Friday, July 14, 2023

Captain Jerome Bonaparte Cox (1827 -1895) - Building of railroad ended in deadly dispute


Gravestone of Bony Cox and news clipping of early legal problems

Captain J.B. "Bony" Cox was a native of Lee County, Virginia who served in the 10th Indiana Infantry during the Civil War. We don't know the details of him leaving his military service, but there are some records of financial misdealings.

After the Civil War, he moved to California and undertook a number of large building contracts. Among them was the building of the Western Pacific Railroad between Niles and San Jose. 

He was hired by millionaire Charles McLaughlin, which resulted in litigation between the two men in 1867. The lawsuit dragged on for twenty years and resulted in a quarrel between the two men. Cox shot and killed McLaughlin in 1883, but was acquitted of the murder. The legal dispute between the two men also ended up being decided in Cox's favor. 

The general contract for the Western Pacific Railroad was awarded to McLaughlin & Houston and that negotiations for iron, equipment, and rolling stock. On October 31, 1864, the Central Pacific Railroad assigned all the rights of the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 to the Western Pacific for the route between Sacramento and San Jose, including land grants. The amending Act of March 3, 1865 ratified and confirmed the assignment made by Central Pacific Railroad to Western Pacific Railroad and authorized Western Pacific Railroad as one of the charter companies. The construction of the Western Pacific Railroad began in February 1865 near San Jose and northward under a contract taken by J.B. Cox & Myers.

According to historian and Mountain View Cemetery Docent, here is what happened next:

They and their crews worked to lay the first 20 miles of track. They wouldn’t see any money from the federal government until they completed the work. 

They ran out of money while working. They reached Mile 20 at Dead Cow Curve. The government inspectors arrived in early October 1866 to certify the railroad’s work. They told Charles McLaughlin that he would get his money but not until the following January. There was paperwork, they explained. The Western Pacific was working on land that formerly (and may have still) belonged to the Spanish who had first laid claim to the real estate. 

An angry McLaughlin walked off the job, leaving rails, ties, equipment, locomotives, and — most disturbing — his workers behind. One of the contractors, Jerome Cox, was expecting to receive $50,000, about $1.5 million in today’s money. McLaughlin could not pay Cox, and for the next 17 years, Cox took McLaughlin to court time and again. He lost every time. Cox accused his rival of paying off the judges. Cox had finally had enough. 

On Dec. 14, 1883, Jerome Cox walked into McLaughlin’s office at 16 Montgomery St. in San Francisco, armed with a pistol. McLaughlin rose to greet his rival. Cox drew his weapon and shot McLaughlin dead. 

“He asked me for $40,000. When I refused, he shot me,” McLaughlin said with his dying breath. 

His eulogy was read by General W.H.L. Barnes, who said:

“Considering the vicissitudes of his life I do not feel like saying that this is an hour of sadness.  To him the sky is no longer clouded; his ears are no longer filled with the conflict of life.  He has passed from us, and I trust, that in his future home he will be happier than he was while in our midst.  There is no patriot who loved his country more than Jerome Cox.  No man has done more for his country than the one whose cold and rigid body is about to be consigned to the grave.  He lived a useful life but circumstances prevented him from enjoying it.  The serious trouble in which he was involved is, in one sense, to be regretted, yet we all felt he was justified.  He was persecuted and laughed at, and in a moment of frenzy he fired the shot that terminated the career of a relentless enemy.  He was right, and I trust that the recording angel will forever wipe the stain from the book of life and allow him to enjoy the peace and happiness that rightfully belong to him.”

[Sources: SF Call, April 25, 1895; Sacramento Daily Union, January 20, 1864; Alameda Sun, Dennis Evanosky;]

No comments: