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175 of 188 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
At one point in the book Ambrose tells us that railroad historians are prone to exaggerate. I may be a railroad historian (he cites me in a footnote), but it is no exaggeration to say that this may well be the worst book ever written about the first American transcontinental railroad. True, Ambrose does tell the great story of a monumental event. And he even gets some of it right: two rival companies starting from either end and meeting in the middle. But the errors that fill these pages destroy any value the book may possess.
Ambrose admitted in the introduction that he knew nothing about the subject. Is it any surprise then that he uncritically accepted and repeats fables about the construction of this railroad? But Ambrose can take credit for many original mistakes. He moves the California gold discovery site to the west of Sacramento, has the Humboldt River rise in northeast Utah, and stretches the Forty-Mile Desert to 100 miles. Theodore Judah is mistakenly credited with building the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls. Central Pacific construction supervisor J.H.Strobridge is presented making decisions for the rival Union Pacific.
Some mistakes--like the eight-foot long bunk cars for the workers, or the stories repeated in different chapters--might be the result of poor editing and proof reading. But other statements make one wonder if even the author read this book before sending it to the printer. Perhaps the most ludicrous image in the book is Ambrose's description of Central Pacific workers drilling holes in the granite for blasting. He tells us men standing on step ladders pounded away with sledge hammers on a long drill held steady by three men--one holding it as high as he could reach, another in the middle, and the third down by his toes. All this to produce a hole one and a half feet deep! If this really happened (and I seriously doubt it), anyone smart enough to bore a tunnel would figure out that one could cut the drill into thirds and drill three holes with the same number of men in the same time (and have fewer injuries from men falling off ladders).
But the book's greatest affront is its cavalier disregard of scholarship. Ambrose invents a brother for Mark Hopkins to take Charles Crocker's place as CP director. Statements from good primary sources are misquoted or presented out of context. One quote from a Mark Hopkins letter is so seriously rewritten as to be meaningless. And these are passed off as authentic quotations, apparently to make the work appear well researched. A line from a photo caption in a secondary source of little historic value is actually presented as the very words of Charles Crocker himself.
Ambrose should be embarassed by this book. Especially so in light of his recent essay in an October 2000 issue of Forbes ASAP in which he implies that he can be trusted as a seeker and teller of the truth of our past. This book is not well crafted. It is not well researched. Saddly, children will read this; teachers will teach this. "Saddly", because this book tells a story that is like nothing that ever happened in the real world.
Perhaps someday we will learn that a rough first draft was sent to the printers by mistake and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
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146 of 156 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The subject is grand and the author is respected and prominent, so why has this book failed in its stated purpose? It reminds me most of the college student realizing at the last moment that his semester paper is due the next day and then scrambling to throw material together without regard to scholarship. I can only ask, "who really wrote this book?" and I speculate that it was written by Professor Ambrose's students in History 101. Either that or the author has resorted to churning out material just to capitalize on his popularity.
Ambrose's cheerleading of the accomplishments of the common American man - he does it in his WWII books and others - makes him seem a little like the Tom Clancy of the history field. Clancy succeeds because of his terrific imagination and captivating style. Ambrose succeeds when he backs it up with good writing but in this book the poor scholarship and terrible editing is a real downer!
How can any modern historian state, "The Chinese . . . needed little or no instruction in handling black powder, which was a Chinese invention . . ." (p.156). Really now! Perhaps all Chinese are good at flower arranging as well.
How can an historian of Ambrose's stature totally invert a well known event of the Civil War as he does on p.292 with the statement that "George B. McClellan's uncoded orders were captured by the Confederates before the Battle of Antietam, giving Robert E. Lee a chance to read them." For those who are unfamiliar with this incident, it was Lee's orders that were discovered by Union troops near Frederick, MD, providing the bumbling McClellan with the information he needed to head off the attempt to invade Pennsylvania.
