Future railroad magnate Collis Potter Huntington was born in Harwinton, Connecticut on October 22, 1821 where he experienced a childhood of little means on his family’s farm. As he moved into his teens, he began to add odd jobs for his neighbors to his daily list of chores. A portion of the funds he received from these jobs was invested in items he would sell to others.
After Collis began working as an itinerant peddler, he visited rural Newport News Point in Warwick County, Virginia. He would never forget the untapped potential of this location as he observed where the James River emptied into the large harbor of Hampton Roads. By the time Collis was 16, he had proved himself as a worthy risk with a bank in New York where he established a $3,000 line of credit ($71,428.57 in 2012 dollars). Huntington used these funds to invest in a number of clocks which he then peddled. With the proceeds from his sales, he paid off his loan to the bank and continued to build his profits. At the age of 21, Huntington joined forces with one of his brothers and established a successful mercantile business in Oneonta, New York.
When Huntington began to sense a strong desire to move west, he packed his bags and set out for California. Arriving in Sacramento, he established another prosperous mercantile business in the opening days of the California Gold Rush. As his business prospered, Huntington partnered with Mark Hopkins and added mining equipment and supplies to the company’s inventory.
During the late 1850s, Huntington and Hopkins teamed with Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, two other successful businessmen. This quartet of tycoons became known as The Big Four when they pooled their resources to form the Central Pacific Railroad Company; an endeavor that created the western link of America’s transcontinental railway system. Though the task to bring the dream to reality was huge, this fabulous foursome had what was necessary to overcome a variety of obstacles, including: mountains, finances, labor, materials and worst of all – politics. The first tracks were laid in 1863 and while the actual construction of the railroad was underway, Huntington spent his time back east lobbying for the company in an effort to secure financing and favorable legislation from Congress and the federal government. On May 10, 1869, the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads came together in Promontory, Utah.
The connection of these tracks would not be the only railroad endeavor undertaken by the four tycoons. In 1865, another brainchild was born and given the name Southern Pacific Railroad. This line ran from New Orleans, across the southwest to California, and added more than 9,000 miles of track to America’s rail system. The railroad’s first locomotive was named C. P. Huntington in his honor.
During 1865, Huntington began acquiring land in Virginia’s eastern Tidewater region, an area of land which at that time was not served by extant railroads. Huntington purchased the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in 1869, then upgraded the line and linked it to the Southern Pacific. Completed in 1873, the C&O fulfilled long-held dreams of Virginians when 4,000 miles of continuous track connected Newport News, Virginia to San Francisco, California. In 1880, he formed the Old Dominion Land Company and turned these holdings over to the C&O.
In 1890, Huntington became president of Southern Pacific-Central Pacific Railroad. He now controlled a vast empire of rail lines, in addition to agricultural landholdings in California. At the close of his life, Collis Potter Huntington’s fortune was approximately $35 million ($972,222,222.22 in 2012 dollars). He died on August 13, 1900 at his camp, Pine Knot, in the Adirondacks.