• Exploring American History

Stanford University's railroad connection

One of eight children born to Josiah Stanford and Elizabeth Phillips, Amasa Leland Stanford was born on March 9, 1824 in Watervliet (Colonie) New York. Josiah was a farmer of some means and named his family home Elm Grove. Leland attended common (public) schools until 1836, and was then tutored at home for three years before enrolling in Clinton Liberal Institute, to be followed by enrollment in Cazenovia Seminary where he studied law. After graduation, Leland joined the law firm of Wheaton, Doolittle & Hadley in Albany. He passed the bar in 1848.


Shortly after passing the bar, Stanford moved to Port Washington, Wisconsin where he opened his own office with the law library his father gave him. In 1850, Stanford was nominated as district attorney by the local Whig party.

Wedding bells rang for Stanford when he married Jane Elizabeth Lathrope of Albany on September 30, 1850. A son, Leland Jr., was born 18 years later.

In 1852, a fire destroyed Stanford’s law office. As a result, he joined his five brothers on a cross-country trip to California at the time of the Gold Rush. During this time, Jane returned to Albany. Upon arriving in Michigan Flat, the brothers opened a general store for miners. Here Leland also organized the Sacramento Library Association and served as justice of the peace. When he returned to his wife in 1855, the excitement of California made life in the East seem exceptionally dull to Stanford. The following year, Leland and Jane moved to San Francisco.

While engaged in large-scale mercantile pursuits in San Francisco, Stanford became associated with three businessmen – Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington, who became known as “The Big Four.” On June 28, 1861, the four tycoons incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad, with Stanford serving as president.

An active politician, Stanford was a leading member in California’s Republican Party, which he helped organize with other Whigs on April 30, 1856. He served as a delegate to the first convention and helped to select the US presidential electors in both 1856 and 1860. He was then elected the state’s eighth governor (the first Republican) in 1861. In his honor, the Central Pacific Railroad’s first locomotive was named “Governor Stanford.” Today it is on display in the California State Railroad Museum located in Sacramento. During the time Stanford served as governor, he was a strong advocate for preserving the state’s forests and cut California’s debt in half. He oversaw the establishment of San José University.

In 1868, the Pacific Union Express Company was formed through the business expertise of Stanford, Crocker, Lloyd Tevis, Darius Ogden Mills and H. D. Bacon. In 1869, Stanford was on hand for the golden spike ceremony in Promontory, Utah, where the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific met. When PUEC merged with Wells Fargo & Company in 1870, Stanford served as director for the next 14 years. He retired for a few years, then returned in February 1884 and served until he died.

In 1876, Stanford bought 650 acres of Rancho San Francisquito to build a country home which became the famous Palo Alto Stock Farm. Eventually, Stanford obtained more than 8,000 acres of adjoining property. The name “Palo Alto” means “tall tree” for the California giant redwood.


During the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, Stanford acquired the Southern Pacific with a number of his associates. He held the position of president for the Southern Pacific until 1890. That year, he was forced out of the post by Collis Huntington. Rumor had it Huntington’s actions were in response to Stanford winning a seat in the United States Senate when he ran against A. A. Sargent, a friend of Huntington. Stanford returned to the executive committee of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1890 and held this post and the presidency of the Central Pacific until he died.


While in Florence, Italy in 1884, Leland Stanford, Jr. died from typhoid fever at the age of 16. The teenager was the only child of Leland and Jane. As a memorial to him, the parents founded Leland Stanford Junior University, which opened its doors on October 1, 1891. In doing so, they wanted to offer other young adults educational opportunities their son never had the opportunity to enjoy.


The Stanfords donated upwards of $40 million ($1,160,868,421.33 in 2021) to the school. A New York newspaper made a prediction Stanford’s professors would “lecture in marble halls to empty benches.” As it turned out, the school’s first student body number 555 men and women. The first year’s faculty numbered 15 and grew to 49 the second year. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed architect who designed New York’s Central Park, was hired by the Stanfords to design the university’s physical plans.

At the age of 69, Stanford died at his home in Palo Alto, California on June 21, 1893, shortly after Stanford University opened its doors. He was buried in the family mausoleum on the school’s campus.


At the time of his death, all of Stanford’s assets were frozen, which threw the university into a financial panic. Not wanting the university to close its doors, Jane used the income she used to run three households ($10,000/mo - $294,307.78 in 2021), in addition to selling her personal jewelry, until March 1896 when the US Supreme Court rejected the government’s claim against Leland Stanford’s estate. The estate’s assets were released from probate in December 1898. No other institution of higher education has been built from the quantity of love and determination the Stanfords gave to this university.


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Government itself is founded upon the great doctrine of the consent of the governed, and has its cornerstone in the memorable principle that men are endowed with inalienable rights.

Leland Stanford

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