Ambrose needs a new editor if this is what his current handler does. He tells us time and time again of the process of moving rails into place as the teams of Irish, Chinese, or Mormons try to beat some production goal. Other material is tediously repeated as though he was trying to meet his own mileage goal, further suggesting the college student padding his term paper to meet the professor's required number of pages. And little facts change from page to page - at one point the CP is 590 miles from Sacramento on April 9, while a page later the end of the CP tracks are 578 miles from Sacramento on April 27 - did they really regress during those 18 days?
Maps! Wow, would they be helpful if they were positioned relevant to the material around them. The CP work in California is discussed early in the book, so why is the map of their route placed at page 342 where the discussion is about the CP and UP competition in Utah? And even if you locate the map you want, they frequently do not show the locations that Ambrose has identified as important milestones in the progress of the transcontinental project - the lack of detail is appalling.
Professor Ambrose should have stuck with his first instincts as expressed in the acknowledgements. When his editor suggested the subject matter to him, "I hesitated. . . I wanted nothing to do with those railroad thieves." My response is only to note that when I see the Ambrose name on books in the future, I also will hesitate.
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91 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I've read, enjoyed, and valued other histories by Ambrose, but this is not one of his best efforts. If you are seriously interested in the building of the first transcontinental railroad, get and read David Haward Bain's monumental Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (Viking, 1999, 797 pages), the result of fourteen years of research and the definitive modern treatment of this subject. Ambrose's book has the misfortune to follow on the heels of Bain's, and it cannot seriously compete with it. Bain's book is truly comprehensive and thorough, a labor of love; in comparison Ambrose's seems somewhat perfunctory and superficial, just another installment in the assembly line of books Ambrose has been cranking out in recent years. If you will compare the two books you will see what I mean.
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123 of 141 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In his new book, "Nothing Like It in The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69", Stephen E. Ambrose is following the same process he has followed in his World War II books and his "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West": he tries to bring the reader to see things from many angles: from the top ranks (Financiers, politicians, engineers) to the individual workers. He shows the life of the Chinese workers (West side) and Irish and multinational workers (East Side); describes the life of ordinary people during the construction; shows the danger of using black powder; shows the problems with the Native American populations; analyzes the presence of some 500 African Americans after the Civil War (former Slaves from the South), with at the same time the presence of former Union and Confederate veterans IN THEIR UNIFORMS on the workplace!
One of the best passages relates to the last (golden) spike, at Promontory Summit, Utah. The story is breathtaking. The reader expects the final hammering of the spike -like the whole world on May 10, 1869- from San Francisco to New York, Philadelphia, Boston and even London (via the telegraph). I will not say what happened (I do not want to run the climax of the story for the reader!)
In conclusion, I would strongly recommend the reading of "Nothing Like it In The World". Stephen E. Ambrose is at his best... and nobody can object with his conclusion that the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad is one of most important event of the American Nineteenth Century!
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Stephen Ambrose and his team did voluminous research and then managed to put together a book filled with mistakes. He has geographical errors like placing like placing the discovery of gold in California WEST of Sacramento when it was actually thirty or so miles the the east. He claims that Robert E. Lee got hold of George MacClellan's battles plans at Antietam (Just the opposite occured). He also states that Union Pacific built the causeway across the Great Salt Lake (It was the Southern Pacific). I could go on and on.
In addition to the all the mistakes, Ambrose also likes to repeat himself. Some of the anecdotes appear three or four times. In addition he takes some great liberties such as often calling Theodore Judah "Ted". Never have I read anything in which Judah was called Ted and the only sources that Ambrose uses that include Judah's first name call him Theodore.
As a railroad buff and a historian I was really looking forward to this book. It's too bad that the book does not reflect all the research that went into the project. This book is a mediorcre performance.
