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Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad Paperback – September 1, 2000

3.9 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

On the morning of May 10, 1869, a gang of Irish immigrants met a party of Chinese laborers on a windy bluff northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. Tired to the bone, the two groups laid down the last of countless wooden ties, bought at the exorbitant cost of six dollars apiece, and thus joined two great rail lines, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to form a single transcontinental route. That rail line made possible the mass settlement of the West, and, as those who conceived it well knew, it changed the course of American history.

David Haward Bain's superb narrative of westward rail history, weighing in at 800 pages, ends not with this great achievement but with the political and financial scandal that would almost overshadow it. Along the way Bain looks closely at the entrepreneurial men who foresaw the possibilities of a vast nation joined by a steel ribbon--most memorably the hit-and-miss businessman Asa Whitney, who proposed to Congress an ingenious scheme to fund the building of the railroad through commercializing the right of way. Some of the men who came after Whitney, such as Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford, amassed great fortunes in realizing this dream. Others died penniless and nearly forgotten in the wake of political maneuverings and bad deals. Bain's vigorous, well-written narrative does much to restore those overlooked actors to history. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Uniting the country by a transcontinental railroad had a special resonance for the generation that had recently fought the Civil War. Bain's comprehensive study starts with the visionaries who conceived the idea during the two decades before the war (a mere 40 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition). As Bain (Whose Woods These Are) explains, the dreamers gave way to the engineers and entrepreneurs who fixed the route, assembled financing, drafted a work force and launched the two lines toward the eventual meeting point at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869. The story alternates between the Union Pacific driving west from Omaha and the Central Pacific blasting through the mountains from California. About a score of the principal players appear throughout the book, their triumphs and depredations interwoven in a richly (sometimes overly) detailed composition. Bain specifies his heroes and villains, and does not neglect the political fixers who infested Washington, D.C., emptying their satchels of money as they circulated through Congress. The writing is particularly evocative as Bain examines the impact of the railroad on the Plains Indians, whose traditional way of life was eradicated by the line. Bain also deals knowledgeably with the imported Chinese workers, the "Celestials," who were unsurpassed in their tenacity and work ethic. Displaying energetic research and enthusiasm for the subject matter, Bain brings the linking of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the era that produced it, back to life. Maps. History Book Club selection; BOMC selection; 8-city author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (August 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140084991
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140084993
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.7 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #124,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Jon Eric Davidson on January 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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