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The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took On the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad Hardcover – August 21, 2012


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press (August 21, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312667590
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312667597
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #885,596 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

DENNIS DRABELLE is author of Mile-High Fever. He has written for multiple publications and is currently a contributing editor and a mysteries editor for The Washington Post Book World. In 1996 he won the National Book Critics Circle’s award for excellence in reviewing. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

one

Working on the Railroad

 
Trains chuffed into the world in the 1820s and ’30s, bridging physical and temporal chasms that had held humans back for millennia. The historian Walter A. McDougall has described the upheaval wrought by this revolutionary technology (with supplemental help from the telegraph): “When [Andrew] Jackson entered the White House in 1829, people, goods, and information—even in the most advanced countries—could not travel overland any faster than they did in the time of Julius Caesar. Then all concepts of space, time, and volume exploded.” In the following two decades, chain reactions to the explosion rippled through the Eastern, Southern, and Central United States. By the 1850s, almost half of the world’s railroad tracks rested on American soil.
Most of that crisscrossed soil, however, lay east of the Mississippi. As the forty-niners could testify, a trip to the West Coast was still circuitous in the extreme: typically by boat from an Eastern port to the Isthmus of Panama, across that sweltering neck of land by whatever means the traveler could afford, and then by boat again to San Francisco. (For inanimate cargo, the most economical way was even longer: around Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America.) The solution was plain to see. The whole United States should be tied together by rails.
In addition to stimulating trade, both domestic and international (beyond California shimmered the markets of the Orient), a transcontinental line would round out the process of nation building. To leave the vast American midsection uncrossed by the most efficient mode of transportation yet devised, while the alluring West Coast stayed out of reach except via long, arduous, and costly journeys—to stagnate in this way would be to betray the great, ongoing enterprise of territorial acquisition and conquest. Why, the country’s very name seemed to cry out for the project: We must be not merely adjacent, but united. As for the work itself, annihilating distance (a catchphrase of the day) was just the sort of challenge for a people who considered themselves blessed with boundless energy and ingenuity.
By midcentury, railroad building had become not just a mission but a mania. Looking back from the vantage point of the early 1900s, Henry Adams, scion of U.S. presidents but brother of a railroad president, had this to say about the task:
[it was] so big as to need the energies of a generation, for it required all the new machinery to be created—capital, banks, mines, furnaces, shops, power-houses, technical knowledge, mechanical population, together with a steady remodelling of social and political habits, ideas and institutions to fit the new scale and suit the new conditions. The generation between 1865 and 1895 was already mortgaged to the railways, and no one knew it better than the generation itself.
Adams neglected to add, however, that before it could embark on all this remodeling and mortgaging, the railroad generation had to find start-up capital. But the transcontinental job in particular was so massive and risky—laying tracks and constructing bridges, trestles, culverts, tunnels, snowsheds, and depots over almost eighteen hundred miles of sparsely settled plains, deserts, and mountains, while often under the hostile gaze of Native Americans about to be dispossessed—that private investors tended to shy away from it. Hence the near universal opinion held by people of the time: The federal government would have to step in, either taking the initiative itself or giving ample aid to the private citizens who raised their hands to do so.
That much was clear. The railroad’s destination, however, was not so manifest. Northerners favored a northern route, from St. Louis or Omaha to somewhere on the West Coast. Southerners advocated a southern route. Behind both preferences stood an ulterior motive: to shape the future of slavery. Northerners hoped to curb the peculiar institution by running the transcontinental line through territory where slavery was unlikely to be welcomed; Southerners wanted to do just the opposite. Jefferson Davis, in his presecession capacity as President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, ordered a thorough investigation, complete with surveys of five distinct routes. The fieldwork culminated in a report submitted to Congress in 1855 and later published in thirteen quarto volumes. Naturally, it opted for a southern route. (Davis’s imprimatur wasn’t the only thing the southern option had going for it. Among justifications cited for a major land purchase two years earlier had been the Gadsden strip’s potential tie-in with a southern right of way.) While the report assembled scads of information and spurred the growth of local lines, it failed to move Congress to act. A sectional stalemate had developed. It persisted until the outbreak of the Civil War ensured that the Southern Express would not be leaving the station.
