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Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroads Paperback – September 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews


"Once again Dee Brown is telling us one of the great American stories.... I can't think of a better way to tell our history than to follow the path of the lonesome whistle."
--Tony Hiss, The New York Times Book Review

About the Author

Dee Brown is the author of numerous excellent books on Western American history, including his best-selling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (0-8050-6669-1)


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 311 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt (September 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805068929
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805068924
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,438,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Ian Brodie on June 9, 2000
Format: Paperback
I'm contributing this review because I think the existing, single review on Amazon is unfair. I know nothing about the author, but I do know enough from history that he is not completely out of whack to take the view that the railroads were often in the grip of robber barons and that many in Congress had their hands out when it came to making sure the Iron Horses enjoyed lenient legislation that enabled them to cross the continent. Thus, I think the author was entitled to his strong views when it comes to assessing the political and business climate in which the railroads were built. But this book is far more than a polemic. It contains fascinating passages about the "Hell on Wheels" collapsible shanty towns that followed the rail-heads across the prairie with their accompanying cast of gamblers, con artists and prostitutes waiting to prey on the laborers who built the lines. Also, there are memorable descriptions of the hardships endured by the first adventurers to travel from coast to coast behind the Iron Horse, together with quotes from Kipling, Robert Louis Stephenson and others who made the trip. I bought this book because I wanted to know more about the history of the building of the railroads and the opening up of this country. My curiosity was fully satisfied.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Bengtson on January 30, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
One should not be surprised that railroad companies in a capitalist country are run to produce profits rather than for the good of the country. There is no astonishment that railroads in the United States were seen as money machines, and the natural monopolies of railroading were exploited to the max. However, railroads were widely seen as being good for the United States--and indeed the railroads provided the United States with a heightened sense of national unity as well as great economies in transportation.
Dee Brown does an admirable job of narrating the inherit contradictions involved in the story of the transcontinental railroads--"the good of the country" and "$$ for a few". The story does not stop once the first transcontinental railroad is built, either. Dee Brown describes effects on Native Americans, immigrant populations, tourists, farmers, and others.
The book is readable--good high school students should be able to handle it. There are also lots of vintage photographs, which add to the value. I'm not a professional historian, so I can't judge some things. The book is still in print after twenty-five years, and there's a reason for that: it's good.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Acute Observer on November 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
This short history of western railroads starts with the Rock Island bridge across the Mississippi. Abraham Lincoln's inspection of that accident scene allowed a win (pp.10-12). This resulted in commerce moving from Chicago to New York, and not down the river to New Orleans. It tells about the financial exploitation and scheming that was part of the construction. Towns often took on debt to subsidize railroads even thought their promises often failed (Chapter 1). Chapter 2 tells of the many plans to create a railroad that would reach the Pacific. Politics and self-interest were as common then as today. Various Indian tribes were swindled out of their lands in the 1850s (pp.37-38). Military actions by the Confederates resulted in a northern route (Chapter 3). Brown explains the Credit Mobilier scam which billed for construction at inflated prices. People paid taxes to enrich swindlers (p.71). The newspapers cast the Plains Indians as villains for defending their hunting lands. Brown doesn't mention that the "Wild West Cowboy" was invented or exaggerated by journalists for entertainment and propaganda (pp.84-85). He does describe the lives of the workmen (pp.106-107). Chapter 6 has the Great Race to connect to the Pacific and the use of Federal monies. It appeared to be more popular than the Federal Highway projects in the 1950s. The railroad connection bound the nation together. Traveler had more to fear from train robbers than Indians (p.151). Chapter 8 describes the men who worked on the railroad trains.

Chapter 9 tells of the piracy of the railroad promoters and managers as a rising class (p.183). This must have been the biggest swindle of the century (pp.184-185). Was this the first case of a corporation winning favor from Congress after donating company shares (p.187)?
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Andy in Washington TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 16, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have always been a train buff, and always interested in how the first transcontinental railroads were built. They were the moonshots of their day, and represented the epitome of engineering, financial "innovation" and human endeavor in their time. Dee Brown attempts to capture that history.

===The Good Stuff===

*As usual, Brown writes in a casual, informal style that is actually fun to read. He captures some of the lighter sides of history, such as the Central Pacific's Charlie Crocker's response when questioned about the stamina and strength of his Chinese workforce. "They built the Great Wall, didn't they?"

* Parts of the book were excellent, and had some details I hadn't read before. The story of Fred Harvey using conductors to pre-book passengers' lunch orders while still miles from the station, and then communicating them to the restaurant via the train whistle is marvelous. Now when we perform the same process over the internet, we think we have invented something new.

* Brown has a nice mix of material. The book is a nice look at the customers, politics, finances, shenanigans, corruption, technology and accomplishments of the railroads. If you have never read much on the subject, it is as good an introduction as you will find.

===The Not-So-Good Stuff===

* Brown often lapses into opinion mixed in with fact. He makes no secret of his opinion that US taxpayers paid for the same railroad numerous times, and of the high cost of graft caused by the roads. However, while the accusations are certainly with merit, he makes no attempts to substantiate his claims.

* Even more problematic were the gaps and shortcuts in telling the story.
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