The Great Leap West Of The Iron Horse


Building the First Transcontinental Railroad

By David Haward Bain

Viking 797pp $34.95

Recent headlines have proclaimed a mind-boggling merger agreement between Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and Canadian National Railway Co.--each in its own right the product of many previous mergers. If the deal, announced on Dec. 20, is consummated, it would create the first truly transcontinental road, dwarfing the storied combines of the past.

Such consolidation stands in dramatic contrast to the early days of railroading. In 1865, after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, his body was taken by train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Ill. The train had to wend a circuitous route over no fewer than 14 different lines. Countless thousands stood along the tracks to pay their respects.

The mournful progress of the Lincoln train is only one of the scores of vignettes in Empire Express, David Haward Bain's compelling account of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Bain, who teaches at Middlebury College, has woven a masterful tapestry. The most familiar icon of this immense project may be the classic photograph of the driving of the final spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869--with a locomotive of the Central Pacific arriving from the west and almost touching cowcatchers with a Union Pacific train coming from the east. But the story of what led up to that moment--a "media event" in today's terms--was full of heroes and villains and many who were a little bit of both. Together, they spun a web of intrigue and influence to awe a Machiavelli.

The first hero in Bain's book is one Asa Whitney, a world-traveling merchant who became the first crusader for a railroad to span North America. He began work in 1844--significantly, five years before the California gold rush--championing his cause before Congress. He wrote and spoke tirelessly on its behalf. The fact that friendly congressmen arranged for him to have an office in the Capitol, along with the right to address the House of Representatives, would raise eyebrows today. But there is no hint of scandal in Whitney's career as prophet and crusader.

Such cannot be said of others, as would unfold in congressional hearings centered on Credit Mobilier, a financing device for the Union Pacific. The revelations--and censures--were dramatic. During years of political maneuvering, many legislators were showered with shares of stock, cash, and rights to purchase land along the projected routes. And there were serious questions about how much of the money intended for the construction project was raked off by promoters and contractors.

There was often prolonged wrangling over what route the lines should follow. With government payments to the rail builders determined on a per-mile basis, for example, valuable time was wasted by the Union Pacific in infighting over whether to build straight west from Omaha or along a much longer "oxbow" route that would bring in more cash.

Quality was also an issue, with both railroads--but particularly the UP--doing anything to get their lines laid as they raced toward the meeting place. (In fact, the final-spike ceremony had to be delayed by two days.) Once the headlines faded, shoddy bridges, culverts, and embankments had to be rapidly bolstered.

Engineer Theodore D. Judah was a hero on the western end. He was memorialized with a Judah Street in San Francisco, but such Central Pacific leaders as Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis Huntington are better known today. Their eventual success owes much to Judah's selection of the Donner Pass as the route of choice over California's Sierra mountains, allowing a feasible passage to the easier construction zones of the Nevada deserts to the east.

On the Union Pacific side, hero status belongs to Grenville M. Dodge--despite his later implication in the Credit Mobilier scandal--for finding the Wyoming pass that eased the crossing of the Continental Divide. It was a serendipitous discovery, a side effect of attempting to evade hostile Indians. (The relationship of the Western Indians to the railroad construction is a saga in itself.)

One fascinating subplot of Empire Express is the role of the Chinese in building the Central Pacific. It first recruited them--initially from among those already in California, but ultimately from the Chinese mainland--out of a virtual desperation for laborers, and they were considered suitable only for the grubbiest of tasks. Eventually, the Chinese proved their skills at many jobs and earned respect. Among other things, their temperance (save for the odd opium pipe on a Saturday night) stood in stark contrast to the white laborers' hell-raising.

Bain's meticulous research is notable, but even more impressive is his skill at keeping the narrative moving with scarcely a dull moment--after all, everyone knows how the story ends. In other hands, the voluminous detail might have caused eyes to glaze over. He achieves this despite many detours, necessary to explain key players' backgrounds and to set the historical context over many years--gold rush, Civil War, Indian raids, and so forth. This rich work establishes the transcontinental-railroad project as a transcendent event in the development not just of the American economy but of the nation itself.

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