Stephen Ambrose believes Americans of the second half of the 19th century experienced the most profound changes of any people in history. This book is about the largest single piece of evidence for that assertion: the railroad that linked one American coast with the other. With that in place, a cross-country transit that had once taken many months - with all kinds of life-threatening dangers - was safely accomplished in a week. Time and space, it seemed, had been conquered.
More exactly, the book is about the diverse group of men who conceived and carried out that project in the 1860s, from starting points in Sacramento, Calif. (the Central Pacific), and Omaha, Neb. (the Union Pacific), and meeting just above the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
As Ambrose quickly points out, these men were hardly heroes in the moral sense. They were shrewd, often dishonest, driven more by dollar signs than a sense of history. But Ambrose spares no prose in arguing that the work they undertook was indeed heroic. They used primarily human and animal muscle power to force their way through granite mountains and 50-foot snowdrifts, across vast arid wastes, over roaring rivers and deep canyons. Some 1,500 miles in all, completed under severe conditions.
Those conditions included, initially, the Civil War, which absorbed most of the country's resources. But the railroad had powerful friends who kept the dream going even then. Chief among these was Abraham Lincoln, who was seized by the idea of tying the continent together by rail early in his political career. He also had earned his living as a lawyer for Midwestern rail lines. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman were no less fervent friends of the railroad. Among other benefits, they could see military power greatly extended by this fast and relatively cheap means of transport.
But for this story, those towering figures recede before the men who did the actual work. At the top were financiers and businessmen struggling to keep their massively undercapitalized enterprises on the rails. They lobbied ceaselessly for government help in the form of land grants along the rights of way and bond issues to subsidize the work. They created intertwined corporate structures that paid large dividends to a chosen few (including some in Congress) while construction shortcuts were taken and work crews went unpaid. The Union Pacific's troubles in this regard led eventually to the Credit Mobilier scandal which left its own permanent imprint on the national consciousness.
At the bottom of the vast organizations formed to build the roads were armies of laborers. Coming eastward, brigades of Chinese workmen defied the blatant racism of the time with remarkable industry and endurance. Moving West were largely Irish work gangs of immigrants and war veterans. They were wonderfully productive in their own right, but given to carousing and to work stoppages to protest late wages. Near the meeting point, teams of Mormon workers were hired on, with the blessing of church president Brigham Young, himself an investor in the Union Pacific.
Ambrose tells this story with an abundance of detail and the same gritty narrative voice known to readers of his other works, such as the superbly crafted "Undaunted Courage" about the Lewis and Clark expedition. "Nothing Like It in the World," sadly, doesn't quite come up to that standard. There are times when the chronological thread gets a little tangled. Some errors weren't caught in the editing and proofing, such as the gold discovery site in California being placed west of Sacramento, instead of east.
Some readers will take issue with Ambrose's thesis that the grandeur of what was accomplished towered over the shortcomings of those who pushed the road through. The uncounted lives lost to construction accidents as the bosses furiously pressured their crews can't be forgotten. Nor the graft. Nor the railroad's role in engendering a policy of genocide toward the Plains Indians, who were simply seen as a nuisance that had to be eliminated.
Even 131 years after its completion, the transcontinental railroad can still spark controversy - and wonder. Ambrose is right about it being a quintessential American story, in both its glorious human achievements, and its sad human failings.
Keith Henderson is on the staff of the Monitor's editorial page.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society