Jack Casement – Civil War General and Railroad Contractor
Jack Casement was an innovative railroad contractor responsible for building the transcontinental railroad. He led his crews with efficiency and toughness that had distinguished his army career; yet faced many frustrations along the way ranging from inclement weather to Indian attacks; often having to dip into his own pocket in order to meet payrolls.
Early Life and Education
Jack Casement was a well-known American figure during the Civil War as both a general and railroad contractor, but also held great regard as an Irish nationalist, staunch supporter of home rule, and passionate advocate of women’s rights.
Over his lifetime, John wrote numerous letters to Frances. The American Heritage Center holds several boxes containing these letters as well as miscellaneous business records, news clippings and photographs related to John.
Casement was an avid volunteer in the Union Pacific Railroad Company’s track laying contractor service during the American Civil War, volunteering for ninety days of militia service before becoming one of its track laying contractors – working alongside his brother Dan to construct most of the railroad from Omaha to Promontory that connected Western America to Eastern territories. Here he applied both his railroading expertise and military skills.
Jack served in the Union army as a brigadier general during the American Civil War and went on to work as a railroad contractor later.
Thomas Clark Durant hired Jack and Dan Durant as co-directors to direct construction of the first transcontinental railroad, with Jack being widely known on site as “General Jack.” They applied military discipline and efficiency during their efforts on the line’s completion which happened quickly.
Crews traveling west lived in shanty towns attached to a train, known as “end-of-track towns”. These arrangements can be seen in Ken Burns’ groundbreaking documentary, The Transcontinental Railroad.
Frances Jennings Casement was an effective and influential women’s rights advocate. She founded the Equal Rights Association in Painesville, Ohio and held office as president of Ohio Women’s Suffrage Association from 1885-1889.
Achievement and Honors
Jack Casement became known as General Jack during the construction of the transcontinental railroad, under Thomas Clark Durant. Casement oversaw rail crews and workers responsible for most of the 1,776 mile line stretching from Omaha, Nebraska, to Promontory Point in Utah where it met up with Central Pacific railroad.
Casement was faced with constant challenges on his railroad, such as inclement weather, Native American attacks and lack of reliable ties; yet still managed to move his line forward using his work ethic and military experience.
Legend has it that he drove the final golden spike himself; however, this may or may not be accurate. No matter; his career as a railway pioneer and continued service in the military after retiring as general were both significant achievements.
Casement resumed his railroad construction with the Union Pacific Railroad after serving in the Civil War, led crews under his brother Daniel who came to know him as “General Jack”, overseeing work from Fremont Nebraska all the way up to Promontory Utah where they planted a golden spike marker.
As his railroad expanded westward, he prepared his men for life on the move by building boxcars to serve as bunkhouses, dining halls, kitchens, offices and supply depots along the growing tracks. Furthermore, he armed his crews against Indian raids that were an ever-present danger as its tracks advanced.
His work required long absences from Frances, who resided in Painesville. Their letters illustrate life for this devoted couple – later she went on to become one of Ohio Women’s Suffrage Association founding members and an active suffragette activist herself!
Casement was awarded a contract to lead track laying crews for Union Pacific Railroad Company after his service in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Working alongside his brother Dan (who handled finances), Casement led crews in building an East-West rail link connecting Western America and Eastern Asia.
The brothers leveraged both their railroad knowledge and military training to complete this feat. Utilizing efficiency and harsh discipline enforcement as motivation tools for their workers, their crews were able to cover over two miles daily – an achievement so critical to its success that has come to be known as “Hell on Wheels.”
Frances “Frank” Jennings (1840 – 1928) was Casement’s wife during his tenure with the railway and went on to found the Equal Rights Association in Painesville, Ohio and advocate for women’s suffrage throughout the nation.