Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69
Stephen E. Ambrose
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In this account of an unprecedented feat of engineering, vision, and courage, Stephen E. Ambrose offers a historical successor to his universally acclaimed Undaunted Courage, which recounted the explorations of the West by Lewis and Clark.
Nothing Like It in the World is the story of the men who built the transcontinental railroad — the investors who risked their businesses and money; the enlightened politicians who understood its importance; the engineers and surveyors who risked, and lost, their lives; and the Irish and Chinese immigrants, the defeated Confederate soldiers, and the other laborers who did the backbreaking and dangerous work on the tracks.
The Union had won the Civil War and slavery had been abolished, but Abraham Lincoln, who was an early and constant champion of railroads, would not live to see the great achievement. In Ambrose's hands, this enterprise, with its huge expenditure of brainpower, muscle, and sweat, comes to life.
The U.S. government pitted two companies — the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads — against each other in a race for funding, encouraging speed over caution. Locomo-tives, rails, and spikes were shipped from the East through Panama or around South America to the West or lugged across the country to the Plains. This was the last great building project to be done mostly by hand: excavating dirt, cutting through ridges, filling gorges, blasting tunnels through mountains.
At its peak, the workforce — primarily Chinese on the Central Pacific, Irish on the Union Pacific — approached the size of Civil War armies, with as many as fifteen thousand workers on each line. The Union Pacific was led by Thomas "Doc" Durant, Oakes Ames, and Oliver Ames, with Grenville Dodge — America's greatest railroad builder — as chief engineer. The Central Pacific was led by California's "Big Four": Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. The surveyors, the men who picked the route, were latter-day Lewis and Clark types who led the way through the wilderness, living off buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope.
In building a railroad, there is only one decisive spot — the end of the track. Nothing like this great work had been seen in the world when the last spike, a golden one, was driven in at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, as the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific tracks were joined.
Ambrose writes with power and eloquence about the brave men — the famous and the unheralded, ordinary men doing the extraordinary — who accomplished the spectacular feat that made the continent into a nation.
“with his maps, profiles, estimates etc. etc. for a railroad across the same.”11 He was sure it could be done, but he had to convince the politicians, so that “what I believe without the surveys I can intelligently show to senators, members of congress, etc. With facts and figures they cannot gainsay my honest convictions, as now.” In the summer of 1860, Judah and Anna set sail for California. Judah wrote a report to the executive committee of the convention, which had sent him to Washington. He
Francisco. In the event, Sacramento voted for $300,000 and thirty acres of city land for the CP’s use. Placer gave $250,000, and San Francisco voted for $600,000. Many were jealous of the CP and more than a few were determined to wreck it. A typical slander: “The whole matter resolves itself simply into this: Leland Stanford & Co. have . . . bamboozled the people out of a stupendously magnificent franchise, worth hundreds of millions. . . . It is to them, and to them alone, that all the
the stockholders of the CP. CHARGES from L. L. Robinson and others who owned the never-built San Francisco & Washoe railroad had to be met. They were accusing the Big Four of personal corruption. So effective were their charges that the Placer County Board of Supervisors, which held some $250,000 in CP stock, appointed two of its members, A. B. Scott and D. W. Madden, to investigate the Central Pacific’s books. They worked their way through the books and concluded that the charges against the
training them, Reed headed north to where the Weber River emerged from the Wasatch Range onto the valley. He went up the canyon until he came to Devil’s Gate, “the wildest place you can imagine.” After further progress upstream, he came to Echo Creek and followed it across the mountains to Bear River, north of the Uinta Mountains and near present-day Evanston, Wyoming. From there it was almost straight east to Omaha. The exploration took Reed four months. He never enjoyed work so much. The
first successful trial at Rainhill in 1829, only two years earlier. The first American train, The Best Friend of Charleston, made its initial run in 1830, the second, The Mohawk & Hudson, in 1831. But that year the twenty-two-year-old Lincoln, with less than a year of formal education, was contemplating a railroad in Illinois and was right on the mark about the advantages and disadvantages it would bring, even though, like most Americans and all those living west of the Appalachian Mountains, he