Nothing like it in the world : the men who built the transcontinental railroad, 1863-1869

by Stephen E. Ambrose

Hardcover, 2000




New York : Simon & Schuster, c2000.


In this account of an unprecedented feat of engineering, vision, and courage, Stephen E. Ambrose offers a historical successor to his universally acclaimed Undaunted Courage, which recounted the explorations of the West by Lewis and Clark. Nothing Like It in the World 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 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 Union had won the Civil War and slavery had been abolished, but Abraham Lincoln, who was an early and constant champion of railroads, would not live to see the great achievement. In Ambrose's hands, this enterprise, with its huge expenditure of brainpower, muscle, and sweat, comes to life. 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. This was the last great building project to be done mostly by hand: excavating dirt, cutting through ridges, filling gorges, blasting tunnels through mountains. At its peak, the workforce -- primarily Chinese on the Central Pacific, Irish on the Union Pacific -- approached the size of Civil War armies, with as many as fifteen thousand workers on each line. The Union Pacific was led by Thomas "Doc" Durant, Oakes Ames, and Oliver Ames, with Grenville Dodge -- America's greatest railroad builder -- as chief engineer. The Central Pacific was led by California's "Big Four": Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. The surveyors, the men who picked the route, were latter-day Lewis and Clark types who led the way through the wilderness, living off buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope. In building a railroad, there is only one decisive spot -- the end of the track. Nothing like this great work had been seen in the world when the last spike, a golden one, was driven in at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, as the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific tracks were joined. Ambrose writes with power and eloquence about the brave men -- the famous and the unheralded, ordinary men doing the extraordinary -- who accomplished the spectacular feat that made the continent into a nation.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Say what you will about Stephen Ambrose, but he can put together a good story. The building of the transcontinental railroad was indeed a monumental feat worthy of much of the praise heaped upon it. It took countless thousands of men to cut, grade, and hammer the path leading to the Pacific. Of
Show More
much surprise was Lincoln's involvement as far back as 1859. He wanted to unite the country on both north-south and east-west lines. Ambrose does his best to slog through the financial minutiae and not pass much judgement on the folks who got incredibly rich from the workers' blood and sweat equity. For anyone who likes a good and introductory history, this will do just fine.
Show Less
LibraryThing member DanStratton
I live in the West and grew up around the railroad and near Promontory Point, Utah, so I knew a little about the Trans-continental railroad. It wasn't until I read this book that I truly understood what an amazing feat it was to build it. Looking at how long it takes to build highways today with
Show More
huge earthmoving machines, materials and the like, it makes the railroad more amazing. The most advanced piece of machinery used in building the railroad was a wagon and nitroglycerin. They tried using a steam drill on the Sierra Nevada tunnels, but the Chinese proved faster and more reliable with manual labor.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jaygheiser
Slogging through this book turned into a tedious process for me, picking it up and setting it back down over a period of several months in which I finished a number of much more stimulating texts. I'm highly interested in the subject, but I just didn't find Ambrose's prose to be very compelling.
LibraryThing member mtilleman07
It's a Stephen Ambrose book. About the transcontinental railroad. Pluses: reads like a thriller. Minuses: informs vaguely like a thriller. I've always felt like Ambrose will take a good story over an informative story. You might like that more than I do, but I felt short-changed on the history
Show More
front. Still, this is an under-appreciated part of American history, and the book works admirably as an introduction.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jmcilree
Tedious, disjointed and boring. Could have been a great story. Also an irritating (because he clearly doesn't under stand) explanation of financing of railroads. Could have focused on a lot of the aspects of building the road, but chose the most boring aspect-the actual construction. Like reading
Show More
an account of carpenters who built your house.
Show Less
LibraryThing member J.v.d.A.
Disappointing telling of a truly incredible feat of engineering. Ambrose's history is a largely lifeless relation of the facts, devoid of any real character or atmosphere, though the photographs are nice. The book is readable and does give you an idea of just how incredible a task the building of
Show More
this rail line was but it could have been so much better.
Show Less
LibraryThing member JVioland
Wonderful. Shows the guts and glory of those who build the railroad that brought the country together.
LibraryThing member GoofyOcean110
This is a solid, well-researched history of the transcontinental railroad, from conception to engineering, building, and completion. Like other Ambrose works, it is replete with interesting tidbits and side-stories. For instance, he includes great info about the engineer who conceived the idea and
Show More
convinced others it was possible and which route would work best. Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln and Brigham Young were both strong supporters of the railroad for various reasons.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member cyclops1771
Coverage of the making of the transcontinental railroad from start to finish, including the Credit Mobilier scandal. Reviews the decisions made, and the hardships faced by those who built it, from the Irish in the east, to the Chinese in the west, and the Mormons in the middle.
LibraryThing member DramMan
Review of “Nothing like it in the world” by Stephen E Ambrose (The men who built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869)
By any measure, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad was a remarkable achievement, requiring capital, labour and material in stupendous quantities. This masterful
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member morryb
This is an introductory history to the building of the transcontinental Railroad. The book gives an overview of the years that the building took place and provides a bibliography if the reader decides they want to go into deeper detail. The book is entertaining as well as informative and is hard to
Show More
put down once you get started. Ambrose describes the planning that went into the railroad, the work itself, the financing and the people involved. This was a great engineering feat that occurred in American history. There are some blemishes that occurred, and Ambrose describes these events as they happened and allows the reader to make their own assessment on the atrocities that occurred. I highly recommend this book. As an additional note. Charles Francis Adams Jr. grandson of John Quincy Adams, was highly critical of the project, but eventually became president of the Union Pacific Railroad. This is another major event in American History where one of tghe Adams family participated.
Show Less
LibraryThing member santhony
Fascinating history of the planning and building of the trancontinental railroad. This excellent history focuses on both termini of the railroad and the race to lay the most track before ultimately joining in Promontory, Utah. Politics, finance, fraud and intrigue permeate this book by Stephen
Show More
Ambrose, a master history writer.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lgaikwad
An easy-read history book that filled in much I did not know. Ambrose repeats himself, but repetition can be a teacher...and much was new to me. Ambrose said it was a book about "how," rather than "why" and I would agree. I wish there was more included from the Chinese and Irish perspective. Glad I
Show More
read it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member vibrantminds
A look into how the transcontinental railroad was made. From the determination of men who made it their life goal, to amazing engineering skills, and hard work of dedicated Chinese and Irish immigrants, many of which lost their lives. The race of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific to reach
Show More
Promintory Point in Utah and connect the East to the West. An epic journey that changed the entire country and brought about an amazing feat of technology that would be hard to surpass.
Show Less
LibraryThing member MrsLee
The idea of this book was interesting for me, in that the author started his research with a preconceived idea of the railroad barons, but through his studies, came to another conclusion or understanding of them. His beginning ideas were not necessarily wrong, but they were incomplete.

