Nothing Like It in the World gives the account of an unprecedented feat of engineering, vision, and courage. It is the story of the men who built the transcontinental railroad--the investors who risked their businesses and money; the enlightened politicians who understood its importance; the engineers and surveyors who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives; and the Irish and Chinese immigrants, the defeated Confederate soldiers, and the other laborers who did the backbreaking and dangerous work on the tracks. The U.S. government pitted two companies--the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads--against each other in a race for funding, encouraging speed over caution. Locomotives, rails, and spikes were shipped from the East through Panama or around South America to the West or lugged across the country to the Plains. In Ambrose's hands, this enterprise, with its huge expenditure of brainpower, muscle, and sweat, comes vibrantly to life.
This story begins with the advent of rail travel in the United States and continues forward to the joining of the rails in Utah. It shifts back and forth between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific rail lines, chronicling the race they created, including all the dirty money schemes, political maneuvering and side effects caused by laying a ribbon of steel across a continent. One I hadn't thought of before was the effect the rails had on buffalo. The herds would not cross the rails. So, if a herd was caught on the wrong side of the tracks, whole Indian tribes were cut off from the food supplies they had depended on for generations. Another interesting fact I hadn't known before was that Abraham Lincoln was the first politician to get behind and push for the railroad. As president, he set the wheels in motion, convinced that unifying the East and West of the United States would be the healing force needed after the Civil War.
The book is an easy read, well written and fast paced. Mr. Ambrose is a gifted writer. He refrains from judgments, merely pointing out the facts and showing how at the time those decisions made sense and how history has treated them. If how the West was tamed is of interest, this book goes a long way in explaining it well.
The story of this engineering feat revolves around many of the same demands and cynical behavior we are familiar with in America today: get it done quick, figure out how to pay for it later, and fix it once its built. The railroad helps, in some ways to fulfill the melting pot mythology of America, with Irish, Chinese, and Mormons sacrificing uncountable hours and lives to the service of a great engineering and economic feat.
Nevertheless, like a very long train ride, this story was at times a bit monotonous. Another day another mile can only fill so many pages. I'm glad I read it, but none of the main players really stood out to me, it was difficult to keep the two companies (Union Pacific and Central Pacific) separate in my mind, and I'm not sure how much I will retain beyond what I already knew. Solid, but if you've got other things to read, go for those first.
Other than that, this was the wrong book for me to read at this point of my life. Far too many political and economic details. It bogged me down to the point that I didn't want to pick it up. This is not saying the book was bad, it would be ideal for some, and I'm sure others could skim them and dig into the history with satisfaction. However, because I have already read much about the history of the building of the railroads, I did not want to force myself to finish this book.
By any measure, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad was a remarkable achievement, requiring capital, labour and material in stupendous quantities. This masterful account by Stephen Ambrose covers it all, from the initial support of President Lincoln, while the Civil War was still raging, to the larger than life entrepreneurs who set up the Central Pacific and Union Pacific companies, to the engineers and myriad labourers, many of them Chinese or Irish who carried out the back-breaking, relentless labour of grading, filling cutting and blasting the line of the railroad.
Early on, the author makes the point that a project on this scale had never been attempted before and almost certainly could not have succeeded without the army officers whose experience in marshalling large bodies of men, both Union and Confederate, was crucial, and the support of the Federal government, with issue of bonds and grants of land adjoining the way.
The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad united the east and west coasts of the USA for the first time, reducing the travel time from months to days and unlocking unimagined economic benefits.
This book recounts a remarkable chapter in American history, in vivid detail, and it is a rollicking good read.
When his Nothing like it in the world, the story of the making of the Transcontinental Railroad fell into my lap I was looking forward to a crackling good read. And I do love trains.
But this one just - well - never really got up a good head of steam for me. There are a lot of interesting larger than life characters here, and Ambrose somehow makes them - well - smaller than life.
He gets the role of the Chinese immigrants right - at a time when California was trying to limit immigration the railroad people sent a ship at their own expense to bring in more Chinese laborers. And the Chinese knew explosives and how to blast tunnels and probably saved the CP weeks if not months with their expertise and their hard work.
He gets all the little facts right but never gets around to telling the big picture.
Sometimes the rhythm of the engine click clacking along the rails is rich and elegiac - and sometimes the writing in this is too. But mile after mile of it can get to be a bore.
Your mileage may vary.