Tracing the trail of steel tracks across a continent

A Great And Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad, by John Hoyt Williams. New York: Times Books. 287 pp. $22.50. ``A Great and Shining Road'' is limited by its genre: Like every conventional railroad book, rather than stretching from sea to shining sea, it starts west of the Mississippi and ends up on the West Coast of the United States. But it's highly readable, not because it presents ``the pendulum beat of a mighty era'' but because both text and illustrations have a human and humane touch about them.

Williams writes as a history professor rather than a railroad buff - though he may be that, too. As historian, he makes it clear that, not only were there the essential Chinese and Irish laborers mentioned in previous books about pioneering railroads, but also that Brigham Young was a man to be courted, so to speak! That is: Thousands of Mormon artisans sculpted timbers, manned pay cars, did cut-and-fill and other necessary work despite, as senior engineer Samuel Benedict Reed remarked, the Mormons' ``social abominations.''

Williams also argues that, although almost entirely restricted to common laboring positions, the Chinese were by and large treated very fairly. They were paid in gold, not the usual company scrip. (The company town issued its own money to be used only in company stores, etc.)

When the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific ribbons of steel were finally hammered together at Promontory Point in Utah, the nation was at last, however tenuously, united. Seers of commerce saw the railroad as a means to an end: It would bring the riches of the Far East to Europe, via two oceans with the railroad in between.

As Williams reminds us, however, thousands of miles away, turbaned workers intoning chants in a dozen Arabic dialects were almost finished with another great link between oceans - the Suez Canal. As had been done for centuries, the riches of Asia would continue to reach European tables by a non-American route.

What the book lacks in new material and photos, it more than makes up for in its ebullient portrayal of the people and personalities involved in this great engineering accomplishment. Williams gets down to the handshakes and the backstabs of railroad politicking as well as the dramatic posturing and grandiose benevolence of 19th-century railroading.

Roy Barnacle is on the Monitor staff.

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