?

Is there any Chinese history that indicates in California, China or elsewhere that baskets even exist and could support the weight. I refer you to modern construction methods using bamboo on skyscrapers as a start.

Finally, one might ask if there were other roads or rails in California that were constructed by people on ropes. Oh...the Yosemite road was done that way and there are pictures of people on ropes. A more comprehensive search would be appropriate to determine the use of baskets"

I daresay the preponderance of circumstantial evidence is piling up that the possibility exists, and the proof that something did not happen is a premature condemnation. I sincerely hope you have not personalized history in order to immortalize yourself regarding Cape Horn at the expense of others who actually did the work.

I do not believe your work represents a scholarly review but presents a biased opinion, one that does not reflect American values nor properly represent history.

I ask that the work be removed until such time that your research is complete and thorough. I strongly recommend that should you continue your myth busting approach that your writings take an honorable and professional approach.

Thanks in advance

David Mathes
Rocklin, California


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

For an alternate view, see the book review by Pulitzer Prize winner, Frank L. Peters Jr.

6/11/2005 3:07 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Also see the comments by SPRR Valuation Engineer, Lynn Farrar.

6/11/2005 3:13 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

[The following amusing anecdote relates to, but was written prior to, and not in response to the above message.]

From: "chris graves"
Date: June 11, 2005 12:26:48 AM EDT
Subject: Cape Horn Chinese fable

This evening was the monthly car show in Auburn; we filled up with 450 cars and over 5,000 people.

As is our custom, Carol drove the '64 and I the '56, we parked in the usual VW spot, hauled our chairs off the roof racks, and settled down for a warm summer evening of people watching.

Perhaps around 6 pm, an older fellow (by my standards) pulled out of the crowd, and walked up to Carol, and commenced talking to her. As he was a stranger to me, and likely to her, too, I swiveled my left ear in his direction, but otherwise didn't pay too much attention.

"Do you know where the basket exhibit is?" he asked. "No" said my bride.

"Well" he went on, "I have been told that there is a basket exhibit somewhere in the local vicinity."

"Gosh", said Carol, "I am unaware of it."

"Oh yes", he said, "this is a well known exhibit of baskets, hand made in China, they aren't for sale, just for gazing at."

"Well," replied my bride, "I am unaware of such a showing."

"This is a very famous collection of baskets" he said, "These are the baskets used by Chinese workers at Cape Horn, used to suspend the workers as they labored on the granite cliffs, dodging explosive charges."

Gents, my heart damn near stopped. I leaped from my folding chair, folded it up, and commenced to approach this fellow with the basket story, I fully intended to do him some severe harm.

"Whoa" he yelled, "are you Chris Graves?"

Turns out the s.o.b. is the current Chairman of the Placer Co. Historical Society, having some 'fun' at the car show.

Seems he has read The Old Iron Road, has some affection for our David Bain due to the mention made of the offending baskets therein.

He is on our side, a convert.

Slowly, slowly, we make progress.

—chris graves

6/11/2005 3:26 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Edson T. Strobridge"

Dear Mr. Mathes,

Thank you for your candid opinions and criticism of "The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn." When I wrote this paper I fully expected and welcome a divergence of opinions from those interested in the subject and find your comments interesting to say the least.

My objective was to try and prove a negative, something no one else had done, by finding and pointing out for the reader the inaccurate information that developed over a period of eighty years or so, who wrote it and their source documentation. I also provided what source documentation I could find and verify for anyone interested enough to review how the legend came to be. In my conclusions I do in fact offer my opinions, I say so on page 38. The fact that you "know of no account of any survey crew using ropes for the actual survey" seems to disregard the reference I provided on page five as written by Civil Engineer Robert L. Harris about his personal experiences on the Central Pacific railroad construction in 1867 and published in Vol.III of the Overland Monthly in 1869. You need only to look a little further.

I think you will find most of your questions answered in the book Mr. Mathes if you would only take the time to read it carefully and would agree that you are entitled to your own opinions. You do raise a lot of questions but provide no answers, arguments or documentation that would help anyone understand your views. None the less, you are certainly have the right to offer them.

Mr. Jack Duncan of Newcastle, Calif. has just completed a book on how (in his opinion) the Central Pacific Railroad was constructed around Cape Horn. If you are looking for and engineers viewpoint, which is highly technical, on the subject you might contact him. His book is at the publishers now and should be available for sale within the next few weeks.