By then a visionary named Theodore Judah was lending his considerable talents to planning the project’s western leg. The Connecticut-born son of an Episcopal clergyman, Judah had studied engineering at the upstate New York school that has since evolved into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. But after the death of his father when the boy was thirteen, his formal education ended, and he went to work for the Schenectady and Troy Railroad. He leapfrogged from project to project and firm to firm, rising so rapidly that while Jefferson Davis’s crews were in the field compiling their report, Judah, still in his twenties, was put in charge of a daunting task: threading a railroad through the gorge of the Niagara River. He did so well at that and other assignments that in 1854 he was tapped to go west and help launch the first California railroad, the Sacramento Valley. Already, however, he was daydreaming of a transcontinental line. The necessity for him and his wife, Anna, to reach California the old, halting way (in their case, overland through Nicaragua to reach the Pacific) could only have whetted his appetite.
Judah’s Eastern know-how proved adaptable to Western conditions, and on the subject of a continent-spanning railroad he became a zealot, called “Crazy Judah” behind his back. To those with the patience to hear him out, though, he exhibited an impressive mastery of facts and figures. He might be a bit dewy-eyed—in an 1857 pamphlet printed at his own expense, he called for “a people’s railroad … not a stupendous speculation for a few to enrich themselves with … [but] a clean thing, built and owned by the people, for its actual cost and no more”—but he had an unrivaled knowledge of what the project would entail. He was also adept with the levers of power. In 1859, after traveling to Washington to lobby Congress on behalf of his pet cause, he wangled an office in the heart of the Capitol—the old vice president’s room, no less—where he set up maps, charts, and sketches (by Anna) in what became known as the Pacific Railroad Museum. A bill to his liking was introduced, but continued bickering kept it from going anywhere.
On returning to California, Judah set out to remedy his plan’s chief defect: the lack of a specific, practicable route, especially over its biggest obstacle, the Sierra Nevada, whose granite peaks loomed for hundreds of miles on a north-south axis. Everywhere he looked, the Sierra refused to be overcome in one push; behind each front range lay a valley and then a second thrust of peaks. But Judah got a lucky break in the form of a tip from Daniel W. “Doc” Strong, a druggist in the foothills town of Dutch Flat: Donner Pass, not far from the site of an infamous tragedy in 1847, offered a much-desired one-shot ascent—after which it was downhill all the way to Utah Territory (to which the future state of Nevada then belonged). Not only that, but the summit stood at a “mere” seven thousand or so feet, and the upgrade never exceeded a manageable hundred feet per mile.
Now that he had a feasible plan, Judah thought, rounding up the financing would be a snap. He hoped to enlist a host of small investors—would-be plutocrats need not apply. He gave the venture a name, the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, and went proselytizing. He had some success in Sacramento, but very little in much wealthier San Francisco, where the establishment viewed the railroad as a threat to existing modes of transportation: ships, toll roads, wagons, stagecoaches, even lesser railroads. (Way up in Alaska, the Sitka Ice Company opposed the project for an equally parochial reason. Ice freighted to the Bay Area from the Sierra would undercut the price of the Alaskan product, which had to make a long north-to-south journey in the holds of ships.) Back to Sacramento went Judah, bound for a rendezvous with four men who were to prove themselves indifferent, if not outright hostile, to his vision of building and running a “clean thing.”
To appreciate the temper of the time which allowed—even encouraged—Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker to pile up whopping fortunes at public expense, it might help to know how a bellwether of the era characterized the economic order. Henry Ward Beecher, a man of the cloth famous for his charisma and abolitionist sermons (and also for his adultery), traced the Gilded Age economic-might-equals-right ethic to a divine origin. In an 1877 article commenting on a strike, Beecher asked rhetorically:
Are the working men of the world oppressed? Yes, undoubtedly, by governments, by rich men, and by the educated classes—not because of selfishness and injustice but because it must be so. Only in the household is it possible for strength and knowledge and power not to oppress weakness and ignorance and helplessness.
Not only that, Beecher went on, but the Christian God was a laissez-faire deity, who “gave me my r...

