I’m delighted to welcome Michael L. Ross to the blog, with a post about his new book, The Founding.
The Founding follows the earthquake changes that the railroad made to American business and society during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Through the eyes of my fictional characters, Julia and Hiram Johannsen, the railroad itself almost becomes another major character. Julia is the sister of the main character, Will Crump. In order to do an effective job with telling the story of the railroad, I had to research and plot the timeline of the many different railroads that pushed south and west across America during the period 1868-1909.
The figure of robber baron Jason “Jay” Gould looms over the story, as he went from a tannery business to partner in the Erie Railroad to the major force behind the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP swallowed many other lines in its march to the Pacific Ocean.
Julia was a businesswoman at a time when it was uncommon, and shepherded the Johannsen steamship line through the Civil War, while Hiram fought for the Federal army in book 1 of the series, The Clouds of War. As The Founding opens, Julia and Hiram’s business is in danger from the encroaching railroads, financed from New York and Europe. They must adapt or perish.
The Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe promised a new rail line that could save them. For my research, I delved into the railroad’s history, largely through Keith L. Bryant Jr.’s non-fiction account, History of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, and local records in the Newton, Kansas historical society. The ATSF and the Kansas Pacific railroads sought to go through Kansas from east to west, and south through Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to Santa Fe, and California. At every turn, Jay Gould bought up lines and pounced on the business, making it very tough indeed to compete. The Life and Legend of Jay Gould by Maury Klein follows Gould’s life in great detail, chronicling the schemes and deals that made Gould famous and feared.
The railroad story is a complex one, and many managers came and went. The road to success was complicated by the financial panic of 1873, where many railroads went bankrupt in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. European countries had invested heavily in American railroads via bonds, and the end of the war with German victory brought the collapse of the Jay Cook Company, whose bonds financed railroad expansion.
Two historical tidbits turned up in research that was of great interest and impacted the book. First, the famous joining of the railroads at Promontory Point, Utah to form the transcontinental railroad wasn’t truly transcontinental at first. It was thought that no one could build a bridge across the Missouri River, and at the time the Golden Spike was driven, the Union Pacific stopped at the river, and picked up on the other side. For a period of time, the locomotives had to be ferried across. Then the Kansas Pacific helped to build the Hannibal Bridge, a unique design that swung a bridge section sideways to allow steamboat river traffic, then back into a contiguous bridge across the river. Without electricity, and using only gravity, gears, and river power, it was a major engineering feat, truly uniting the east and western portions of the United States by rail.
Second, in Chicago, a man named George Hammond filed a patent for a refrigerated railroad car, in 1868. Within two years, Hammond was selling refrigerated meat to the tune of two million dollars annually. Railroad lines that had invested heavily in stockyards in Chicago and elsewhere were reluctant to adopt the new cars, but progress marched forward as demand for beef in the east increased. In The Founding, Hiram and Julia make use of both of these inventions to outsmart Gould, and in real life, Gould was slow to pick up on them. The refrigerated cars spawned a large meat packing business in Fort Worth, Texas, and with the expansion of the railroad, completely eliminated the need for the cattle drives of western movies. Within a decade, Hammond’s new plant in Omaha, Nebraska, was slaughtering over 100,000 cattle a year and moving a fleet of 800 refrigerator cars. Gustavus Swift improved the design of refrigerated cars.1 During the 1850s, when he was still a teenager, Gustavus F. Swift started to work in the beef business in Massachusetts. In 1875, Swift began buying cattle in Chicago to send to his family’s butcher operations back East. He quickly revolutionized the meat industry by using newly developed refrigerated railcars to ship fresh meat from Chicago to Eastern markets. The company soon set up a national network of branch offices, which allowed it to control the distribution of its meat across the country. By 1886, when the company slaughtered more than 400,000 cattle a year, Swift employed about 1,600 people. Between 1887 and 1892, new packing plants were opened in Kansas City, Omaha, and St. Louis. By the time the founder died in 1903, his company grossed $200 million in annual sales and employed about 23,000 people across the country.2
These inventions allowed our fictional characters to gain capital to beat Gould, temporarily, at his own game.