Ed Strobridge
San Luis Obispo, CA.

6/12/2005 12:14 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Jack Duncan"
Subject: Mathes tirade

I received a copy of the absolutely stupid tirade that Mathes sent to you. He obviously failed to either read or he failed to understand what Ed said in his book "Legend of Cape Horn".

I have a copy of Ed's book and I have studied it several times. Not only that but I have purchased five copies and sent them to history oriented people because I see Ed's book for two values.

First: His method of chronologically presenting documented statements, then offering his own opinion about the statements. He almost certainly missed some documents somewhere. Would those presumed other documents have changed the story and conclusions that Ed made? Extremely unlikely!

Second: Ed's conclusions (I think) that there were neither chairs nor baskets at Cape Horn are exactly right. (If I have misstated Ed's conclusions then I apologize.)

I have just completed a study of all of the evidence that I could find pertaining to construction at Cape Horn. My study is independent of Ed's book and my method was entirely different from Ed's. However my conclusion is precisely the same as Ed's and my reason is that chairs and baskets would have been unnecessary, impractical, non-functional and nearly impossible to use on that hillside that slopes about 45 degrees (100%) not 75 or 90 degrees as implied by many of the authors that Ed quoted.

In summary, Ed's book is a great contribution to our knowledge about Cape Horn even if his intent was to try to "prove a negative."

If Mathes thinks that the work of others is so bad then invite him to write an accurate history of the Cape for the benefit of us "ignorant types."

In summary, please ignore the Mathes tirade. Keep Ed's book available for the many people that are able to understand what he said. For those that cannot understand Ed's work, TOUGH!

If Mathes happens to see my book, I can assure you that he will have another fit. I can assure you that he won't understand it since he failed to understand Ed's much more straight forward book.

Further more, keep up the good work of providing the information that is on your web site.

—Jack Duncan

6/13/2005 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In this kind of debate, keep in mind that the burden of proof is entirely on those who make historical claims, such as the assetion that baskets were used in the construction of Cape Horn. Such assertions should always be assumed to be wrong unless there is evidence in the historical record to support them, and while it may be useful to show that speculation by someone with no firsthand knowledge is inconsistent with what is known, or to show how the speculation evolved and became embellished into a complex myth, there is never any burden to disprove unsupported speculation.

6/13/2005 11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From: "Chris Graves"

I have just read the comments of David Mathes re: his views of Cape Horn.
Our dear friend and colleague, Norman Wilson, a superb historian and builder of the CSRM, had a saying that went like this: "Consider the source, and rise above it."  I would not be surprised to hear that Norman had at least one occasion in his life to meet David Mathes, and that during that  meeting coined the phrase noted above.
Mr. Mathes has worked himself into a perfect rage over the booklet produced by Ed, and indulges in the most foolish and intemperate language upon that subject in his somewhat lengthy message, posted on the discussion site.
It appears that Mr. Mathes has gone stark, staring, raving mad over the booklet, most likely due to lack of a proper dictionary.  If he had such an item he would find that "CAPE" is defined thus: "Headland, a piece of land projecting into a body of water; promontory, headland."  I cannot think of a better word than "Cape" when looking at the landmark that Placer County continues to call Cape Horn.
As to the baskets, and the Chinese standing therein, the law of attraction and repulsion is not more certain in its operation than the vision of a laborer standing in a basket, suspended over the slope at Cape Horn.  This hombre (I cannot call him a gentleman) surely has not been to Cape Horn, as if he had, he would have instantly recognized the impossible feat of lying down, while 'standing in a basket', and hammering at the slate in front of  his face.  Not only would the worker be at the disadvantage of hammering while reclining on his face, but he and his basket would immediately become full of the slate he was hammering on, an abominable calumny indeed.
The history of Chinese workers on the CPRR, with a few honorable nuggets as exceptions, has not yet been expressed in print.  The fact is, and I am not ignorant of it, that Chinese history on the CPRR has been simply dernier efforts to replenish empty wallets.  Perhaps Mr. Mathes could join the historical community in righting this wrong.
Time, which impartially tries all things, will try the Chinese history on the CPRR as well. If an author, taking on this effort, proves to be a good and capable person, that effort will be met with a ready support from the historical community, and will receive that honor which is due their station. 
The author of THAT work will lift the poor curse of the Chinese in baskets from the shoulders of Mr. Mathes, a relief to him, I am certain.
Should Mr. Mathes find his way to NewCastle, some 6 miles from his homeplace in Rocklin, he will find hospitality here, in front of a warm fire with a cool beer offered to him to further elevate this discussion.
Peace.   gjg

11/03/2005 11:16 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "David Mathes"
To: "Edson T. Strobridge"
Tuesday, June 14, 2005 10:00 PM

Mr. Strobridge,

Thank you for your kind and thoughtful reply.

