One of the “Big Four” who built California’s Central Pacific railroad, Leland Stanford brought a sweeping political influence to the partnership that insured this privately financed project all the advantages of public funding.
Stanford was born into a well-off farming family in Watervliet, New York. After a superb secondary education and several years of higher education, Stanford entered an elite law office to prepare for a career as an attorney, passing his bar exam in 1848. He soon moved to Wisconsin, where he began to practice his profession.
After three years in Wisconsin, Stanford and his new wife decided to move to California, where several of his brothers had already found success as merchants. Stanford joined them in 1852 and soon began making enormous sums of money by selling equipment to miners in northern California. He also became involved in politics, first as a justice of the peace, then as the unsuccessful 1857 Republican candidate for state treasurer, and in 1859 as the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate. Stanford was finally elected governor in 1861, when the Civil War split the Democratic vote, and he played a part in keeping California loyal to the Union.
During his tenure, Stanford made no attempt to separate his political office from his private business interests. With Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Charles Crocker, Stanford was one of the “Big Four” planning to build the eastbound section of the transcontinental railroad, and his contribution to the partnership was to come in the form of political influence. As governor, Stanford kept this pledge, despite his responsibilities to the public, by helping to secure massive state investment and land grants for the railroad project.
When his term ended in 1863, Stanford declined to run for governor again, choosing instead to become president of the Central Pacific, a post he held until his death. He was also a major stakeholder in and longtime president of the Southern Pacific, as well as owner of many of the construction companies that did most of the actual railroad building. Later in the century, as public pressure mounted for government regulation of such monopolies, Stanford’s political connections in California continued to keep his railroad business interests on track.
The immense wealth Stanford acquired from railroad building enabled him to live a lavish life. He maintained enormous vineyards and owned a large horse-raising ranch near Palo Alto. In 1884, the death of their fifteen-year-old son prompted the Stanfords to found and endow Stanford University in his memory. In 1885, Stanford arranged for the California legislature to appoint him to the United States Senate, where he served without distinction but with pleasure until his death in 1893.