Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad

Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad

by Walter R. Borneman

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The driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, which marked the completion of the country's first transcontinental railroad, was only the beginning of the race for railroad dominance. In the aftermath of this building feat, dozens of railroads, each with aggressive empire builders at their helms, raced one another for the ultimate prize of a southern


The driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, which marked the completion of the country's first transcontinental railroad, was only the beginning of the race for railroad dominance. In the aftermath of this building feat, dozens of railroads, each with aggressive empire builders at their helms, raced one another for the ultimate prize of a southern transcontinental route that was generally free of snow, shorter in distance, and gentler in gradients.

More than just a means of transportation, the railroads were a powerful mold, and the presence of a rail line had the power to make—or break—the fledgling towns and cities across the newborn American West. While much has been written about the building of the first transcontinental railroad, the bulk of the history of the railroads in the United States has been largely ignored. With a meticulous, loving eye, Walter Borneman picks up where most other histories leave off.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Borneman (The French and Indian War) goes beyond the driving of the golden spike at Promontory, UT, in 1869 to explore how during the subsequent two decades the western United States was crisscrossed with multiple rail lines. He explains how the railroad barons of storied lines like the Southern Pacific, the Denver & Rio Grande, and especially the Santa Fe battled over rights-of-way, passengers, and freight traffic. He also describes the advent of Fred Harvey's food service, how the railroads promoted settlement, and even several famous train robberies. Each chapter covers a particular development like the Sante Fe's entrance into California or the fight over the right-of-way through Colorado's Royal Gorge. VERDICT With modern railroads in a state of renewal, this well-written history of western railroad expansion will greatly interest rail fans and general readers alike. The book includes a 16-page photo section (not seen) and more than two dozen excellent maps essential to understanding the routes. Readers may also want to seek out Stephen Fried's Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West.—Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA
Kirkus Reviews

Workmanlike history of the post–Civil War effort to lace the western United States with steel rails.

That war, writes lawyer-historian Borneman (Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, 2008, etc.), proved the efficacy of the railroads in moving men and supplies over great distances in short periods. One who learned that lesson was Union general William S. Rosecrans, who was outflanked thanks to a rebel railroad at Chickamauga, a potential catastrophe for the Yankees narrowly averted thanks to future president James A. Garfield. Rosecrans took the lesson to heart and, after the war, made his way to Southern California, where much of Borneman's drama plays out as rival entrepreneurs attempted to build on the achievement of the completion, in 1869, of the first link of the transcontinental railroad by seeking routes across the western mountains that were relatively free of snow and ice. Other major players included Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford, who battled among other giants to determine which combination—the Kansas Pacific, the Santa Fe, the Central Pacific, etc.—would predominate. The author ably shows how their struggles over the decades are reflected in the current geography of the American West, explaining why Tucson, Albuquerque and other points became important precisely because the iron horse came galloping through. However, his account is rather colorless, certainly as compared to Stephen Fried's vigorousAppetite for America (2010) or David Lavender's older biography of Huntington,The Great Persuader (1970). Still, Borneman provides a solid business history, illustrating once again how the ones who make the real money in any given venture are usually the ones a step or two behind the true pioneers.

Railroad buffs will be delighted to note that the great project chronicled here is still unfolding, with the hotly contested corridor between Chicago and Los Angeles still "one of the most heavily traveled rail routes in North America."

From the Publisher
"With modern railroads in a state of renewal, this well-written history of western railroad expansion will greatly interest rail fans and general readers alike. " —Library Journal

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Random House Publishing Group
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Rival Rails

The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad
By Walter R. Borneman

Random House

Copyright © 2010 Walter R. Borneman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781400065615

Chapter One

 Lines upon the Map

The wind makes a mournful moan as it roars through thecanyons and arroyos of West Texas. But on the afternoon of September 28, 1858,a new sound pierced the air. The tinny call of a bugle announced the impendingarrival of the first westbound Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach at thePinery Station near the crest of 5,534-foot Guadalupe Pass.

Eighteen months earlier, Congress had authorized thepostmaster general to establish regular overland mail service between SanFrancisco and the Mississippi River. When bids were opened, the route wasawarded to John Butterfield for the then staggering sum of $600,000 per year.The New York Times promptly termed the entire enterprise a waste of governmentmoney.

