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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.
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on April 20, 2000
For those interested in railroads, the gilded age, or western history there is no better book from which to learn the chronology, the personalities, the politics and the geography of the first transcontinental railroad. It is a fascinating, albeit detailed, read. Within each chapter the author shifts the setting from east to west several times. While initially distracting, this device eventually serves to emphasize the intense competition between those rapacious entrepeneurs building the railroad from each direction. Two features lessen the enjoyment of reading this otherwise pleasurable tome. First, the repeated detailing of the financial devices and fiscal machinations used to fund the constructions of the railroad (and line the pockets of many movers and shakers) left this reader, and apparently others, confused. The author would have done well to insert a explanatory appendix of the welter of financial instruments used by the builders. This would have allowed the reader to make sense of these otherwise opaque sections. Second, those who have criticised the maps could not be more right. This book is about a venture in which geography is a central, even omnipresent, feature. For example, who but a Utah resident knows the precise location of the conjunction of Echo Canyon and Weber Canyon? The book speaks at length about these, and other important, but not well known, places, but the book's maps don't pinpoint them with any precision. I had to read the book with my large Rand McNally Atlas at hand. More maps, grade maps and colored maps all would have been welcome additions to this already very fine book.
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on April 21, 2000
As other reviewers have noted, this was history at its best, full of sweeping events and characters bigger than life when viewed from our time period. I have often sat in a bar in the Huntington Hotel which is named "The Big Four" (referring to Huntington himself, Crocker, Stanford, et al) and wondered who these people were and how they accomplished what they did. Now I know. This history must be particularly fascinating to people living in areas described in the book (San Francisco and Sacramento, Omaha, Nebraska (which was totally shaped by the events surrounding the building of the railroad), the Plains area (North Platte, etc.), and Salt Lake City. Unlike prior reviewers, I enjoyed the details surrounding the politics and the financing of this gigantic undertaking, which are essential aspects of the overall success which was eventually attained. I also thought the detail of the book brought to life the plight of the Irish workers of the Union Pacific and the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific. Although lengthy, this is the definitive work on the subject and is a wonderful read (not dry and dusty at all in my opinion), bringing as it does this magnificant undertaking to life to readers from a distance of 140 years. A great accomplishment!
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on February 8, 2000
This book reaches a balance between painstaking scholarship and excellent writing. It is certainly the definitive work on the subject, and I strongly disagree with the few reviewers who did not like the writing. What are they looking for? a comic book? In fact, this is one of the best history books I've read in the past 8-10 years (the best history book, and probably the best book, period I've read in that time is John Barry's Rising Tide, about the Mississippi River-- and yes I've read most of Steve Ambrose's work, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and so forth). This book goes deep into the characters involved and the country in general. If you have any interest in either this subject or American history, you will not be disappointed.
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on January 12, 2000
A richly-detailed page-turner with a fascinating cast of characters, some of whom seem straight out of a novel! Elegant writing, well-paced. The scope of this book is vast -- it's about so much more than the building of railroad; it really captures America at that point in history. I was daunted by the book's sheer size when it arrived, but I zoomed through it, and enjoyed each page.
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on December 22, 2000
Bain begins his chronicle of the construction of the 1st Transcontinental Railroad with the idealistic vision of Asa Whitney and ends it with the brutal aftermath of the Credit Mobilier scandal. In between, Bain weaves a sweeping narrative of the titanic struggle to build the Pacific Railroad.
Bain touches on every facet of the railroad's construction. He starts his book with a detailed examination of those, like Whitney, who had dreamed of uniting the continent with an East-West railroad since the 1840s. Then he moves to the political battles in Congress that culminated in the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and the organization of the Central Pacific (charged with building the railroad eastward from Sacramento) and the Union Pacific (charged with building westward from Omaha). Then he narrates the competition that quickly emerges between the two companies as they race for the valuable coal deposits in the Wasatch Canyon, the right to build future railways throughout the West, and the bragging rights of finishing the most astonishing feat of engineering of the 19th Century.
Along the way, Bain illustrates the colorful people that built the National Highway: "Doc" Durant, the devious and slick manipulator of the UP boardroom; "Crazy" Judah, the intense visionary who found the way across the Sierra Nevadas but met a tragic end; and Grenville Dodge, the UP's chief engineer who constantly battled the greedy and corrupt in the UP who only sought to make a quick buck.