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80 of 92 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2000
Format: Audio Cassette
In his new book, "Nothing Like It in The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69", Stephen E. Ambrose is following the same process he has followed in his World War II books and his "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West": he tries to bring the reader to see things from many angles: from the top ranks (Financiers, politicians, engineers) to the individual workers. He shows the life of the Chinese workers (West side) and Irish and multinational workers (East Side); describes the life of ordinary people during the construction; shows the danger of using black powder; shows the problems with the Native American populations; analyzes the presence of some 500 African Americans after the Civil War (former Slaves from the South), with at the same time the presence of former Union and Confederate veterans IN THEIR UNIFORMS on the workplace!
One of the best passages relates to the last (golden) spike, at Promontory Summit, Utah. The story is breathtaking. The reader expects the final hammering of the spike -like the whole world on May 10, 1869- from San Francisco to New York, Philadelphia, Boston and even London (via the telegraph). I will not say what happened (I do not want to run the climax of the story for the reader!)
In conclusion, I would strongly recommend the reading of "Nothing Like it In The World". Stephen E. Ambrose is at his best... and nobody can object with his conclusion that the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad is one of most important event of the American Nineteenth Century!
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Ambrose - who generally writes as readable a history as anyone - fell way short on this one. At the outset, he admits that his publisher recommended this topic to him. I suspect his publisher needed an Ambrose book on the shelves for the summer of 2000 and magde this suggestion in May of the same year. The book was redundant and disorganized and gave the distinct impression of being thrown together like a midnight term paper. This book ought to be skipped.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is another very fine effort by one of my favorite historians. The technological accomplishments were impressive. The paradox of the transcontinental railroad both compressing time by shortening the days required to travel from coast to coast and making Americans more aware of time than ever before was delightful. The hard work and daring of the engineers and track layers and graders and so on were stirring. But over a month after finishing this book, the theme that has stayed with me is that not long after a civil war that nearly tore the country apart north and south citizens and even noncitizens, i.e. African Americans, were almost universally united in the effort to bind the country together east and west.
My one complaint is that it doesn't have the same immediacy that eyewitness accounts provide to Ambrose's military history books. I suspect that despite the voluminous newspaper accounts available, Ambrose has come to rely so heavily on first person history either in person or through diaries and journals that it caused him to flounder a bit. I think that explains some of the complaints others have made.
Despite that caveat, this is still a wonderful book. I grew up not far north of Council Bluffs where the UP section of track began and thought myself pretty well steeped in railroad history, but I still learned a lot and had fun doing it.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
On learning of the appearance of this book I sent away for it with high hopes. I expected a work of the same sweep and ambition as Donald McCullough's two splendid histories of other great American projects, "The Great Bridge" (The Brooklyn Bridge) and "The Path between the Seas" (The Panama Canal). The story of the construction of the first trans-continental railway has the same features as these other mega-undertakings - unprecedented technical and organisational challenges, unbounded financial and political chicanery, straight old-fashioned heroism and drama, high social and historic impact and an almost limitless cast of larger than life characters. It is therefore a disappointment to report that the present work, though it tells the story and covers all the relevant facts, has none of the pace, colour and interest of McCullough's works. The present history gives the impression of being all but overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available. Huge amounts of facts and data, interspersed with brief quotes and extracts from first-hand accounts, are presented, but the narrative remains a dull one. The book is at its most successful in its pen-portraits of the major players (but why is Stanford the only member of "The Big Four" not to be delineated?) and it does come to life in spurts - as when describing how particularly daunting engineering challenges were overcome - the blasting of the Cape Horn road-bed in the Sierra Nevada being a case in point. The account of the mechanics of the Central Pacific's track-laying in the final days before the historic junction at Promontory Summit is similarly exciting. These high points serve however to emphasise the opportunities that are missed in providing more extended coverage of other equally exciting episodes. One would welcome knowing much more about the quite hair-raising Indian attacks on the Union Pacific, these including derailments and train-burnings, and more also on the techniques of timber trestle construction in extreme conditions. Financial skulduggery is another feature of the story but the book outlines enough to confuse, yet not to enlighten. Having said this, the work does serve to give an overview of the enterprise, with all the salient features covered and a fine selection of photographs. The definitive popular narrative history of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific epics does however remain to be written.
