Thomas Clark Durant

The American Thomas Clark Durant (1820-1885), an executive of the Union Pacific Railroad, was a major force behind the first transcontinental railroad.

Thomas C. Durant was born in Lee, Mass., on Feb. 6, 1820, the son of well-to-do parents. Although he graduated from Albany Medical College, he left medicine for his uncle's firm, which exported flour and grain. Durant later moved to New York City to open a branch office and became widely known in financial circles because of his activities in stocks.

Railroads were a popular investment in the 1850s, and Durant joined with Henry Farnam in building the Michigan Southern, the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific, and the Mississippi and Missouri. In 1862 the Federal government designated the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads to construct the first transcontinental line. Durant claimed that he influenced President Abraham Lincoln to select Omaha as the line's eastern terminus, although most authorities give the credit to Grenville M. Dodge. The Union Pacific ran into early financial difficulty, and Durant, vice president of the company, persuaded Congress to double the land grant and also to allow the road to issue bonds equal to those issued by the government, which was the transcontinental's major financial backer.

When the Union Pacific ran into difficulty selling its securities at par value as was required by the charter, Durant devised a scheme whereby a group of company executives formed a construction company called the Crédit Mobilier of America. This firm was awarded the construction contracts and accepted the securities as payment. To protect the firm against loss, the contracts were high enough to offset the sale of the securities below par. Regardless of the corrupt nature of the operation, money was secured and construction continued.

In 1865 Oakes and Oliver Ames, Massachusetts manufacturers, entered the Crédit Mobilier and began a battle for control with Durant. For 2 years the rival factions, known as the "Boston Crowd" and the "New York Crowd," contended for supremacy. At stake in the struggle was not only the construction company but the entire Union Pacific. Durant was forced out of the Crédit Mobilier in 1867, but efforts to sever him from the railroad failed. An agreement then followed between the two groups for construction of some 667 miles of track; the agreement proved profitable to the Crédit Mobilier, but the Union Pacific was left with a shoddily built line and heavy overcapitalization. Losing control to the Ames brothers, Durant held on just long enough to help Leland Stanford drive in the golden spike to complete the nation's first transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. On May 25 Durant was dropped from the board of directors of the Union Pacific.

Durant was married and the father of a son and daughter. His last years passed uneventfully in the Adirondacks.


Further Reading on Thomas Clark Durant

No full-length study of Durant exists. For his role in the Union Pacific see Nelson Trottman, History of the Union Pacific: A Financial and Economic Survey (1923), and a popular work, Wesley S. Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (1962).