Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

DURANT, THOMAS (1820-1885)

Thomas Clark Durant was born in Lee, Massachusetts, on February 6, 1820. He graduated from Albany Medical College in 1840 and married Heloise Hannah Timbrel in 1847. They had two children. Durant briefly served as a professor of medicine at Albany Medical College but subsequently channeled his energy into business. A railroad promoter and contractor, Thomas Durant's importance to the Great Plains lies in his controlling of route choice and construction as vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad.

To encourage what Robert W. Fogel has called a "premature enterprise," in 1862, 1864, and 1866 Congress provided incentives and set standards for a transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific was organized to gain the promised loans and land. Besides his vice presidency in the Union Pacific, Durant had major financial interests in the companies he used to grade and lay the track, companies that were paid in money and Union Pacific stock.

With ongoing control of the company assured, the contractors, through Durant, chose a line that maximized construction profits with little concern for potential traffic or later operating costs and profits. In the race with the Central Pacific for subsidized mileage, the Union Pacific did not go through the existing Plains settlement at Denver. The expected expenses and slow progress of a line pushed through the rugged mountains to the west were too great. On the Plains Durant's chosen route followed the Platte River to Lodgepole Creek and the relatively easy Gangplank over the Laramie Range. As Congress intended, the railroad strengthened Council Bluffs and Omaha, but it was Durant's direction that founded new towns westward to Cheyenne and beyond.

Following charges of defrauding the Union Pacific Durant was dropped from the company's directorate in May 1869. In 1870 he sold almost all of his Union Pacific stock. Much of his fortune was lost in the panic of 1873. With his health deteriorating, Durant retired to the Adirondacks. He died at North Creek, New York, on October 15, 1885.

Alan H. Grey Provo, Utah

Dodge, Grenville M. How We Built the Union Pacific Railway. Washington dc: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Hirshon, Stanley P. Grenville M. Dodge: Soldier, Politician, Railroad Pioneer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967.

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