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47 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Is there a more skillful writer of American narrative history practicing today than Stephen Ambrose. Not in my opinion. In this exceptionally fine book, Ambrose tells the story of the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century: the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which connected Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (only a couple of female characters figure prominently in Ambrose's story, although many others played important roles behind the scenes), included some of the most famous names in the history of 19th-century politics, business, finance, and industry, as well as tens of thousands of virtually-anonymous workers who provided millions of man-hours of sweat equity in this extraordinary project. This book is especially compelling because, more than anything else, it is a great human drama and some of its passages are as poignant as How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn's great tale of Welsh coal miners. However, Ambrose is painting on a much larger canvas.
We all know how the story will end - the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met at Promontory Summit north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah on May 10, 1869 - but Ambrose's narrative is given an urgency by his effective use of newspaper and magazine accounts of the events which transpired in the 1860s. Ambrose acknowledges that all of his research assistants were members of his family, and they are to be commended. The technical details about the vast quantities of materials purchased and the travails involved in transporting them to where they were needed are fascinating. In addition, this book's many outstanding features includes its collection of photographs. Anyone familiar with Civil War-era photography will recognize the facial types, but I was amazed by photographs depicting engineering and construction marvels: bridges, tunnels, snow sheds, trestles cuts, and a myriad of others. The ability of the surveyors, engineers, construction foremen, and workers to overcome every type of natural obstacle during the course of construction was simply remarkable, and Ambrose's description of building the Central Pacific through the Sierra Nevada mountains is thrilling. Ambrose clearly was impressed by the enormity of the railroad builders' accomplishments, but he occasionally offers some wry humor. The Hell-on-Wheels towns which sprung up around the railroads' tracks were rough places then but sources of some amusement now. And Ambrose makes much of the delightful irony that Leland Stanford was elected governor of California in 1861 in part because he aggressively slandered Chinese immigrants as the "dregs of Asia" and "that degraded race," but, if it had not been for the efforts of thousands of Chinese laborers, the Central Pacific portion of the railroad might never have been finished. (Equivalent numbers of Irish workers performed most of the construction on the Union Pacific line from the east). According to Ambrose, many of the Chinese were less than five feet tall and weighed no more than 120 lbs., but they proved to be ideal workers: industrious, intelligent, and generally uncomplaining. When a construction foreman declares "I will not boss Chinese!", one of the Central Pacific's directors replies: "They built the Great Wall of China, didn't they?" The men who conceived, financed, designed, and built the railroad are Ambrose's real story, but this book is made additionally enjoyable by appearances, sometimes extended, sometimes cameo, by a number of the most famous men of the age, including Presidents, Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant, Brigham Young, General William T. Sherman, and Horace Greeley. There are a few instances where this book could have used more careful editing. For instance, Charles Francis Adams is first identified, incorrectly, as the "grandson of two presidents" and only later, correctly, as "grandson and great-grandson of U.S. presidents." And we probably only needed to read once that the wife of the Central Pacific construction boss accompanied her husband throughout the project, living in a passenger car from which she hung a caged canary around her entrance. But I consider these to be very minor defects.
With the possible exception of the 1780s and the 1940s, no decade in American history was more exciting than the 1860s. It included a successful resolution of the greatest crisis in American history, the Civil War, and the extension of the transportation infrastructure from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Railroad construction was the largest industry of its time, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad (and the telegraph line built alongside it) was an indispensable precursor to American greatness. By 1900, in large part as a result of its extensive system of internal transportation, the United States was the strongest economic power in the world.
Less than a week after it was released, Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It in the World is already well on its way to becoming a national bestseller, and its success could not be more richly well deserved. I do not remember the last time I enjoyed a book so much.
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