The Big Four of transcontinental railroad-building fame—Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford—initially made their fortunes during the Gold Rush. Huntington, “Mr. Shovel” of the Gold Rush, operated a thriving hardware and mining supply store in Sacramento. Prior to that, the 27-year-old New Yorker had used an enforced three months’ stay in Panama to make $1,000 a month trading with future prospectors. He arrived in California in spring, 1850 with a stock of miners’ supplies, whisky, and a shovel. He dug for a day before deciding that mining was harder work than he wanted to do.

Charles Crocker, Huntington’s partner, was a dry goods merchant. Mark Hopkins panned just enough gold to buy a wagonload of goods in Sacramento. He hauled the merchandise to Hangtown and opened one of the first stores in that town. Leland Stanford, a New York lawyer, started his California career as a store owner a few miles downstream on the South Fork of the American River from Coloma.

Hopkins Crocker