 Butterfield's contract required twice-weekly service anda transcontinental schedule of twenty-five days or less. The 2,795-mile routeconverged from St. Louis and Memphis at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then dippedsouth across Texas, the Gila River country, and Southern California beforeswinging north to San Francisco. The Pinery was but one of 141 stations thatButterfield initially constructed to accommodate the numerous horses, mules,stagecoaches, and men required to put the line into operation.

When the coach creaked to a halt at the Pinery thatSeptember day, a sole passenger alighted and brushed the alkali dust from hisclothes. If the station workers eyed him as an eastern dude, they were right.His name was Waterman Lily Ormsby III, and he was a twenty-three-year-oldspecial correspondent for the New York Herald. He had been enticed west by JohnButterfield to record the glories of transcontinental mail service. Butterfieldhimself had elected to depart the inaugural run at Fort Smit.

 While four fresh mules were attached to the coach, Ormsbywolfed down a hasty meal of venison and baked beans. Then the young newsmanclimbed back inside. The driver and conductor remounted their swaying perch,and with a flick of the reins they bounced westward across Guadalupe Pass.

 That evening, as Ormsby's coach descended the pass, therewas a commotion on the trail ahead. The first eastbound coach from SanFrancisco came into sight and pulled to a stop alongside its westbound twin.After historic pleasantries, both drivers urged their teams forward in theirrespective directions at speeds averaging five miles an hour.

 Brief though it was, this encounter proved that theAmerican coasts had been joined-however tenuously-and the neophyte ButterfieldOverland Mail unleashed a huge national appetite for transcontinentalconnections. Whether by stagecoach, Pony Express, or iron rails, this obsessionwith bridging the continent would consume the American nation for the nextcentury.

 Only a half century before John Butterfield's enterprise,the American West was largely unmapped. Native Americans in much of the regionlived a seminomadic lifestyle with fluid territorial boundaries. These changedover the years with intertribal warfare and pressures stirred by newcomerschased out of their indigenous homelands east of the Mississippi.

By the 1820s, the rivers flowing eastward from the RockyMountains had become trails into their midst. Mountain men trapping beaver werefollowed by traders-the risk-taking entrepreneurs of their day-who forcedgroaning wagons loaded with goods along the river valleys. Among the earliestand most famous of these routes was the Santa Fe Trail linking Independence,Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

 But as the Santa Fe trade swelled during the 1830s, theproblem in the eyes of many Americans was that Santa Fe and the entireSouthwest, from California to Texas, belonged to Mexico. Once the Republic ofTexas was born in 1836, this decidedly American presence looked covetously atSanta Fe and the land beyond.

The tide of American expansionism running westward alongthe Santa Fe Trail soon exploded under the banner of Manifest Destiny. When theMexican-American War ended in 1848, the Mexican provinces of Upper Californiaand New Mexico-essentially, the future American states of California, Nevada,Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and more than half of Colorado-belonged to theUnited States.

Some thought the new territory quite worthless. Otherswho had been in the vanguard to Santa Fe or lusted in a similar vein forCalifornia knew better. Now the race to build an empire here would not bebetween Americans and Mexicans but among Americans themselves.

 Mountain men and traders found the routes into theRockies, but it was a succession of military topographers who put those routesdown on paper as lines upon the map of the West. It did not take long forvisionaries to see those lines as logical extensions of the railroads that werebeginning to extend their spidery webs about the East.

To show the importance the federal government placed onsuch mapping, the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was established in1838 and put on equal footing with the army's other departments. Its firstmajor project was the survey of the new border between the United States andMexico after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War.The man who knew this country as well as anyone was Major William H. Emory, whohad ridden west as a topographical engineer at the war's outbreak.

 Even then, Emory was thinking far ahead. "The roadfrom Santa Fe to Fort Leavenworth [Kansas]," Emory reported,"presents few obstacles for a railway, and if it continues as good to thePacific, will be one of the routes to be considered over which the UnitedStates will pass immense quantities of merchandise into what may become, intime, the rich and populous states of Sonora, Durango, and SouthernCalifornia."

Reaching California, Emory confirmed that as atransportation corridor, the route west from Santa Fe did indeed "continueas good to the Pacific." His resulting map of the Southwest showed amoderate, all-weather railroad route linking the Great Plains and SouthernCalifornia along the still-nebulous U.S.-Mexican border.

