It might surprise you to find romance amid the story of the back-breaking and dangerous labor involved in building the transcontinental railroad. But we have one for you. We’re commemorating the anniversary of the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines on May 10, 1869. When the golden spike was driven that day, it meant the connection between California and the rest of the United States was complete. One of the heroes of the story was a hard-bitten, Civil War veteran who had a soft spot in his heart for the wife he left at home in Ohio.
Brigadier General John S. “Jack” Casement (1829-1909) had already served honorably in the Civil War by the time he became a tracklaying contractor during the building of the transcontinental railroad. Working for the Union Pacific Railroad Company, it was Jack’s job, along with his brother and business partner Dan Casement, to build most of a rail line that spanned 1,776 miles from Omaha, Nebraska, to the meeting point with the Central Pacific rail line at Promontory Point, Utah.
Until the Casement brothers took on the work, the Union Pacific had made only slight progress since breaking ground in December 1863. When Jack was hired in early 1866, he applied his existing railroading expertise as well as military skills and discipline to the work.
Jack was a married man with a young family during his years with the Union Pacific. In 1857, Jack had married Frances Marion Jennings (1840-1928), an educated young woman from Painesville, Ohio. She received a formal education at the Painesville District School in Ohio, a rarity for children during this time. She later graduated from Painesville Academy in 1852 and attended Willoughby Female Seminary from 1855 to 1856. Jack met Frances, who was called “Frank,” while he was working as a railroad contractor in Ohio. Shortly after completing her studies, Frances married him. It was a love match from the start, although Frank had no idea at the time how often she would be left alone to pine for him.
Jack’s work as a railroad builder meant long absences from home. The work was all-consuming as he oversaw the phases necessary for railroad construction including leveling the grade, bridge building, tunneling, laying the rails, and more. There were also supplies to be ordered and shipped, men and work animals to be fed and housed, and negotiations with the company bosses who had high expectations for him to complete the railroad line in a timely fashion.
Jack and Frank wrote many letters to each other during his absences. The letters illustrate the experiences of a “railroad widow” and her driven, yet loving husband. Equally interesting are Jack’s descriptions of the countryside and people he encountered while building the Union Pacific rail line.
On March 4, 1866, Frank writes Jack of her loneliness for him, but also for their firstborn child Charlie who had only recently died at the age of four in December.
“You have been from home only four days and I already begin to think of your coming home, counting the days and longing for the four weeks to pass…I am lonesome without you and dread the thoughts of a separation from you. Perhaps it is wrong when I have so short a time to stay at home but I cannot enjoy even home without you. Who can wonder at it when we have lived so long apart. I went to Charlie’s grave Friday after noon…I have never missed Charlie so much since he died as I have since you left me, he was so much company for me when you was away but I can’t see him about me or hear him talk of what he will do when Papa comes home, and how much comfort he was to me when I could go to bed with my arm over him and fall asleep thinking of his Papa, and how I loved that Papa and his boy. Thinking too how could I live without either of them & oh how soon I have found out. But dear Jack the Lord has helped us to bear this heavy affliction and I hope he will spare us to each other for many years.”Box 1, Folder 2, John Stephen and Frances Jennings Casement papers, Collection #308, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Jack’s deep love and respect for his beloved Frank are evident in his letters, but he has many more distractions to keep his mind off his loneliness. His letters swing between lamenting his absence from home and wife to expressing excitement or more often frustration at whatever work issue is at hand. He typically wrote quickly at the beginning or end of a long work day, so his letters are usually no more than a paragraph in length. This was a source of constant dissatisfaction for Frank as she yearns for more information about his experiences and whereabouts as well as reassurance of his continued devotion to her. In the letter below dated April 13, 1867, he vents irritation over the flood of rain preventing his work progress while also expressing his longing to see her and their newest child John Frank born September 29, 1866. He writes,
“It is raining this evening and making the prospect as gloomy as possible. The Missouri is coming over its banks and rising all the time. Miles of road is washed away in the Platte Valley so that we cannot get over the road for a few days even if it stops raining. We are all in a heap-generally but will be all right in a few days…I would like to be with you and little John tonight. I am lonesome without you Darling. I love you both very much, write often…”Box 1, Folder 4, John Stephen and Frances Jennings Casement papers, Collection #308, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Frank’s letters often hint directly but lovingly of her longing to have Jack home all the time, not just for a few weeks here and there. She writes on May 7, 1868, that this longing is only made more acute by the time they spent apart during the Civil War,
“I hope you won’t work too hard darling, but still I am glad to know you have men plenty to do so much work in a day for the road can’t be done a minute too soon to suit me. For four years I lived thinking ‘when the cruel war is over’ what happiness we will have together – and now I look forward with some hope to the time when the U.P.R.R. is done.”Box 1, Folder 7, John Stephen and Frances Jennings Casement papers, Collection #308, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
On August 1, 1868, Jack writes from the end-of-track town of Benton, located 11 miles east of present day Rawlins, Wyoming. The town had only sprung up a month before Jack arrived and would die about a month later. During its brief existence, the tent town attained a population of 3,000 who enjoyed its 25 saloons and five dance halls. The more unfortunate residents—about 100 of them—died in the town’s frequent gunfights. Jack describes his impressions to Frank,
“I arrived at this place yesterday morning and went to the end of track 30 miles beyond here, so I have had no opportunity to write before…This is an awfull [sic] place, alkali dust knee deep and certainly the meanest place I have ever been in. I am so thankful that my Darlings are where they are. Dan thought of moving here but dare not do it and has concluded to move to our club house at Laramie or send Mollie home whichever she may desire…”Box 1, Folder 11, John Stephen and Frances Jennings Casement papers, Collection #308, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Under Jack and Dan Casement, the work on the Union Pacific line was completed in record time. After completion of the transcontinental railroad, it probably comes as no surprise that Jack continued to be active in railway work. He even played a role in the construction of a second route to the Pacific, this time in Costa Rica in 1897. Frank became a renowned suffragette. In 1883, she organized the Equal Rights Association in her hometown of Painesville, Ohio, and in 1885 helped found Ohio Women’s Suffrage Association, serving as president from 1885 to 1889. She died in 1928, thus saw ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920 granting women across the United States the right to vote.
There are many more fascinating letters to view between the Casements. This post only touched the surface. You can come to the American Heritage Center to view the letters in person or view them digitally on the Wyoming History website where they are not only digitized but described in detail.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.