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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
What is there to say about the transcontinental railroad? That it was really long and very hard to build and took an awful lot of hammer-pounding? That's just the beginning....
Stephen Ambrose, author of such immensely popular histories as Undaunted Courage and D-Day, has created an enthralling account of the building of the transcontinental railroad, one riddled with ideas and facts, personalities and scandals.
By the 1860s, there were a few powerful men who decided they wanted to see the railroad built and wanted to make a killing in the process. As Congress balked at sponsoring any one particular railroad route, these men formed two private companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, one at either terminus of the track-to-be. Ambrose details the political intrigue, bribery, and cajoling that went on between these men and members of government to get the money, land, and support needed to build this seemingly impracticable transcontinental track.
But the narrative goes beyond politics and finances. After the introductory chapters, we take a year-by-year journey through the construction of the railroad itself, alternating chapters between the workings of the two companies. Ambrose describes the physical undertaking of finding a route through the mountains without the benefit of a bird's-eye view or a map, the men carrying their food and water and, never knowing what would lie ahead. He writes of the deadly hazards of using black powder to blast, inch by inch, through the Sierra Nevada range. We watch workers grade the road, lay the rails, and hammer the spikes to make the track grow, by manpower alone, at the astounding rate of one to two miles per day. We learn of the Chinese and Chinese-American workers who lived entire seasons in burrows beneath six feet or more of snow, drinking tea and exploding tunnels in the rock to lay track. We learn of the Irish and Irish-American workers building from the other terminus despite violent raids by furious Native Americans. In large part, this book is the story of the physical construction of the railroad and therefore an illustration of the audacity, perseverance, and even idealism of the men who built it.
Kate Montgomery is a writer living in Brewster, New York. She is the coauthor of Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean.