Charles Crocker was born on September 16, 1822 in Troy, New York. He had to quit school at age twelve and go to work to help support his mother and sister by establishing a newspaper distribution agency in Troy. His father had failed in business and moved to Indiana along with his remaining four sons to start a small farm in Marshall County. At age fourteen Charles sold his newspaper agency and moved to his father's farm along with his mother and sister. Charles had a falling out with his father and left home at age seventeen. He worked on a neighbor's farm for a season, had a job in a sawmill nearby, and for a time owned and operated a crude iron mine and foundry.
In 1849 following the discovery of gold in California, Crocker joined two of his brothers and a few other young men and set off for the gold fields. They left from Quincy, Illinois and travelled by river to St Louis and then on to Council Bluffs. From Council Bluff's they proceeded overland via Fort Kearny and arrived in California in March 1850. Crocker quickly turned from prospector to merchant. He and one of his brothers opened a store in first one and then another of the mining camps located in the Sierra foothills. By 1852 they were doing well enough that they could open a store in Sacramento. In the fall of 1852 Crocker returned to Indiana and married Mary Deming, the daughter of the sawmill owner who had employed him years before.
On his return to Sacramento with his new bride, Crocker learned that his store had been completely destroyed in one of Sacramento's periodic fires. He and his brothers rebuilt the store and concentrated their business in drygoods. He was elected alderman of Sacramento as a member of the "Know Nothing Political Party" and in the spring of 1856 became a member of the Republican Party in California. Among his fellow Republican Party members were Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins. All four men worked hard in John C. Fremont unsuccessful presidential bid of 1856. Their slogan was "Freedom, Fremont, and the Railroad." Fremont was not elected, but Crocker's political involvement continued and in 1859 he was elected to the state assembly. By 1860 he was one of Sacramento's leading citizens.
In November 1860 Crocker attended a meeting with Theodore D. Judah in Sacramento which led to the founding of the Central Pacific Railroad. He became one of the founding financiers along with Stanford, Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington. On July 1, 1862 President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act providing federal assistance in constructing the railroad. Prior to the start of construction Crocker resigned from the Central Pacific Railroad and formed a new company - Charles Crocker & Company. The new company was selected by the Central Pacific to build the railroad. It is thought that Huntington, Hopkins and Stanford were silent partners in Crocker & Company and that the Central Pacific gave it lucrative contracts that profited the four men enormously.
Even with financial assistance from the federal government funding for the construction of the railroad over the Sierra Mountains was extremely difficult. In addition, Crocker had the formidable challenges of the actual construction. The civil war was ravenously consuming national resources and a stampede of able bodied men were on their way to the Nevada mines. Resources were dear and labor scarce. Anglo-European workers grew truculent and in 1865 thousands of Chinese workers were imported to work on the road. Crocker concentrated all of his considerable energy on the project and his Chinese crews accomplished amazing feats under extremely arduous physical conditions. On May 10, 1869 The Central Pacific joined its tracks with those of the Union Pacific at Promontory Utah.
Crocker's brother, E.B. Crocker, had served as attorney for the Central Pacific since its founding. In 1868 he suffered a stroke and was invalided for the rest of his life. After the ceremonies at Promontory, Charles, who had been profoundly impacted by his brother's stroke, decided that he did not want to remain in the company. He invited his partners to buy him out. Late in 1871 the deal was consummated, Crocker was given his initial payment, and he took his family on an extended tour of Europe. (Huntington made an effort to sell out as well, but nothing came of it.) The financial panic of 1873 hit the Central Pacific hard and they were unable to make the payment then due to Crocker. He agreed to a favorable financial settlement that permitted him to return to the partnership and assume the position of second vice president.
After returning to the Central Pacific Board of Directors Crocker began building his palatial home on Nob Hill in San Francisco along side those of Stanford and Hopkins. He traveled to Europe to furnish it. After its completion in 1876 he and his wife entertained lavishly and he increasingly turned his attention to San Francisco real estate. He took over large blocks of railroad subsidy lands in the San Joaquin Valley and formed the Crocker & Huffman Land Company in Modesto. His economic endeavors extended into the Sierras where he went into the coal business and to Nevada where he set up one of his sons in a cattle ranch. He acquired a controlling interest in the Woolworth Bank for another son and in the mid-1880s became personally involved in developing the Del Monte Resort Hotel in Monterey.
Charles Crocker died in the Del Monte Hotel on August 14, 1888. He was 66 years old.