Proving a negative is a logical fallacy, something that most college students aware of in their first semester. As such, the best you can say is that there is no direct evidence today or any written reference to a particular event prior to a specific date.

I must note that in the 19th century, heresay evidence was allowed in court. Witnesses could say what they wanted - good or bad, correct or not.

That aside, I simply think your research intent did not go far enough. And you waited too long for reliable witness information.

One huge area of non-research is the Chinese side of things. The most obvious area is that of Chinese construction techniques as well as Chinese work on cliffs especially along the Yangtze River. Do the Chinese use baskets in China? Was there any instance beyond Cape Horn where the Chinese used baskets here? Are these baskets standard or something less likely to have happened like the Chinese weaving their own here.

Another area of concern is that just about everything and everyone at that time was shipped either around Cape Horn or from the Far East. So there was on the part of most folks a knowledge of rope handling especially up in the air.

There is another factor here that requires a closer look. What were the weather conditions during the winter in which Cape Horn was turned into roadbed? Pacific Storms can sweep through there and drop the snow level below Cape Horn elevation. Even if there was no snow, then there would be concern about saturated ground. Most construction companies these days simply stop if the rain is forecast; no rain is required.

Finally, there is a safety concern. As a mountain climber, we rope up when the ground is slippery. No mountain is required. The Forest Service roads in the area have cuts similar to the Cape Horn area. Instead of granite, there is slate, and perhaps schist which is formed of slate. In any case, when the slate or schist gets wet, you can't walk or drive across this stuff.

So one wonders what the operating safety rules were for the railroad company were? Was that winter any different than usual? What was usual for the area? Was the ground saturated enough that it made hanging by ropes necessary? When was dynamite or nitro first used on the CPRR (Rocklin or Loomis where there is a lot of granite?)

Since the Donner Party a few years prior used ropes to raise and lower their wagons, livestock and goods up over Donner Pass, it stands reasonable that engineers on a railway would use this low cost technique for people's safety if the equipment could not handle the job.

That leads to one final series of questions, Cape Horn should have taken the longest time. If it did, wouldn't working the ends and the middle as well make sense? Blasting slate is a lot different than blasting granite. Granite is the toughest stuff to drill which is why in part that it was blasted. Even a slate shelf would be dangerous to work on.

There are a couple of sections of slate road near Weimar, not too far from Cape Horn. We stopped there one February with a flat tire. There was a winter creek pouring water onto the 20 foot wide roadway. Just trying to walk on this stuff caused us to slip and fall. I can only imagine an animal, cooley or engineer trying to walk on it.

Sailors who went broke in the gold country, sailing techniques, safety issues, weather, China mining techniques, Yangtze River work, Chinese history accounts, slate blasting, sailing ships, speeding up construction, etc...there seems to be a lot of circumstantial information, and some flat out unexplored areas.

So, I propose in your quest to prove a negative you continue. The research is inadequate and as presented is slanted against the Chinese when it was known that the Irish and others worked on the rails. The lack of thoroughness on your part will continue to be perceived as having an agenda different from what you intended.

David Mathes

11/03/2005 7:08 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Edson T. Strobridge"

... Thank you all for your support in your responses to David Mathes' letter.


11/03/2005 7:09 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Edson T. Strobridge"

I have only been so fortunate as to receive two personal missiles from Mr. Mathes. I missed his comments on the CPRR Discussion Group page ... I did not respond to his second email as I felt the same as Chris, Mr. Mathes has something stuck in his craw and I have no interest in trying to educate a narrow mind.


11/03/2005 7:17 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Ted Judah"

Dear Mr. Strobridge,

I have to tell you that I really enjoyed reading your work titled:

The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn 1865 - 1866

You have shown that the truth can really become stretched and even completely modified by historians building on others work. I am glad that there are people such as yourself that take the time to pursue truth.

