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ememstLJSt Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose Simon & Schuster, 2000, 431 pp., $28 The construction of the transcontinental railroad rivals the building of the Panama Canal or even the lunar landing as America's most magnificent engineering feat. It's no exaggeration to say that the railroad changed everything. Scores of men perished surveying, grading and laying the road, succumbing to avalanches, swelling rivers, angry natives, unstable nitroglycerin, freezing temperatures and worse. No accurate death records were kept. As author Stephen Ambrose makes clear, the important thing was to get the job done. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific ignored costs in lives and dollars in order to win the building race established by congressional act. Ambrose's succinct text provides engaging scenes and anecdotes that may be overly familiar to railroad buffs and railroad historians . Nonetheless, it offers a good overview and introduction to the subject . Nothing Like It comes on the heels of Empire Express, by David Howard Bain (Viking, 1999). In his history of the transcontinental railroad, Bain is expansive, detailed and generally more informative than Ambrose. You sense immediately the fourteen years of work Bain put into his book. Serious students of history will want to read Bain's definitive text. His thoroughness may seem cumbersome , though, to someone looking for a quick read. He begins, for example, with the great dreamer Asa Whitney, who spent 107 days at sea with a tyrannical ship captain while sailing to China. In 1844, envisioning increased trade with the Far East, Whitney submitted a "Pacific railroad memorial" to Congress, initiating the concept of the government setting aside public lands for a cross-country railroad. Whitney is one of many figures who does not appear in Ambrose's book. Ambrose's sharp, clear prose helps to counterbalance his history's lightness, though. He is a practiced writer-historian whose enthusiasm and flair for rhetoric reminds you of your favorite history teacher. "What the [Central Pacific] did that day," he writes of a record ten-mile day of track-laying, "will be remembered as long as this Republic lasts." And writing about Union Pacific laborers: "Their waists were generally thin, but oh those shoulders! Those arms! Those legs! They were men who could move things . . . whatever was The Missouri Review ยท 171 required, in rain or snow or high winds ... all day, every day." While Empire Express proves itself the superior text, Ambrose maintains his reputation as a master storyteller who moves quickly and precisely to the core ofhis tale. In one sense, the books shouldn't even be compared. The difference is between a definitive history and an introductory text. Some matters get lost in this book that shouldn't, though. Ambrose doesn't provide a clear enough depiction of the natives' perspectives on the Iron Horse. He covers the typical Indian atrocities and the earnest calls for "extermination" of the Indians by railroad and government officials, but he fails to review the history that contributed to native bloodshed and aggression. Bain, on the other hand, employs exhaustive research to describe the Indian stance. For example, he covers the histories of individual tribes, such as Colorado's Arapaho, in order to help explain the natives' actions. "Remarkably, despite continuing provocations by settlers," Bain writes at one point, "the fiercely proud warriors refrained from striking back. When there was serious trouble in the West, it was elsewhere, inspired by broken treaties. . . ." Ambrose never focuses on the complications of the federal government's broken promises. If the Union Pacific's greatest enemies were the Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne, the Central Pacific's greatest enemies were granite and snow. The CP faced the tougher enemy in having to cross the Sierra Nevada. Through the winter of 1866-1867, thousands of Chinese laborers worked for weeks on end in an underground labyrinth of snow tunnels leading to granite tunnels. Shifts ran around the clock. Their excruciatingly slow rate of progress through hard granite hovered around seven to twelve inches every twenty-four hours. Unnumbered Chinese workers died in the blasts, toiling under working conditions European immigrants wouldn't tolerate. (White laborers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 171-173
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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