His friends had to beg him to run for office and he spent little time, if any, campaigning. Yet in 1866, the people of western Iowa voted overwhelmingly to send Grenville Mellen Dodge to the House of Representatives. Although he had demonstrated time and again that he was a natural leader, General Dodge loathed being on Capitol Hill. He much preferred exploring the western wilderness, scoping out the path of the transcontinental railroad. No oath of office could keep him from it.
Trained as a military and civil engineer at Vermont’s Norwich University, Dodge was ambitious from a young age. After graduating at age 20, he ventured throughout the Midwest building railroads. In doing so, he bolstered his skills as an engineer and developed a keen understanding of the region’s geography. Dodge happened to meet the inquisitive former Congressman Abraham Lincoln in 1859 after an address by the railroad lawyer and future President. Lincoln bombarded him with questions regarding potential routes for an anticipated, but not yet authorized, Pacific Railway. The young engineer asserted that a line westward through the Platte River Valley would be best. He was unaware that 10 years later he would play a major role in the completion of that line.
Before he could work on the Pacific Railway in earnest, the Civil War beckoned Dodge into military service in 1861. At different times during the war, Dodge commanded infantrymen in combat, spies gathering intelligence, and engineers building and repairing railroads. The speed and efficiency with which Dodge’s team could return railroads to operation caught the attention of Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, both of whom would continue to be his friends long after the war.
The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 authorized construction of the Union Pacific line, but little progress had been made past its starting point in Omaha, Nebraska. At the repeated request of Thomas Durant, the vice president and general manager of the Union Pacific Railroad Company, Dodge resigned from the Army after the war and returned to civilian railroad building as the chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1866. He and his team of surveyors moved ahead of the tracklayers, planning the course across plains, over rivers, and through mountains. They were followed by Irish immigrants, formerly enslaved people, and veterans who largely comprised the construction crews under the exacting command of brothers Jack and Dan Casement.
In the midst of this immense project, the people of Iowa urged Dodge to represent them in the 40th Congress. His service as a Civil War officer paired with his fame as the chief engineer of the Union Pacific made him a popular candidate to represent Council Bluffs in Congress. This new call to service struggled to divert his attention away from the railroad, however. Even on Election Day he focused on the railroad as he scouted routes in a November snowstorm. He later exclaimed that he was likely the only man “elected to Congress who forgot the day of election.” Dodge journeyed to Washington, DC, in early 1867, but his primary interest remained in the West.
Despite being assigned to fitting committees (Military Affairs and Roads and Canals), Dodge quickly decided he was not suited for Congress. Frustrated with the slow pace of politics and the endless barrage of patronage requests, he longed to be back with the railroad. In a letter to his wife just days after being seated in the House in March, he wrote “I have no disposition now to come here again.”
In April 1867, Dodge made his escape. Insisting that his old war wounds were bothering him, he traveled west—per doctor’s orders, he assured everyone—to rest. The runaway Representative rode past his home in Council Bluffs and on to the front of the Union Pacific line, now in North Platte, Nebraska.
Dodge occasionally returned to Washington, but spent as little time as possible in the city after that. Instead, he worked alongside his surveying team, moving the line forward and plotting future cities like Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming. He secured an extended leave of absence to continue his work with the railroad the following year. Dodge stayed in the West and refused to be nominated for a second term.
On May 10, 1869, soon after Dodge’s term ended, the Union Pacific railroad connected with the Central Pacific. The newly-former congressman was on hand for a joyous ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah. Americans listened intently to updates communicated via telegraph, waiting for news of the railroad’s completion. Soon, the telegraph operator shared the anticipated message: “Done!” Bells tolled and cannons boomed across the country. Posing for a photograph to mark the historic occasion, Dodge and the chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad, Samuel S. Montague, shook hands. In the background, an eastbound train and a westbound train met nose to nose symbolizing a united nation.
The first transcontinental railroad was finished, thanks in large part to Grenville Dodge’s engineering expertise and dedication, and in spite of his election to Congress.
Sources: Stanley P. Hirshson, Grenville M. Dodge: Soldier, Politician, Railroad Pioneer, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967); William B. Feis, Essentially American: General Grenville M. Dodge and Family, (Brookfield, MO: Donning Company Publishers, 2017); Grenville M. Dodge, How We Built the Union Pacific Railway, and Other Railway Papers and Addresses; C-Span Congressional Chronicle, “Committees of the 40th Congress: House Roads and Canals Committee,” National Cable Satellite Corporation; C-Span Congressional Chronicle, “Committees of the 40th Congress: Military Affairs Committee,” National Cable Satellite Corporation; Golden Spike National Historical Park, “Andrew J. Russell,” Department of the Interior, National Park Service.Follow @USHouseHistory