After leaving medicine, Thomas C. Durant joined his uncle's grain exporting company, Durant, Lathrop and Company in New York City, as a director. While doing jobs in the prairie wheat trade, Durant recognized the necessity of a better mode of inland transportation and decided to join the railroad industry.
He began his career in the railroad industry as a broker for the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. During this period, he met Henry Farnam, his future partner.
They established a contracting company together, naming it Farnam and Durant. In 1853, they obtained the commission of acquiring funds and overseeing construction for the recently-chartered Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (M&M). Furthermore, they garnered major land grants to construct Iowa's first railroad, which would connect Davenport on the Mississippi River with Council Bluffs on the Missouri River.
The main attraction of the M&M was a wooden railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, the construction of which was finished in 1856. When a steamboat collided with the bridge, the boat operators filed a lawsuit demanding the bridge to be demolished.
Thomas C. Durant and his partners acquired the service of the private attorney Abraham Lincoln (future 16th President of US) to advocate for the bridge in the court. This acquaintance would later prove to be profitable for Durant, as, in 1862, President Lincoln chose Durant’s Union Pacific and its base of operation, Council Bluffs, Iowa, to serve as the starting point of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
He garnered a ruthless image and had no qualms about manipulating friends and foes alike for his own advantage. During his tenure as a general agent for the UP Eastern Division, Durant was responsible for accumulating funds, obtaining resources, and ensuring the passage of favourable national legislation.
He not only ensured that his company would receive a large portion of land from Congress’ subsidizing distribution of 100 million public acres, but also decisively responded to the Union Pacific's inability to find a buyer for significant stock following the passage of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which dictated that merchant holdings would be restricted to 200 shares per person.
Thomas C. Durant offered to invest the necessary 10% down payment on stock and reached out to brokers and merchants in the New York and Philadelphia areas after being promised that he would be compensated later. Ultimately, he managed to trade $2.18 million of UP stock to subscribers.
Meanwhile, he artificially raised the value of his M&M stock by spreading the rumour that he was going to link the Transcontinental Railroad to it. In secret, he purchased competing rail line stock and subsequently declared that the Transcontinental Railroad would be connected to that line.
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The contractors received payments from the government for each track built. Because of this, Durant disregarded his engineers and gave instructions to build extra tracks in large oxbows.
The UP did not spread beyond 40 miles (64 km) from Council Bluffs in the initial two and a half years. However, as the federal government was busy with the Civil War at the time, Durant’s company managed to do this without any repercussions. During the war, Durant accumulated more wealth by being a smuggler of contraband cotton from the Confederate States.
Unarguably the most blatantly criminal activity of Durant’s career was the establishment of Crédit Mobilier of America. In March 1864, Durant and his partner, entrepreneur George Francis Train, purchased the Pennsylvania Fiscal Agency and renamed it Crédit Mobilier. The company was one of the first businesses to make profitable use of the new limited liability financial structures.
In 1864, Crédit Mobilier began supervising the UP’s construction contracts. Thomas C. Durant convinced the Congress to increase the size of the land grants by 100% from what the railroad was originally receiving and then found buyers for some of these lands, keeping the rest.
The initial estimation for building the Union Pacific line had correctly deduced the price at around $30,000 per mile of track. Crédit Mobilier increased the cost by 100%. Durant and some of his partners embezzled the difference.
While people in the company had their suspicions, they were too afraid to approach him with these accusations. Durant’s life as a prominent robber baron of the Union Pacific and Crédit Mobilier did not persist for a long time.
Ultimately, Oliver and Oakes Ames, businessmen who had invested in Crédit Mobilier and Union Pacific, filed a lawsuit against Durant and dismissed him from Crédit Mobilier in May 1867. He was sacked from the Union Pacific by the US President Ulysses S. Grant.
During the Panic of 1873, he lost a significant amount of his assets. After selling the rest of his stock in the Union Pacific, Durant established a new railroad company, Adirondack Railroad. In the final 12 years of his life, he had to deal with multiple lawsuits from embittered partners and investors.
Family & Personal Life
Thomas C. Durant was married to Hannah Heloise Trimble. The couple had two children together. Their eldest, a son named William West Durant (1850-1934), went on to become an architect. Their daughter, Héloïse Durant Rose (1853–1943), was a poet, dramatist, and critic.
In 1873, Durant asked his children to come back home, so they could help him in regaining the family’s wealth in the Adirondack Wilderness where he had acquired half a million acres of land. He planned to set up a tourist spot, as well as a getaway for the wealthy. William created the architectural designs for the project and played a pivotal role in establishing the first Great Camp architecture.
William's camps Pine Knot, Uncas and Sagamore were purchased from the father and son duo by Collis P. Huntington, J.P. Morgan, and Alfred Vanderbilt.