A Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize: "A powerful book, crowded with telling details and shrewd observations." —Michael Kazin, New York Times Book Review
This original, deeply researched history shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success.
The transcontinental railroads "created modernity as much by their failure as by their success," writes MacArthur fellow and Parkman Prize winning historian White in this important and deeply researched history. Often poorly built and with no real demand for their services the railroads never paid for themselves and left chaos in their wake e.g., displaced Native Americans, environmental disaster through encouraging the farming of nonarable land. Experienced railway men weren't interested in investing in transcontinental routes, writes White (The Frontier in American Culture), so six Sacramento businessmen (who formed the Central Pacific) and a slapdash federally chartered corporation (the Union Pacific) took the bait of money and land offered by the federal government. Their first act was to bribe Congress to increase land grants and relax restrictions on raising money. Then the race was on. Readers will be amazed, amused, and disgusted by the antics of obscure and familiar names (Stanford, Huntington, Dodge), mostly ignorant of railroading and spectacularly dishonest. White delivers an opinionated, delightfully witty but astute account of sleazy Gilded Age politics, business, and journalism, as well as the complex (but uncomfortably familiar) financial maneuvers men used to enrich themselves. Maps, charts.