February 8, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Leland Stanford

“I have planned that long after I shall have crumbled into dust the...establishment founded by me at Palo Alto shall endure,” said Leland Stanford. He was speaking, of course, about his horse-breeding farm. But that was before.

Leland Stanford grew up in upstate New York, the middle child in a brood of seven. After passing the bar in 1848 the 24-year old Stanford took his bride, an Albany merchant’s daughter, to the Wisconsin frontier to practice law. His law career was abruptly interrupted four years later by a town inferno that destroyed his office and library.

Rather than rebuild, Stanford headed to California where he joined his brothers in the Gold Rush. A single-minded, plodding man Stanford wasted no time in the gold fields but rather sold equipment to the more adventurous gold seekers. In a few years he was a respected man of means in the community.

Stanford now turned his talents to politics, organizing the Republican party in California. In 1861 he was elected governor, a fortuitous stroke of timing for all involved. For the federal government Stanford held California in the Union and in return Stanford would wield tremendous clout in a new project approved by President Lincoln in 1862 - the transcontinental railroad.

Stanford became president of the Central Pacific Railroad, joining with three other men in what proved to be one of the most successful partnerships in American capitalism. The monopoly, known as the Big Four, pushed the railroad from the west to join the Union Pacific Railroad coming from the east.

The Central Pacific bore the worst of the bargain. Snow lay sixty feet deep in the passes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Progress many days was measured in inches. Hordes of Chinese workers labored under showsheds, track crews battled biting winds and blasting teams chipped away at rock so hard that a new explosive - nitroglycerin - had to be manufactured to forge ahead.

Stanford was at the head of the track, helping supervise some of the hardest work ever done in America, sleeping wrapped in buffalo robes on flat cars. When the work was completed and the transcontinental railroad joined at Promontory, Utah in 1869 the Big Four realized a profit of fifty-four million dollars. At least that is what was reported: the books were “lost.”

Despite the public outcry Stanford and his partners continued to control California’s transportation for the next two decades. Away from the railroad business Stanford established a spectacular horse breeding farm on a huge parcel of land in Palo Alto. There, he became embroiled in the debate of the day over whether or not a horse lifted all four hooves off the ground simultaneously when running.

The methodical Stanford solved the conundrum by commissioning a photographer to arrange a series of cameras triggered by a trip wire when a horse trotted by. Later the images were affixed sequentially to glass plates and projected across the wall of the Stanford mansion. The industry that grew out of these first “movies” would soon identify California more than Stanford’s Central Pacific.

But by this time Stanford’s life had changed. His only son, Leland Jr., had contracted typhoid fever on a European tour and died in Florence, Italy in his fifteenth year, 1884. Incolsolate, Stanford spent a month in Europe while those close to him feared for his sanity. Finally, he resolved that, “since I could do no more for my boy I might do something for other people’s boys in Leland’s name.”

He visited Cambridge to study Harvard and seek advice on building a university. When told it would take five or six million dollars Stanford never hesitated. Ground was broken on Leland Jr.’s birthday in 1887 under the auspices of famed landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead. The finished campus, distinguished by powerful Romanesque colonnades and red tile roofs, was anointed by Frank Lloyd Wright as the greatest university architecture he had ever seen.

Leland Stanford Junior University greeted its first class in 1891. Stanford, his health broken by the lingering effects of too many winter nights in the Sierras and his son’s death, died two years later. He did not live to see even that first class graduate but Leland Stanford had surely built as enduring an institution as his railroad.

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