The difference between this book and Ambrose's new book on the Railroad is the focus of the two books. Ambrose emphasizes the Race, seeing it as an adventure and an example of what American ingenuity can accomplish; in this vein, he attempts to see the Railroad's construction more through the eyes of the Chinese and Irish who built the Railroad. Bain, however, gives us a narrative of the behind-the-scenes action that emphasizes the backroom deals and plots that spurred the Railroad to completion as the two companies feverishly attempt to outmaneuver each other for the spoils of the competition; in this vein, Bain gives us more detials of the CP's efforts to gobble up all of the other railroad companies in California and establish a monopoly while Bain also describes the boardroom struggles between the Durant and Ames factions within the UP for control of the company.
Bain's book also offers far more detail than Ambrose's. The origins of the Indian conflicts in the West, the politics that shaped the legislation setting down the rules of the game, and the scandals of the 1870s that followed from the corruption and greed of the two companies are examined more closely in "Empire." Unlike Ambrose's book, this is intended to be THE authoritative book on the Pacific Railroad -- and it is.
However, Bain's narrative suffers from the minutiae he indulges in, particularly the financing of the road. I started with Ambrose and was so fired up by his spell-binding narrative that I instantly went on to Bain's more complete account; I think that had I started with Bain I wouldn't have discovered an interest in the subject because of the book's sheer immensity. But because I became really interested through Ambrose, I was able to wade through Bain and discover what a magisterial work it is. So, if you want to learn about this subject but know practically nothing about it (as I did), start with Ambrose and his page-turner. If you find yourself still interested afterwards and want more, pick up Bain's definitive work of the Pacific Railroad
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on December 30, 1999
This is a mostly well-written and very well researched history of one of the great events that shaped America. It's a fascinating story, it's told well depsite an occassional lapse into some an overly dramatic style. And the impact of railroads has some interesting parallels to the technology revolution of the 90s. Viking's editor gets a C because of some sloppy work -- e.g. the author is allowed to repeat himself at least twice in the first 30 pages. (Maybe Viking paid by the word.) The maps are a serious diappointment -- the author enthuses about them in the preface, and the NY Times review did the same. They're OK if you think map making techniques stopped improving in 1940, but they lack contour lines or color, and it would have been well within today's mapping capabilities to show us a profile of the gradient through the Sierras. But these are minor complaints, really. The book is detailed and thoroughly engaging, and it is as much a history of the West and the American financial and political scene as it is an outstanding history of the transcontinental railroad.
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VINE VOICEon August 8, 2001
This book is thick and long on detail. Many have complained that it lacks adequate maps and that it does not focus enough on the men on the ground who built the railroad.
It is unfortunate that the publisher did not do a better job making clear exactly what this book is about. All of these complaints are true, but their stories are an aside to the topic of this book. The chapters dealing with things like the Chinese who built the railroad and the social changes caused by their immigration feel tacked on and not true to the subject of this book. Indeed all of the engineering and other gritty details about this great monument to ingenuity seem out of place because that is not what this book is about.
What is it about? The struggle for money, power, and the behind the scenes politics that went into the creation of the railroad. If you are interested in finance or 19th century history, then you may really enjoy this book. At its best, it focuses on the wealthy men who went from rich to supra-rich through this project. Their personalities and personal beliefs are explored in great detail.
I read this because of my interest in the comparisons often made between the railroads and the internet as market bubbles. I learned a lot and was not at all disapointed. Again, only read this if you want to know about the finance, the politics, and the persoanlities.
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"Empire Express" is a very informative account that unfortunately gets bogged down with too much detail. Author Bain just doesn't have the touch of a David McCollough ("The Path Between the Seas") to make his lengthy narrative consistantly interesting. Still, there is plenty of good information and the fourteen years Bain spent researching and writing this book is a testament to what a labor of love it was for him. Overall, serious history buffs will probably find the most enjoyment but the average reader is likely to become bored with it.
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on February 7, 2000
Having read everything I could find on the subject over many years, this is the best. The research and presentation are just right, and the writing is a joy to read. While I devoured the book, a friend of mine is reading it slowly so as to savor the style. Highly recommended.
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