Other than
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member awilson
About building the transcontinental railroad, but excellent book about American society in general around the time of the Civil War.
LibraryThing member FKarr
Well-researched (if somewhat superficial, and jingoistic) description of the building of the transcontinental railroad (cf. Incredible Victory)
LibraryThing member SCRH
An informative book on one of the most important achievements that was attained in the United States. Although the author is repetitive at times, overall the book is an enjoyable read.

I particularly enjoyed the 30+ pages of photographs included.

The book includes a bibliography and a fine
Show More

Persons interested in the development and growth of railroads in the United States may find this book to be of value.
Show Less
LibraryThing member wenestvedt
The story of rich, rich men who played finncial tricks and the common laborers who executed their grand dreams. A departure from the style of first-person interviews that typified Ambrose's WWII books.
LibraryThing member kslade
Good history of transcontinental RR building.
LibraryThing member magicians_nephew
Stephen Ambrose is a distinguished historian and a heck of an interesting speaker.

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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nova_mjohnson
A good look at all that it took to build the first trans-continental railroad. Focuses a bit too much on the administrative/planning aspects at the expense of learning about the men who did the actual physical work and what their daily life was like.
LibraryThing member buffalogr
Before picking up this book, I had no interest in the history of the transcontinental railroad, but after only a couple of chapters, this book was a page turner. As it was an audio book, I missed the 30+ pages of pictures, which would have added to the story, I imagine, as I kept looking at Google
Show More
maps for the place names. We learned quite a bit about the people and the controversy of the time, I enjoyed it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member reader1009
nonfiction/socio-political, history
Stephen Ambrose shows no empathy for the Indians and barely any for the Chinese, so this history is more incomplete than I'd have liked, but the overall history was interesting.
LibraryThing member DanTarlin
Good read about the building of the US trans-continental railroad from 1864-1869. Ambrose knows how to propel a popular history, and he doesn't disappoint here. The railroad was a tremendous achievement, and the book really educated me about the scale of it and how transformative it was- it's
Show More
amazing to think about how in 1800 travel was essentially no different than it had been in Roman times, and by a few years later the world was totally different.
I would have liked more and better maps- maybe it was hard for me because I don't know the geography of the West very well. And there are so many characters in the book that it's hard to keep them all straight.
But overall I liked it a lot.
Show Less



Page: 0.3857 seconds