Top positive review
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A highly detailed, spike-by-spike account
on January 1, 2000
"Empire Express" immediately deserves to be listed as the seminal work on the building of the transcontinental railroad, if only because there are no other historical works I can think of about this topic that are as expansively detailed.
The Union Pacific-Central Pacific venture was one of the truly pivotal moments in American history, and Mr. Bain does indeed present it as such. It is more than obvious in reading "Empire Express" that there was a great deal of time involved in research. It is also evident that there was easily enough information/facts to fill multiple volumes if Mr. Bain had desired to do so.
The primary strength of this book is its spike-by-spike account and the vast amount of information provided. Not only does Mr. Bain present the railroad itself, he brings us the major players who envisioned this project, built the line, and ensured that it would be built without interference. He also weaves in the surrounding history (i.e. the Civil War) and politics of the era to highlight everything that helped or hindered the railroad.
Another of the strong points in this book is that Mr. Bain lets the information and the historical figures do the "talking". I give kudos to Mr. Bain, because he avoided skewing the account through his personal opinion, which seems to be the unfortunate trend in some historical circles today.
There were two things that kept me from giving this a 5-star rating. First, it was a very slow read. Granted, most historical works are; however, this seemed to proceed more tediously than most. Second, there were several points in which Mr. Bain unloaded so much information on the reader that it was literally disorienting. When you encountered these spots, you were forced to re-read the page(s) again to ensure you digested it all. Or, you just plowed ahead to see where he was going with the story so you could - pardon the pun - get back on track. While these may seem trivial criticisms, it did detract from my overall enjoyment of this book.
All in all, though, this was a very good book. I do offer a bit of warning to those not accustomed to reading history: this is a dry, academic read. Mr. Bain does not write in the elegant style of a Stephen Ambrose or John Keegan. So in that regard, these readers may be disappointed. However, for those true historians or history buffs, this will be one to read and own for your library.