 Such a railroad was deemed by many to be essential toholding on to the fruits of the recent war. "The consequences of such aroad are immense," Colonel John J. Abert, the taciturn, no-nonsense chiefof the Topographical Engineers, asserted. "Unless some easy, cheap, andrapid means of communicating with these distant provinces be accomplished,there is danger, great danger, that they will not constitute parts of ourUnion."

 But as the boundary survey neared completion, Emory andcertain southern politicians argued that the most promising railroad route toCalifornia lay along the 32nd parallel-decidedly south of the proposedinternational border. One of the southern politicians who held that view was amongEmory's closest friends, both from their family connections and from their daystogether at West Point. His name was Jefferson Davis.

In 1845 Davis had won a seat in the U.S. House ofRepresentatives as a Democrat from Mississippi. When war with Mexico broke out,he resigned from Congress and accepted command of a regiment of Mississippivolunteers. Davis returned wounded but a hero and was appointed to a vacancy inthe United States Senate. But Davis supported states' rights so staunchly thathe soon tendered another resignation and returned to Mississippi to rununsuccessfully for governor as a States Rights Democrat.

When Democrat Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire won thepresidency in 1852, he appointed Davis his secretary of war in an effort tobalance his cabinet geographically and reunite the Democratic Partypolitically. As secretary of war, Davis was immediately involved in twocontroversies: remedying the geographic deficiencies of the Treaty of GuadalupeHidalgo and surveying routes for a transcontinental railroad.

Driven by proponents of Emory's recommended railroadroute along the 32nd parallel, U.S. ambassador to Mexico James Gadsdensucceeded in purchasing from Mexico the southwestern corner of New Mexico andthe southern watershed of the Gila River in what is now southern Arizona. TheGadsden Purchase stoked political controversies on both sides of the border,but at least it was a decisive event. The railroad surveys would prove to be anentirely different matter.

 Even before the dust of the Mexican-American War settled,railroad conventions with all the best chamber-of-commerce trappings had beenheld in key cities up and down the Mississippi Valley. Each would-be metropolisespoused itself the only logical choice for the eastern terminus of atranscontinental railroad. In reality, the competition among Mississippi Valleylocales was already round three of America's railroad sweepstakes.

When the iron horse was new in the 1830s, the East Coastcities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannahcompeted to become the first railroad hubs. In the 1840s, with railroadtechnology here to stay, the inland cities west of the AppalachianMountains-Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit,Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta-lobbied hard to become the next hubs in thespreading web of steel. By the 1850s, it was the would-be Mississippi Valleyhubs of Minneapolis, Davenport, St. Louis, Cairo (Illinois), Memphis,Vicksburg, Natchez, and New Orleans that all wanted to sit astride railroadsleading still farther west.

 Each city and corresponding geographic route had itsparticular political champion. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois liked theidea of the Great Lakes as an eastern terminal and wanted the rail line to runwest from Chicago to Davenport, Council Bluffs, and across the plains toWyoming's South Pass. The Memphis Railroad Convention of October 1849wholeheartedly declared its support for a route from that city west acrossArkansas and Texas. A Missouri faction led by Congressman John S. Phelps wantedSpringfield in the southwestern part of that state as the gateway to a routethat would run west across Indian Territory to Santa Fe.

 St. Louis interests were well represented by SenatorThomas Hart Benton, who for decades had trumpeted Missouri as the logicalgateway to the West via the central Rockies. The St. Louis Railroad Conventionheard the indomitable Benton urge Congress to build a western railroad and doso in order to have "the Bay of San Francisco at one end, St. Louis in themiddle, and the national metropolis and great commercial emporium at the otherend." And on it went.

With such hometown boosterism and concomitant sectionalrivalries, it was little wonder that a national railroad bill got nowhere inthe United States Congress. This was despite the presumption-often rebutted inantebellum days-that national interest should come first in such matters. Partof the reason for the strong sectional rivalries that attached themselves to thevigorous debate about a transcontinental route was that even the most visionaryassumed there would be only one western railroad-one railroad that would makeor break the geographic section it embraced or bypassed.

So when after lengthy debate Congress finally passed thePacific Railroad Survey Act on March 2, 1853, it was not to designate one grandrailroad to the Pacific but to authorize extensive explorations along thecontested routes. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was charged with orderingarmy expeditions into the field and completing the gargantuan task withineleven months.

