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.
Eminent historian Ambrose notes that he once viewed the investors and businessmen who built the transcontinental railroad as robber barons who bilked the government and the public. But in his rough-and-tumble, triumphant saga--sure to appeal to the many readers of Ambrose's bestseller Undaunted Courage--he presents the continent-straddling railroad, yoking east and west at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, as a great democratic experiment, a triumph of capitalist organization, free labor, brains and determination that ushered in the American Century, galvanized trade and settlement, and made possible a national culture. To critics who charge that the railroad magnates were corrupt and grew obscenely rich and powerful through land grants and government bonds, Ambrose replies that the land grants never brought in enough money to pay the bills and, further, that the bonds were loans, fully paid back with huge interest payments. But this argument fails to convince, partly because Ambrose does a superlative job of re-creating the grim conditions in which the tracks were laid. The Central Pacific's workers were primarily Chinese, earning a dollar a day. Union Pacific workers were mostly Irish-American, young, unmarried ex-soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy. Accidental deaths were commonplace, and the two companies, notwithstanding strikes, slowdowns and drunken vice, engaged in a frantic race, mandated by Congress, as the winner got the greater share of land and bonds. As a result of the haste, an enormous amount of shoddy construction had to be replaced. Native Americans, who wanted the iron rail out of their country, hopelessly waged guerrilla warfare against railroad builders who talked openly of exterminating them. Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, telegrams, newspaper accounts and other primary sources, Ambrose celebrates the railroad's unsung heroes--the men who actually did the backbreaking work. 32 pages of b&w photos. 6-city author tour.
Customer ReviewsSee All
This was a great book. I highly recommend to anyone that loves history, railroads, the west, and politics to read this book.
seems to be some lazy editing. The same stories/phrases are repeated a number of times... in many cases almost word for word... also a fair amount of “filler”, but all in all it’s still an interesting read, and worth buying if you are a history buff.
The building of this railroad was an incredible feat of perseverance. Between the environmental lawsuits, OSHA, etc., doubtful it could be done today. (Not making a judgment about the usefulness of regs, just remarking on how it was a different time and place.)
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