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Dennis Drabelle's tale of railroads is genuinely fun to read.
Andrew Keyser
I purchased the book based on another review, while it maybe factual way too much time is spent on details which looses the reader.
Stanley Andrews
Overall the book expanded my knowledge of the gilded age of railroads and I have recommend with book to my friends.
roadkill367

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By VerbRiver on January 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This book is about the transcontinental railway and the perfidious behavior of the robber barons who built it. It is, next, about Ambrose Bierce, the journalist who publicly pounded into disrepute these men and their conduct. Finally, it is about Frank Norris, the novelist who, in THE OCTOPUS, transformed the scandal of the railroad builders into a triumph of literature.

The trouble is, the Drabelle book isn't very good. This is so, in large part, because his writing style cheapens and demeans the narrative. It is hard to take seriously a "history" book in which (to note only a few examples) the terms "mouthed off"; "chuckleheads"; "a way of lucking out"; "covered his derriere"; "aced itself out"; and "make nice with ... Brigham Young" stain so many pages.

The book falls well below the level of popular history and embeds itself in sarcasm and snide. These are treatments the robber barons likely deserved and, in fact, received from Amrose Bierce. But the Drabelle attempt to emulate Bierce is sophomoric.

To be fair, while the chapters on the railroads are a degree or so above mediocre, those about Bierce are bit better than that. And the meandering chapters on Norris are at least written in prose more respectful of the reader. So, yes, there are some flashes of decent among this drizzle of approximately average. But the main strength of this work is to move the reader to search out serious and much better books on the same topics.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Algeo on October 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Corporate chicanery is nothing new. In fact, as Dennis Drabelle deftly explains in this hugely entertaining book, things used to be much worse! What the Central Pacific Railroad pulled off (or attempted to pull off) was simply audacious. And the way two great writers exposed the railroad was equally audacious. Highly recommended for anyone interested in American history, railroads, journalism - or finding out that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Christopher M Nichols on January 13, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The Great Railroad War details the excesses and machinations of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) with an emphasis on the efforts of two fascinating writers who opposed the railroad: Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris. The book shows how Bierce and Norris battled the railroad and its proponents, sometimes losing, but never giving up. Drabelle's early chapters situate the reader in the midst of the turbulent and corrupt Gilded Age. In gripping prose Drabelle reveals how the Big Four of the CPR--Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker--conceived and constructed their railroad empire through devious methods, government subsidies, astute connections, and sheer hubris. Some of the best chapters explore Bierce's intriguing life, though the focus even in those excellent sections is rightly on Bierce's insightful writing and wide array of muckraking activities (especially those working with Hearst to derail the Railroad Refinancing Bill in 1896). Drabelle brilliantly connects Bierce and Norris's work against the Octopus's corrupt practices (and startling levels of greed and arrogance), while at the same time chronicling and occasionally humanizing many of those on the opposite side. In addition, a reader can't help but note the resounding parallels to contemporary debates about the corporate regulation and of the influence of special interests on American governance.

As a historian of this period myself, and one who often finds popular history lacking, I am pleased to say that Drabelle does an excellent job of getting the details and atmosphere right for this period. He clearly did comprehensive research. Well written, thought provoking, and dealing with an important yet not well known subject, Dennis Drabelle's Great Railroad War is a superb read.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Morning Edition Listener on January 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are expecting to find out about the intricacies of the planning, building and corruption surrounding the first railroads to cross the United States, this may not be the place to look. Although it does present some of the facts surrounding this immense project, the book is predominantly about the lives and careers of Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris. Bierce was definitely in the thick of it, Norris not so much.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By roadkill367 on November 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book definitely will expand your vocabulary, which is a good thing. I'm not sure I am a fan of the author's style of writing as I found it a little hard to follow at times. The book is packed with interesting and informative information on the subject matter. Overall the book expanded my knowledge of the gilded age of railroads and I have recommend with book to my friends. Even those with no interest in trains.
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