On the morning of May 10, 1869, a gang of Irish immigrants met a party of Chinese laborers on a windy bluff northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. Tired to the bone, the two groups laid down the last of countless wooden ties, bought at the exorbitant cost of six dollars apiece, and thus joined two great rail lines, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to form a single transcontinental route. That rail line made possible the mass settlement of the West, and, as those who conceived it well knew, it changed the course of American history.
David Haward Bain's superb narrative of westward rail history, weighing in at 800 pages, ends not with this great achievement but with the political and financial scandal that would almost overshadow it. Along the way Bain looks closely at the entrepreneurial men who foresaw the possibilities of a vast nation joined by a steel ribbon--most memorably the hit-and-miss businessman Asa Whitney, who proposed to Congress an ingenious scheme to fund the building of the railroad through commercializing the right of way. Some of the men who came after Whitney, such as Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford, amassed great fortunes in realizing this dream. Others died penniless and nearly forgotten in the wake of political maneuverings and bad deals. Bain's vigorous, well-written narrative does much to restore those overlooked actors to history. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Uniting the country by a transcontinental railroad had a special resonance for the generation that had recently fought the Civil War. Bain's comprehensive study starts with the visionaries who conceived the idea during the two decades before the war (a mere 40 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition). As Bain (Whose Woods These Are) explains, the dreamers gave way to the engineers and entrepreneurs who fixed the route, assembled financing, drafted a work force and launched the two lines toward the eventual meeting point at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869. The story alternates between the Union Pacific driving west from Omaha and the Central Pacific blasting through the mountains from California. About a score of the principal players appear throughout the book, their triumphs and depredations interwoven in a richly (sometimes overly) detailed composition. Bain specifies his heroes and villains, and does not neglect the political fixers who infested Washington, D.C., emptying their satchels of money as they circulated through Congress. The writing is particularly evocative as Bain examines the impact of the railroad on the Plains Indians, whose traditional way of life was eradicated by the line. Bain also deals knowledgeably with the imported Chinese workers, the "Celestials," who were unsurpassed in their tenacity and work ethic. Displaying energetic research and enthusiasm for the subject matter, Bain brings the linking of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the era that produced it, back to life. Maps. History Book Club selection; BOMC selection; 8-city author tour.
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