—Theodore David Judah, Petaluma, CA

7/30/2006 9:50 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Todd Messinger"
Subject: The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn

As one who grew up in my formative years during the early 1940's in Auburn CA, living with a grand father and father, both steeped in California History, and who were inveterate train watchers (who wouldn't be then, given the drama of wartime Donner Pass railroading), I today remain fascinated by railroading though I was an air carrier pilot. I remain drawn to my geographical roots as my paternal grandfather was a line engineer for PG&E's 1920s and "30's Northern Sirerra power grid construction and my mother's family were mining engineers working hard rock mines and living around Grass Valley-Nevada City from 1850 to the 1990's, and Donner Pass – a great Grandmother ran an inn at Dutch Flat before the CPRR.

I've flown from Sacramento to Reno in general aviation aircraft marveling at the 19th century railroad engineering challenges quite observable from 2000 feet above ground level,and have driven I-80 and once in 1970 drove up Iowa Hill Rd, from just south of Colfax to Forest Hill which gives one a clear idea of the local topography of the North fork of the American River. I've also poured over USGS topographical maps

I always perceived the fascination with the construction of the Cape Horn curvature more to 19th century flamboyant prose, and the intellectual lassitude of such writers and even some Historians- would you believe it-Steven Ambrose, himself. Your paper clearly demonstrates how the "Romance of the Rails," has led particularly, to misperceptions about how the CP RR was built. Certainly the lack of a "cliff hanging" experience doesn't diminish Charles Crocker's and James Strobridge's stupendous accomplishments, who some equate with the building of the first space shuttle of the succeeding century.

In my work for my undergraduate degree in History at Cal State University, Long Beach, I wrote a paper on the funding of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and '64, and read much of original source material of that time some of which is included in your paper's bibliography, as the exercise was to impress upon me and my fellow students that sound Historical research and writing fundamentally relies on using primary sources.

I think [Edson Strobridge's] paper is a marvelous instrument in demonstrating to History students their necessity to going to original and primary sources to more better understand and accurately interpret what historical events they may be researching and writing about. ...

—Todd Messinger

2/24/2007 9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From: "Shirley Burman"

Dear Mr. Strobridge,

I stumbled upon your article about the Legend of Cape Horn, while looking for something else. Of course I had to stop and begin to read it as I was employed as the staff photographer during the construction of the California State Railroad Museum in 1978. The topic of the Chinese workers hanging in baskets was always disputed as never happening by the staff researchers, but wondered how could the myth continue to be published. I guess it's hard to kill a dramatic story. I haven't finished reading the entire piece you wrote, but have it booked marked to read as time permits.

I am writing a book ... about the history of railroad women and women "affiliated" with the railroads, even though affiliated is stretching it a bit. That description is for early women travelers, inventors, the Harvey Girls, prostitutes, and railroad wives stories.

What caught my attention is what you wrote— "In an effort to "prove a negative" a great deal of research is required into source documents that have been little used, if at all, by previous historians who have written on the subject over the years until some of the misinterpreted and inaccurate descriptions of people and events themselves have become a part of American folklore." I am in that very predicament now. Stories about 3 different women have recently shown to have discrepancies that have my head swimming. For example I wrote about a Roseville depot SP station agent and Wells Fargo agent in 1884-1907. It states in several sources that she lived upstairs in the depot with her 5 children. Two historians say there was no 2 story at that time – as far as they know. My next contact is Wendell Huffman who's helped me before on other stories.

So, I write this to thank you for taking the time to document an old myth and hopefully put it to rest. ...

—Shirley Burman Steinheimer, Railroad Women's Historian & Photographer, Sacramento, CA

6/20/2012 2:31 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Sorry to report that Edson Strobridge passed away, October 19, 2007, but perhaps others will respond.

6/20/2012 2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From: "Kevin Bunker">

Shirley's right enough about certain legends being very hard to put down or "kill." It hardly helps that the horrid excuse for a CPRR-UPRR history was coughed up in the form of Nothing Like It In The World by the otherwise talented S. Ambrose. That waste of ink and paper perpetuated several of these myths in question, only because the publisher insisted on having five books by the same author, who – in fact – couldn't even be bothered to do the writing. It was instead done by his son and daughter-in-law as ghost work. Review copies were sent out too late and the final went to press even as "we" who were to give feedback were finding out that it was already shipping to Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other large retailers ... and going directly to remainders sales at that!

—Kevin Bunker

6/21/2012 9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Folklore scholars have a word — sharpening — for the addition of detail after original information is lost."

4/19/2014 1:38 PM  

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