As railroads advanced, many new towns were founded. Whether the railroad’s route included a particular town could mean the difference between death and survival for the town. Often towns paid handsome sums to the railroads to influence the route. Dallas paid a large cash bounty to gain three railroad lines running through it, cementing it as a center of Texas commerce. In 1860, Dallas only had 261 people. By 1900, it had 82,726.3
Often the town was required to pay for a depot, as well as show that there would be sufficient freight and passenger traffic to warrant choosing a route through the town. In Nicodemus, the citizens raised $16,000 for a depot, with great hopes. There was lots of politics and influence peddling.
Lubbock, Texas, the other town in this book, was initially unsuccessful in wooing the railroad. However, with persistence, growth, and the fact that it was racially white, the town fathers, including Will Crump, were successful in the end.
Thank you so much for sharing such a fascinating post.
Here’s the blurb:
Two men, two dreams, two new towns on the plains, and a railroad that will determine whether the towns—one black, one white—live or die.
Will Crump has survived the Civil War, Red Cloud’s War, and the loss of his love, but the search for peace and belonging still eludes him. From Colorado, famed Texas Ranger Charlie Goodnight lures Will to Texas, where he finds new love, but can a Civil War sharpshooter and a Quaker find a compromise to let their love survive? When Will has a chance to join in the founding of a new town, he risks everything—his savings, his family, and his life—but it will all be for nothing if the new railroad passes them by.
Luther has escaped slavery in Kentucky through Albinia, Will’s sister, only to find prejudice rearing its ugly head in Indiana. When the Black Codes are passed, he’s forced to leave and begin a new odyssey. Where can he and his family go to be truly free? Can they start a town owned by blacks, run by blacks, with no one to answer to? But their success will be dependent on the almighty railroad and overcoming bigotry to prove their town deserves the chance to thrive.
Will’s eldest sister, Julia, and her husband, Hiram, are watching the demise of their steamboat business and jump into railroads, but there’s a long black shadow in the form of Jay Gould, the robber baron who ruthlessly swallows any business he considers competition. Can Julia fight the rules against women in business, dodge Gould, and hold her marriage together?
The Founding tells the little-known story of the Exodusters and Nicodemus, the black town on the plains of Kansas, and the parallel story of Will’s founding of Lubbock, Texas, against the background of railroad expansion in America. A family reunited, new love discovered, the quest for freedom, the rise of two towns. In the end, can they reach Across the Great Divide? The Founding is the exciting conclusion to the series.
Praise for The Founding:
“Michael is an excellent storyteller and has done a wonderful job depicting Luther, and the other black characters in this book. He has done his homework and depicts many historical facts about Nicodemus in a most enlightening and creative way. It has been a pleasure working with someone who has made a concerted effort to get things right.
~ Angela Bates
The Nicodemus Historical Society and Museum
Watch the book trailer:
Meet the author
Michael Ross is a lover of history and great stories.
He’s a retired software engineer turned author, with three children, and five grandchildren, living in Newton, Kansas with his wife of 39 years. Michael graduated from Rice University and Portland State University with degrees in German and software engineering. He was part of an MBA program at Boston University.
Michael was born in Lubbock, Texas, and still loves Texas. He’s written short stories and technical articles in the past, as well as articles for the Texas Historical Society.
Across the Great Divide now has three novels in the series, “The Clouds of War”, and “The Search”, and the conclusion, “The Founding”. “The Clouds of War” was an honorable mention for Coffee Pot Book of the Year in 2019, and an Amazon #1 best seller in three categories, along with making the Amazon top 100 paid, reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly. “The Search” won Coffee Pot Cover of the Year in 2020, and Coffee Pot Silver Medal for Book of the Year in 2020, as well as short listed for the Chanticleer International Book Laramie Award.
Connect with Michael: