Grenville M. Dodge
By Richard Trask

“I would rather have had your experience in the Civil War and have seen what you have seen and done than to be President of the United States.” Thus did the “Rough Rider President,” Theodore Roosevelt, address himself to Danvers-born General Grenville Dodge during one of their frequent meetings.


Grenville Mellen Dodge, although a somewhat obscure name to most people today, was and still is the epitome of the successful, courageous, ambitious American of the Frontier and post-Civil War period of our history. A genuine hero of the Civil War and one of the most influential railroad developers of all times, Dodge was an explorer, entrepreneur, promoter, politician, builder and financier during his varied career. Dodge was also brushed with the taint of financial scandal, and his now considered inappropriate attitude towards Native Americans was typical for the period. His accomplishments in assisting in the development of the United States, however, were enormous.

The birth ell.

Grenville’s parents, Sylvanus and Julia Dodge, were married in the autumn of 1829 and moved to the house of Elias Putnam in the Putnamville section of Danvers, where they occupied an ell built on to the north side of the house. On April 12, 1831, Grenville was born in a bedchamber of the ell. The birth site is now under the waters of the 1955 Putnamville Reservoir, though the birth ell was moved twice, once to the opposite side of Locust Street and later incorporated into the nearby Choate Estate where it survived into the 21st century, when it was demolished. The Dodge family moved away from Danvers a few years after Grenville’s birth so that Sylvanus could get a better job. They then returned in 1839 and resided in a house on Holten Street owned by Gilbert Tapley.

With the inauguration of James K. Polk as President in 1845, Sylvanus was appointed Postmaster of South Danvers (Peabody), and he and his family moved there. When thirteen years old, Grenville went to work on the Lander farm on the outskirts of Danvers where he met Frederick Lander who had just completed two years at Norwich University in Vermont and was beginning a career as a civil engineer. Lander let Dodge help survey a new railroad spur in Wenham and realizing Dodge’s potential, encouraged him to enter Norwich University and become an engineer.

Dodge entered Durham Academy in New Hampshire at 15 and then attended Norwich as a cadet majoring in engineering and military tactics. He graduated in 1851. Arriving back in Danvers in June of that year, Dodge announced to his parents that he was “going away out west to Chicago.” Thus began his fascinating national career.

Dodge traveled to Peru, Illinois, and, though beginning his employment as a surveyor’s rodman, his potential was soon discovered and he was given the job of plotting 400 miles of the Rock Island Railroad. In the 1850s Dodge explored deep into Nebraska territory which, at that time, was far beyond the frontier line and full of Pawnee Indians, with whom he had many close calls.

It was during this time that he began to think seriously of a transcontinental railroad. Establishing residency in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1855, but spending weeks in the saddle for his work, Dodge began to establish himself as an energetic and far-sighted railroad developer and emerged as a skillful politician of the area.

In August 1859, Illinois lawyer and future presidential contender, Abraham Lincoln, came to Council Bluffs to look over some property. While there he met Dodge and asked about his exploration of the country west of the Missouri and of his ideas of a Pacific Railroad. They talked for over two hours, both agreeing that nothing was more important than a transcontinental railroad. Lincoln was in favor of an east to west railway that the government would help to build, “not only as a military necessity,” as Dodge had said, “but as a means of holding the Pacific Coast to the Union.” Dodge, later recounting the conversation, said of Lincoln, “He had shelled my woods thoroughly and extracted from me the information I had gathered for my employers.”

For the next few years, Dodge continued to explore and survey, and he began to lobby actively for the idea of a Pacific Railroad that would link the entire country and provide faster growth and prosperity for the nation and himself. With the election of Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, Dodge saw a distinct possibility for the construction of this railroad. His dreams, however, were interrupted by the beginning of the Civil War.

In 1856 Dodge had organized the first military defense guard in Council Bluffs. In July 1861 he was appointed by the governor Colonel of the 4th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. At the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March of 1862, Colonel Dodge held his brigade firm against a murderous Confederate onslaught. In so doing three horses were killed from under him, and Dodge received a severe wound, though he saved the field for the Union Forces. Through immensely good newspaper coverage of the battle, Dodge became a national hero, and was made a brigadier general.

Ordered by General Ulysses S. Grant to rebuild 150 miles of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad from Kentucky to Mississippi in order to supply the Union troops, Dodge did so, though constantly harassed by strong Confederate forces and guerilla bands. So well did Dodge do his job, that he was promoted to the command of the Central division of the Mississippi. Dodge set up an elaborate spy and espionage system on a scale never before seen, the results of which gained him further recognition and praise by General Grant and President Lincoln.

Grant next needed a railroad from Decatur to Nashville which Dodge completed in record time, though ill-equipped and harassed by the enemy. Within 40 days, 102 miles of track had been rebuilt and 182 bridges and trestles constructed. During the war years, Dodge became a close personal friend of generals Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan. These friendships lasted past the war years until death.

In 1864, Dodge was given a major generalship by Lincoln, and in the same year he was asked to meet with the President at the White House. Lincoln wanted to know Dodge’s opinion of Grant as his new Commander of all Union Armies, and when told by Dodge that it was very high, Lincoln “clasping Dodge’s hands in his own solemnly answered, ‘You don’t know how glad I am to hear you say that.’”

During the war years it had become apparent that a transcontinental railroad was not only a good idea, but a vital necessity in order to link up the nation. Thus in 1862, the U. S. Congress passed a bill providing for the availability of funds for construction of the railroad by the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroads.

In the concluding months of the Civil War in 1865, the troops under Dodge wanted to be mustered out of the service, and in their place came five regiments of rough, southern war prisoners who decided it was better to be able to fight under Dodge than remain in prison.

After a brief trip back to his native Danvers, in 1865 Dodge made for the area between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains where the Indians were menacing the Whites and would hamper the progress on the building of the Railroad. The years of 1865-66 saw much harsh and brutal fighting on both sides.

Dodge was not the least hesitant concerning his opinion of the Indians. “We’ve got to clean the damn Indians out or give up building the Union Pacific,” was one of his common sayings; and it reflected his attitude towards them quite well. Cheyennes and Arapaho had been increasingly harassing the settlers in the area of Nebraska, and Dodge pursued them relentlessly till the area was “pacified.” During the harsh winter campaigns, temperatures were 10 degrees below zero and at times the snow was two feet deep. While in western Kansas during one particularly cold spell, the men of one regiment built crude shelters and, out of spite, named it Camp Dodge. A year later a fort was erected on the site and was called “Fort Dodge,” and within a few years it became the famous Dodge City.

The Transcontinental Railroad had progressed at a slow rate since 1862, and in January of 1866 Dodge was offered the job of Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad at a salary of $10,000. In May Dodge resigned from the Army. When Dodge took the job there were only “40 miles of rusty rails,” and he had told those in control of the Union Pacific, “I will become Chief Engineer only on condition that I be given absolute control in the field. You are about to build a railroad through a country that has neither law nor order and whoever heads the work . . . must be backed up.” Dodge, who had surveyed Iowa and Nebraska before the war, also knew of the land beyond, and through his concise planning, the Union Pacific made its way toward the West and the Central Pacific Railroad.

Back in September 1865 during a harrowing escape in the Black Hills from an Indian war party, Dodge and his scout escaped on horseback down an interrupted ridge to the plains below. Dodge quickly realized the significance of their path, telling the scout “If we can save our scalps, I believe we’ve found a pass through which the Union Pacific can go.”

A 400 foot long and 85 foot high trestle photographed in May 1869

The building process of the Union Pacific was smoothly established by Dodge. The surveyor’s party was the first into an area, and when Indians were also present, these teams were accompanied by soldiers. They were followed by the construction gangs – many of whom were Irish immigrants who numbered about 10,000. They graded the land, cut wood for ties, laid track and built bridges. Behind them was the rolling train of as many as 30 cars carrying supplies, sleepers, cooking units, and flat cars full of logs and rails. As Chief Engineer, Dodge was a hands-on leader. He led survey parties into the wilds, mapping and recording as they went ahead of the railroad graders and work crews. Dodge designed solutions to each new obstacle along the route, getting the track over or through it.

During the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, Dodge reported yearly to the Union Pacific Railroad and the U. S. Congress on the progress of the project. Included within the publication were reports of harrowing Indian attacks, adverse weather conditions and amazing feats of engineering.

Finally, after numerous feuds among the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroads and the Mormons under Brigham Young as to the route and length of the two railroad systems, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah.

The iconic image of meeting at Promontory Point, Utah, and the photograph reproduced in the press (minus the bottles).

At 12:49, as the last iron spike was driven by three sledge hammer strokes into the wood tie, a Morse Code operator at the scene signaled “Dot, Dot, Dot,” to the waiting nation. Central Pacific Engine #119 then moved up to meet the Union Pacific’s “Jupiter.” Photographer Charles Phelps Cushing captured this iconic image as Central Pacific engineer Samuel S. Montague shook hands with 38-year-old Grenville M. Dodge to his right.

Dodge had been elected representative to the U.S. Congress from Iowa in 1867, and from that date on he was the undisputed leader of the state’s Republicans, never seeking higher office, though offered, but always keeping a tight control of his state as well as his interests. His influence was also felt in national politics due to his close friendship with President Grant and his influence in the field of railroads, military affairs, and industrial matters continued for many years through the administrations of McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft. Dodge continued his railroad building career, first in the West and later in the South. Though he was involved in several scandals resulting in his business deals and his close friendship with the financier Jay Gould, Dodge remained immensely respected by people.

Roosevelt said of Dodge, “He was typical of what we like to regard as essentially American,” and this was a good summarization of Dodge, for indeed, throughout his life he typified the aggressiveness, courage, and pioneer spirit of the American people of this period.

He was phenomenally successful in his numerous activities which included railroad building, being a general in the Civil War and Indian fighter in the West, politician, lobbyist, and pioneer. A close friend to Grant, Gould, Sherman, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Teddy Roosevelt, he surveyed over 15,000 miles of railroad including the Rock Island, Union Pacific, and Texas & Pacific systems. He supervised construction of over 60,000 miles of railroad track, served as president of 7 railroads, 9 railway construction companies, and founded such legendary places as Dodge City, Laramie, and Cheyenne.

Dodge’s infrequent visits to his native town of Danvers, were always special occasions for the town. In 1898 he presented a large portrait of himself in military uniform to the Holten High School, and in 1899 visited and spoke in assembly to the enthralled students. The portrait painted by famed artist George H. Yewell, presently hangs on the front stage at the Danvers Historical Society’s Tapley Memorial Hall.

Dodge died in Council Bluffs, Iowa on January 3, 1916, and is remembered as one of the most influential railroad developers of all times.

Online beginning May 2015

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