By looking at the routes through the eyes of the Corps ofTopographical Engineers, Congress hoped-as did Davis-that one route wouldemerge with qualities so apparent as to stifle sectional rivalries. Thus, thesurveys "promised to substitute the impartial judgment of science for thepassions of the politicos and the promoters."

 The great equalizer in this impartial judgment was to begrade, the yardstick by which all railroad routes are ultimately measured.Grade is a critical limiting factor in railroad operations because locomotivessimply stagger to a halt if they are unable to pull their load up a particularincline. The lower the grade, the more efficiently loads can be moved along it.Consequently, finding the most direct route with the lowest possible grade wasthe key to building a competitive railroad.

 Jefferson Davis couldn't be sure, but based on everythingthat William Emory had already reported, there was an excellent chance thattheir favored southern route would outshine them all. Davis promptly tappedEmory to oversee the surveys. Given the unrealistic timetable and the vastterrain to be covered, these efforts became general reconnaissance surveysrather than mile-by-mile grade surveys. Still, by the standards of the day,they were costly undertakings. Congress appropriated an initial $150,000, added$40,000 a year later, and then put another $150,000 on the table to completethe work and publish the reports.

Emory saw to it that in addition to army topographers andengineers, each contingent included a wide array of scientists:anthropologists, botanists, cartographers, geographers, geologists,meteorologists, paleontologists, and zoologists, as well as illustrators andartists. "Not since Napoleon had taken his company of savants intoEgypt," historian William H. Goetzmann later observed, "had the worldseen such an assemblage of scientists and technicians marshaled under onebanner."

Initially, four parties were dispatched along specificparallels of latitude: the northern route between the 47th and 49th parallelsleading west from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the upper Missouri; a south-centralroute up the Arkansas River through the central Rockies to the Great Salt Lakealong the 38th parallel; the 35th parallel route from Fort Smith, Arkansas, toAlbuquerque, northern Arizona, and California; and investigations in Californiafor passes through the Sierras between the 32nd and 35th parallels.

There were two obvious omissions. No work was ordered onStephen Douglas's proposed north-central line from Council Bluffs to South Passor on Davis and Emory's favored line along the 32nd parallel. In the finalreport of the surveys, Davis himself brushed off the absence of work on theSouth Pass route and merely referenced the earlier reports of surveyors John C.Frémont and Howard Stansbury through that general vicinity.

As to the southern route, perhaps Davis thought thatEmory's work had already identified the merits of the 32nd parallel. Perhaps hesimply delayed sending a contingent to this area while negotiations for theGadsden Purchase were under way. Davis may even have wanted to demonstrate somemeasure of sectional impartiality by dispatching the northern expeditionsfirst. Whatever the reasons, it was October 1853 before Davis ordered atwo-prong look at the 32nd parallel. So, amidst the politics, the parties tookto the field in the summer of 1853 to see if science could declare a surewinner in the transcontinental sweepstakes.

If there was any survey commander apt to be overly biasedin favor of his appointed route, it was Isaac I. Stevens, formerly an officerin the Corps of Engineers but now, thanks to political connections withPresident Pierce, the freshly appointed governor of newly created WashingtonTerritory. Stevens was charged with examining the northern route and ultimatelylinking the watersheds of the Missouri and Columbia rivers. While thegovernor's main party moved westward from St. Paul across Minnesota, the Dakotaplains, and the headwaters of the Missouri, a detachment under Captain GeorgeB. McClellan probed the Cascade Mountains at the western end of the route.

Following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, Stevenslocated possible passes across the Continental Divide and then met up withMcClellan's troops in the Bitterroot Valley south of what would later becomeMissoula, Montana. Young McClellan, who would go on to frustrate AbrahamLincoln as his dilatory commander of the Army of the Potomac during the CivilWar, showed his lifelong disposition to glory without risk when he decidedlyoverestimated the snow depth on passes through the Cascades and twice refusedto cross them. Civilian engineers subsequently made the trips without incident.


Excerpted from Rival Rails by Walter R. Borneman Copyright © 2010 by Walter R. Borneman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From the Publisher
"With modern railroads in a state of renewal, this well-written history of western railroad expansion will greatly interest rail fans and general readers alike. " —-Library Journal

Meet the Author

Norman Dietz, a writer, an actor, and a solo performer, has recorded over 150 audiobooks, many of which have earned him awards from AudioFile magazine, the ALA, and Publishers Weekly. Additionally, AudioFile named Norman one of the Best Voices of the Century.

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