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Nothing Like It in the World : The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869
by Stephen E. Ambrose

 

431 pages (August 29, 2000)
Simon & Schuster; ISBN: 0684846098

Amazon.com
Abraham Lincoln, who had worked as a riverboat pilot before turning to politics, knew a thing or two about the problems of transporting goods and people from place to place. He was also convinced that the United States would flourish only if its far-flung regions were linked, replacing sectional loyalties with an overarching sense of national destiny.

Building a transcontinental railroad, writes the prolific historian Stephen Ambrose, was second only to the abolition of slavery on Lincoln's presidential agenda. Through an ambitious program of land grants and low-interest government loans, he encouraged entrepreneurs such as California's "Big Four"--Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford--to take on the task of stringing steel rails from ocean to ocean. The real work of doing so, of course, was on the shoulders of immigrant men and women, mostly Chinese and Irish. These often-overlooked actors and what a contemporary called their "dreadful vitality" figure prominently in Ambrose's narrative, alongside the great financiers and surveyors who populate the standard textbooks.

In the end, Ambrose writes, Lincoln's dream transformed the nation, marking "the first great triumph over time and space" and inaugurating what has come to be known as the American Century. David Haward Bain's Empire Express, which covers the same ground, is more substantial, but Ambrose provides an eminently readable study of a complex episode in American history. --Gregory McNamee

articles and reviews
September 17, 2000
Working on the Railroad
Stephen E. Ambrose tells the story of the men who linked the East and West coasts.

 

By HENRY KISOR

For sheer engineering gee-whiz, the American transcontinental railroad of the 19th century ranks with the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza and the Panama Canal. Today's traveler cannot drink in a single sweeping view of the sinuous line of steel stretching from Omaha to Sacramento, but in its entirety it is still a marvel for the ages.

Its importance in American history cannot be overstated. The 2,000-mile line was the economic umbilical cord that finally linked the mother states of the East with the fledgling California on the West, beginning the end of the frontier struggle against mountains, deserts and rivers, and threatening American Indian culture as well as native species like the bison and gray wolf. The political and cultural impact of the transcontinental railroad is felt to this day; belief in the expensive antimissile dream Star Wars had its roots in the nation's boundless optimism, born with the Pacific railroad, that with money and determination it could build anything to solve any problem.

The epic story of the railroad's construction between 1863 and 1869 has been told time and again, most recently in David Haward Bain's monumental ''Empire Express'' (1999). Now Stephen E. Ambrose offers a richly readable new work, ''Nothing Like It in the World.'' On its smaller, more accessible scale, Ambrose's book compares well with Bain's, although Ambrose of course cannot match Bain for argument-settling detail, especially about financial matters.

As he did in his World War II oral histories and in ''Undaunted Courage,'' his chronicle of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Ambrose focuses on the lives of ordinary people rather than on those of movers and shakers. But he does not slight the powerful pirates who created the Crédit Mobilier for the Union Pacific Railroad and the Contract and Finance Company for the Central Pacific Railroad -- granting lucrative construction contracts to themselves while nearly bankrupting the railroads they owned.

Ambrose ably retells the familiar stories of the railroad visionaries Theodore Judah in the West and Grenville Dodge in the East, and of the Daddy Warbuckses who commanded the project from both ends. They were the Big Four of the eastward-bound Central Pacific in California: Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins. They were also Thomas Durant, Oakes Ames and Oliver Ames of the Union Pacific, building westward from Omaha. Abraham Lincoln is present, too, as a farsighted railroad lawyer before the Civil War, and Brigham Young, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman also make appearances. [read more]

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