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Stanford, Leland - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Leland Stanford

railroad university pacific president

Central Pacific Railroad


Leland Stanford combined his legal knowledge, business ability, and political influence to become one of California’s leading citizens in the nineteenth century. With three colleagues, he established the Central Pacific Railroad, which built the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad, and served as its president from 1861 until his death in 1893. The Big Four, as they came to be known, earned an estimated profit of $54 million from that venture alone. Stanford later served as president of the Southern Pacific Corporation for five years.

Stanford also had a distinguished political career. He served one term as the California’s first Republican governor in 1861 and was instrumental in keeping the state loyal to the Union during the Civil War. He later served as a U.S. senator until his death in 1893.

As a memorial to his deceased 15-year-old son, Stanford established the Leland Stanford, Jr. University in Palo Alto, better known as simply Stanford University, by donating land and funds worth approximately $30 million.

Personal Life

Leland Stanford was born on March 9, 1824, in Watervliet, New York. He was the fourth son of Josiah and Elizabeth (Phillips) Stanford. The family could trace its American roots back to Thomas Stanford (or Staniforth), who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1644. Stanford’s father was a prosperous farmer who also worked as a contractor in the building of bridges, roads, and railroads.

Stanford’s early education was typical of the period, a combination of formal schooling and home tutoring. He began to study law at the age of 20 and in 1845 entered the law office of Wheaton, Doolittle & Hadley in Albany, New York. He was admitted to the New York Bar in 1847, but he moved to Port Huron, Wisconsin, the next year to open his own law office. He stayed there until 1852, when his law office burned down.

Stanford decided to join three of his brothers in Sacramento, California, where they had a successful business selling mining and agricultural supplies. They helped him establish a mining store in Cold Springs, which proved unsuccessful. He then opened a general store in Michigan Bluff. Finally, in 1856 he moved to Sacramento and became a partner in his brothers’ business.

Stanford married Jane Elizabeth Lathrop of Albany, New York, in 1850. They had one son, Leland Stanford, Jr., who by all accounts was a sickly boy. While he was touring Europe with his parents, he contracted typhus and died in Florence, Italy, at the age of 15. After Leland, Jr.’s death, his father decided to establish a university in memory of his son. After consulting with Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, Stanford established the Leland Stanford, Jr. University in Palo Alto, which opened in 1891.

Stanford’s many interests outside of business and politics included operating the world’s largest vineyard at the 59,000-acre Vina Ranch near Sacramento. When the extremes of climate proved unsuitable for wine production, they began producing brandy. On his 9,000-acre Palo Alto ranch, Stanford devoted himself to raising some of the world’s fastest race horses. To prove that a horse lifted all four of its hooves off the ground, he commissioned photographer Edward Muybridge to set up a battery of cameras triggered by trip wires to photograph a trotting horse. Muybridge was able to project the still images so the horse appeared to be moving, an early example of “filmmaking.” Both ranches were eventually donated to Stanford University.

Stanford was also a noted art collector, acquiring paintings, sculpture, and other art objects to adorn his residences in San Francisco and Palo Alto. His San Francisco house was destroyed after his death in the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Career Details

Once in Sacramento, Stanford became interested in politics. A Republican in a predominantly Democratic state, he suffered defeat in 1857 when he ran for state treasurer, and again in 1859 when he ran for governor. In 1861 he was successful in his bid for the governorship, taking advantage of a split in the Democratic Party caused by the outbreak of the Civil War. During his single term, Stanford successfully kept the evenly divided state loyal to the Union. It was around this time that he developed a friendship with President Abraham Lincoln, whom he had met as a delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago.

In 1861 Stanford, together with Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker, formed the Central Pacific Railroad with Stanford as president. Stanford handled the legal and governmental affairs of the railroad. When President Lincoln signed an act pledging federal support for a transcontinental railroad, it was the Central Pacific Railroad that was assigned to construct the portion from Sacramento east to meet the Union Pacific Railroad, which was building the portion west from Omaha, Nebraska. Stanford persuaded the California legislature to give more than $750,000 to the cash-starved Central Pacific to allow it to build part of the first transcontinental railroad. For its part, the Central Pacific would get five miles of land on either side of the track it laid and up to $48,000 per mile. When the transcontinental was completed in 1869, Stanford and his associates were some $54 million richer.

The Big Four, as Stanford and his associates were known, went on to pursue other interests in rail and water transportation. They formed the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1870 to purchase and build railroad lines south from San Francisco. The company later completed a second transcontinental railroad from California to New Orleans. The Big Four eventually established a virtual monopoly over transportation in California, and in 1885 they formed the Southern Pacific Corporation as a holding company for their interests. Stanford served as its president from 1885 to 1890.

Stanford began devoting less time to his railroad interests around 1870, when his son was born. He spent more time at his Vina and Palo Alto ranches and on the education of his son. He and his wife took Leland, Jr. on a grand tour of Europe in 1885, where he contracted typhus and died.

Following his son’s untimely death, Stanford decided to establish a university in his honor. He said, “I was thinking that since I could do no more for my boy, I might do something for other people’s boys in Leland’s name.” He persuaded the California legislature in 1885 to pass an act enabling the establishment of a university. His $30 million endowment to the university consisted of the 9,000-acre Palo Alto ranch, the 59,000-acre Vina Ranch, the Stanford home in San Francisco, the 22,000 acre Gridley ranch, other real estate, and interest-bearing securities. When the Leland Stanford, Jr. University opened to students in the fall of 1891, its president was David Starr Jordan from Indiana University. The campus featured Spanish mission-style buildings designed by Charles A. Coolidge and landscaping by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

With renewed political ambitions, Stanford ran for the U.S. Senate in 1885 and defeated A.A. Sargent, who was a personal friend of one of the Big Four, Collis P. Huntington. Huntington and Stanford disagreed over Stanford’s political career, and in 1890 Huntington managed to have Stanford replaced as president of Southern Pacific. Stanford was reelected to a second term in the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1893 at the age of 69.

Social and Economic Impact

Stanford’s philanthropy, principally through the establishment of Stanford University, has made his legacy the biggest of the Big Four, who are remembered today largely by the banks and hotels in California that bear their names. While Stanford himself did not live to see the university grow and prosper, it has become recognized as one of the finest universities in the United States.

As a co-founder and president of the Central Pacific Railroad, Stanford was responsible in part for running one of the most successful transportation monopolies in U.S. history. The economic impact of the completion of two transcontinental railroads was substantial, as people and goods were able to travel westward more easily from the South and the Midwest. It contributed greatly to the expansion of the West and the commerce of the nation. Within California, the building of that state’s railroad infrastructure was largely accomplished by companies in which Stanford played key roles.

Chronology: Leland Stanford

1824: Born.

1845: Entered first law office.

1847: Admitted to New York Bar.

1848: Relocated to Port Huron, Wisconsin, to practice law.

1856: Became partner in brothers’ business in Sacramento.

1857: Entered California politics.

1861: Elected first Republican governor of California.

1861: Organized Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) with three colleagues and became president of the company.

1869: CPR completed the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad, and Stanford drove in the last gold spike at Promontory, Utah, on May 20.

1885: Elected U.S. senator from California.

1891: Leland Stanford, Jr. University opened in Palo Alto, California, as a memorial to Stanford’s deceased son.

1893: Died.

Politically, Stanford was an effective lobbyist, if not unselfish, on issues of concern to him. He also gained considerable influence through his friendship with President Lincoln.

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