The Rags-to-Riches Story of Collis Potter Huntington

On this day, October 22 in the year 1821, one of the pioneers in the building of railroads in the United States was born in the state of Connecticut. His name was Collis Potter Huntington, one of the Big Four who built the Central Pacific Railroad as part of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad.

Collis Huntington
Collis Huntington (Credit:

Collis Potter Huntington was the son of a poor farmer. He stopped going to school at 13 and became an apprentice to a neighboring farmer. Later, he worked as a salesman for his brother’s hardware store in New York. In 1849, he was one of the ‘49ers who proceeded to the west coast in what was called the California Gold Rush. He went there by way of Panama where he was detained for three months. In California, he partnered with Mark Hopkins to establish a trading company after his own store was burned down.

In the late 1850s, Collis Huntington built the first transcontinental railroad of America in partnership with Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker. Together, they were called the “Big Four” of the Central Pacific Railroad. The next decade saw the big Four building the Southern Pacific Railroad that ran from Southern California to New Orleans and all the way to Newport News, Virginia, a continuous track of 4,000 miles or 6,440-kilometre. Then he bought the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1869. He went on to build in Newport News a landmark hotel and a shipyard which became the largest in the United States. Due to the influx of workers, Newport News was incorporated as an independent city in 1896.

In 1890, Collis Huntington became the president of the Southern Pacific–Central Pacific rail system. Meanwhile, he accumulated vast agricultural land in the south. His other big investment was the railcar producer Ensign Manufacturing Company, a company based in Huntington, West Virginia, a city named after him.

Collis Huntington died in 1900 at the age of 78. He married twice and had 9 biological and two adopted children.

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