In 1869, when the final spike was driven into the Transcontinental Railroad, few were prepared for its seismic aftershocks. Once a hodgepodge of short, squabbling lines, America’s railways soon exploded into a titanic industry helmed by a pageant of speculators, crooks, and visionaries. The vicious competition between empire builders such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, and E. H. Harriman sparked stock market frenzies, panics, and crashes; provoked strikes that upended the relationship between management and labor; transformed the nation’s geography; and culminated in a ferocious two-man battle that shook the nation’s financial markets to their foundations and produced dramatic, lasting changes in the interplay of business and government.
Spanning four decades and featuring some of the most iconic figures of the Gilded Age, Iron Empires reveals how the robber barons drove the country into the twentieth century—and almost sent it off the rails.
Business reporter Hiltzik (Big Science) examines the rise and fall of the American railroad industry in this colorful, wide-ranging account. Through judicious use of primary and secondary sources, Hiltzik chronicles the industry's profound impacts on labor relations, monopoly law, and the stock market in post Civil War America. The complex history is made accessible through the stories of surveyors, engineers, and laborers, as well as "the business leaders whose individual personalities, ambitions, determination, and morals commanded the others' fates." Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Edward Harriman, and J. Pierpoint Morgan come into sharp focus as Hiltzik documents their efforts to transform isolated, short routes to random locations into an integrated transportation network for both passengers and freight. The narrative also features labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, a railway painter and fireman charged with conspiracy for his role in the 1894 Pullman strike, and Grover Cleveland's attorney general, Richard Olney, who was on a railroad's payroll even as he headed the Department of Justice. Hiltzik writes with verve, providing meaningful insights into the shocking inequalities of the Gilded Age. Business history buffs will be enthralled by this character-driven account. Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.