Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1865-1869

Stephen E. Ambrose, Author Simon & Schuster $28 (432p) ISBN 978-0-684-84609-5
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. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 08/28/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 978-0-684-01472-2
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