Born into a modest family in Troy, New York, Charles Crocker was the son of Eliza Wright and Isaac Crocker. At the age of 12, Charles quit school and began a newspaper route to help support his mother and sister.
Charles was 14 when his father failed in business and the family became part of the nineteenth-century migration westward and settled on a farm in Indiana’s Marshall County. At the age of 17, Charles had a falling out with his father and left home. He spent a period of time working on a neighbor’s farm, then went to work in a sawmill. By the time Charles was 23, he was the owner and operator of an iron mine and foundry.
At the start of the California Gold Rush, Crocker and two of his brothers packed their bags and journeyed with a group of Forty-niners to the gold fields. Leaving Quincy, Illinois, the group travelled by river to St. Louis and Council Bluffs. Starting in Council Bluffs they traveled overland by way of Fort Kearny and arrived in California March of 1850.
After two years of grueling work, Crocker finally realized wealth’s glory road did not go through the California gold mines. The young entrepreneur quit his mining job and went into business with his brother. They opened a mercantile in one of the mining camps of the Sierra foothills. After getting that store on its feet, they opened another. In 1852, the Crocker brothers were well enough off they opened another store in Sacramento. Following this store’s opening, Crocker returned to Indiana in the fall of 1852 to wed Mary Deming, daughter of his former sawmill boss. When Crocker returned to Sacramento with his new bride, he discovered his store had been destroyed by one of Sacramento’s periodic fires. The Crocker brothers rebuilt their store and channeled their efforts into drygoods. By 1854, Crocker had become one of Sacramento’s wealthiest men.
In the spring of 1856, Crocker joined California’s Republican Party and established a strong friendship with hardware magnates Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and future California Governor Leland Stanford. (These four businessmen would later become known as “The Big Four;” the group of entrepreneurs who laid the plans for and constructed the Central Pacific Railroad.) They threw their support behind John C. Fremont for president using the slogan “Freedom, Fremont and the Railroad.” Fremont lost the election, but the effort Crocker expended during the campaign built his reputation in the Republican Party and he was elected to the state assembly in 1859 and was one of Sacramento’s leading citizens.
Crocker was in Sacramento to attend a meeting conducted by Theodore D. Judah during November 1860. At the meeting with him were Hopkins, Stanford and Huntington. This meeting led to the founding of the Central Pacific Railroad. Then on July 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Pacific Railroad Act which provided federal assistance for the construction of the railroad. Before construction began on the project, Crocker resigned from the Central Pacific Railroad and formed a new company he named Charles Crocker & Company. Central Pacific then selected Crocker’s company to build the railroad. It is thought Hopkins, Huntington and Stanford were silent partners in Crocker’s new company and the lucrative contracts Central Pacific awarded Charles Crocker & Company blessed each of the four men greatly.
Constructing the railroad through the Sierra Mountains proved to be a formidable challenge, due not only to the topography, but also to manpower shortages. The Civil War gobbled up a major portion of able-bodied men, and the larger percentage of those who were not drafted by the military headed for mines in Nevada. In 1865, the cavalry arrived in the form of thousands of Chinese workers. When Crocker was ridiculed for using Chinese laborers to build the railroad, his reply to the naysayers was, “They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?”
Progress under Crocker’s considerable energy set numerous records and the project was completed seven years ahead of schedule; however, it was accomplished by driving the workers to the point of exhaustion. On May 10, 1869, the tracks of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were connected in Promontory, Utah.
Life for Crocker grew even busier as his business activities reached a new level. He became president of Southern Pacific Railroad and helped to connect Portland and San Francisco by rail. He made a large amount of money in banking and as a real estate speculator and was also an early proponent of massive irrigation projects which were instrumental in transforming California into a fruit and vegetable utopia. In 1871, Crocker sold his interests in Central Pacific to his partners, then returned as director and vice-president during the Panic of 1873.
Since its founding, E. B. Crocker, Charles’ brother, had been the acting attorney for the Central Pacific Railroad. He suffered a stroke in 1868 which rendered him an invalid the rest of his life. The stroke also had a profound effect on Charles, which caused him to leave the company. He asked his partners to buy him out and in late 1871, received his initial payment. Charles now packed up his family and took off for an extended tour of Europe. In 1873, Crocker was due to receive another payment from Central Pacific; however, the Panic of 1873 hit the railroad hard and funds were not available to make the payment. In lieu of the funds, Crocker agreed to a financial settlement which permitted him to return to the railroad and assumed the position of Second Vice President.
Following his return to the Central Pacific Board of Directors, Crocker began construction on his palatial home located on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Located in close proximity to the homes of Stanford and Hopkins, the residence was completed in 1876, and the Crockers held a lavish party for their friends and business associates to celebrate.
Crocker’s interest in San Francisco real estate continued to grow as he obtained a large quantity of railroad grant lands located in the San Joaquin Valley. He now established the Crocker & Huffman Land Company in Modesto. Crocker’s next efforts were dedicated to extending his economic endeavors into the Sierras where he established a coal business. He also helped one of his sons build a cattle ranch in Nevada, acquired controlling interest for another son in the Woolworth Bank (Charles was briefly the controlling shareholder of Wells Fargo in 1869 and served as president) and became personally involved with the development of the Del Monte Resort Hotel in Monterey in the mid 1880s.
In 1886, 66-year-old Crocker was seriously injured in a carriage accident which occurred in New York City. The injuries were such that Crocker never recovered and he died two days later in the Del Monte Hotel on August 14, 1888. At the time of his death, Crocker’s fortune was estimated at approximately $20 million dollars ($492,916,677.98 in 2011 dollars) - approximately 1/608th of the US GNP.