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Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869 Hardcover – August 29, 2000

3.5 out of 5 stars 374 customer reviews

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Abraham Lincoln, who had worked as a riverboat pilot before turning to politics, knew a thing or two about the problems of transporting goods and people from place to place. He was also convinced that the United States would flourish only if its far-flung regions were linked, replacing sectional loyalties with an overarching sense of national destiny.

Building a transcontinental railroad, writes the prolific historian Stephen Ambrose, was second only to the abolition of slavery on Lincoln's presidential agenda. Through an ambitious program of land grants and low-interest government loans, he encouraged entrepreneurs such as California's "Big Four"--Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford--to take on the task of stringing steel rails from ocean to ocean. The real work of doing so, of course, was on the shoulders of immigrant men and women, mostly Chinese and Irish. These often-overlooked actors and what a contemporary called their "dreadful vitality" figure prominently in Ambrose's narrative, alongside the great financiers and surveyors who populate the standard textbooks.

In the end, Ambrose writes, Lincoln's dream transformed the nation, marking "the first great triumph over time and space" and inaugurating what has come to be known as the American Century. David Haward Bain's Empire Express, which covers the same ground, is more substantial, but Ambrose provides an eminently readable study of a complex episode in American history. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Eminent historian Ambrose notes that he once viewed the investors and businessmen who built the transcontinental railroad as robber barons who bilked the government and the public. But in his rough-and-tumble, triumphant sagaAsure to appeal to the many readers of Ambrose's bestseller Undaunted CourageAhe presents the continent-straddling railroad, yoking east and west at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, as a great democratic experiment, a triumph of capitalist organization, free labor, brains and determination that ushered in the American Century, galvanized trade and settlement, and made possible a national culture. To critics who charge that the railroad magnates were corrupt and grew obscenely rich and powerful through land grants and government bonds, Ambrose replies that the land grants never brought in enough money to pay the bills and, further, that the bonds were loans, fully paid back with huge interest payments. But this argument fails to convince, partly because Ambrose does a superlative job of re-creating the grim conditions in which the tracks were laid. The Central Pacific's workers were primarily Chinese, earning a dollar a day. Union Pacific workers were mostly Irish-American, young, unmarried ex-soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy. Accidental deaths were commonplace, and the two companies, notwithstanding strikes, slowdowns and drunken vice, engaged in a frantic race, mandated by Congress, as the winner got the greater share of land and bonds. As a result of the haste, an enormous amount of shoddy construction had to be replaced. Native Americans, who wanted the iron rail out of their country, hopelessly waged guerrilla warfare against railroad builders who talked openly of exterminating them. Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, telegrams, newspaper accounts and other primary sources, Ambrose celebrates the railroad's unsung heroesAthe men who actually did the backbreaking work. 32 pages of b&w photos. 6-city author tour. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 29, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684846098
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684846095
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (374 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #85,552 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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.
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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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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.
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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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