From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West

From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West

by John Sedgwick


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A sweeping and lively history of one of the most dramatic stories never told—of the greatest railroad war of all time, fought by the daring leaders of the Santa Fe and the Rio Grande to seize, control, and create the American West.

It is remarkable now to imagine, but during the 1870s, the American West, for all its cloud-topped peaks and endless coastline, might have been barren tundra as far as most Americans knew. In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad had made history by linking East and West, but, relying heavily on federal grants, it left an opening for two brash new railroad men, the Civil War hero behind the Rio Grande and the corporate chieftain of the Santa Fe, to build the first transcontinental to make money by creating a railroad empire across the Southwest to the sea.

The railroad companies were governments on wheels: they set the course, chose the route, and built up cities and towns along their tracks. Their choices brought life to such out-of-the-way places as San Diego, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Denver, and to Los Angeles most of all: The Santa Fe turned a sleepy backwater of 30,000 into a booming metropolis of 150,000 in three years—the most explosive growth of any city in the history of the United States.

By then, the two men behind the Rio Grande and the Santa Fe had fought all across the west to lay claim to the routes that would secure the most profitable territory and the richest silver mines. But they often led through narrow mountain passes or up treacherous canyons with room for only a single set of tracks. To win them, each side turned hundreds of their train workers into private armies backed by local militia and paid mercenaries like Dodge City’s Bat Masterson. The war left one of the two lines reeling in a death spiral and sent the other on to a greatness unequaled by any other railroad in the world.

From the River to the Sea is the epic story of the greatest railroad war of all time, fought by two railroad men for glory and fortune—and the right to shape the future of the West.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982104283
Publisher: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 121,251
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

John Sedgwick is the bestselling author of Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation, and twelve other books: four works of literary nonfiction, two novels, a family memoir, and five collaborations. He has also written extensively for The Atlantic, GQ, Newsweek, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. He is married to the CNN analyst and Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue PROLOGUE A Tale of Two Cities
L.A. THE ONLY CITY IN the world that goes just by its initials, like the self-assured global celebrity it is. Unlike Miami with its beaches, New York with its skyline, or Houston with its oil, Los Angeles is a fantasy of a city whose identity somehow floats free of mundane physical characteristics. All, that is, except for the sunshine radiating down from impossibly blue skies and the palm trees that rise up in greeting.

Unlike virtually everywhere else in America, to say nothing of America itself, L.A. has no founding myth to define it. No pilgrims, no explorers, no pioneers. While most people have the vague idea that the city dates back to Spanish times, the details are lost in the glitter, replaced by the gauzy notion that it somehow created itself as a product of its movie business.

It’s hard to account for it otherwise. Although L.A. lies by the sea, it did not begin life as a port. Nor was it birthed by the river that runs through it from the San Gabriel Mountains or a natural resource like the gold that brought prospectors surging into San Francisco. (Oil wasn’t found until L.A. was well established, which is why a pumpjack might be cranking away in a McDonald’s parking lot.)

No, the city in fact owes its origin to something so foreign to its self-conception that it represents a violation of its existential code. It was started by a railroad. Los Angeles is a railroad town. Startling as that might sound, on reflection it should not be quite so surprising, since railroads gave rise to countless cities in the West (and plenty in the East, too). While San Francisco, up the coast, was not built by a railroad, it was certainly built up by one when the first transcontinental arrived there in 1869. Numerous other western cities were created almost entirely by railroads—Denver, Reno, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Tacoma, to name just a few.

Curiously, Los Angeles was not the result of the first railroad that came to town nearly so much as the second. Its arrival set off a furious competition between the two in the spring of 1887 that dropped the price of a $125 ticket from Chicago to just one single solitary dollar. The news set off a stampede into Los Angeles. Just in the first three years of the frenzy, it went from a sun-splashed Spanish pueblo of thirty thousand to a bustling city of a hundred and fifty thousand, a fivefold expansion that marks the most explosive growth of any city in the history of the United States. That growth curve has rarely flattened since.

Over a thousand miles to the east, Colorado Springs lies just south of Denver on the edge of the Rockies, a mile up in the crystalline mountain air. A rather sedate, if not sleepy, college town in the shadow of Pikes Peak, a jagged-topped “fourteener” that looms over everything, Colorado Springs was also created by a railroad. Founded in 1871, it was intended to be a mountain retreat in the Alpine manner, a place of healthy air and cultural refinement for high-end refugees brought in by train from the smoggy East. Small, out-of-the-way, closed-in, Colorado Springs seems to exist in a separate universe or on a separate plane of meaning from L.A. But there is a connection between them all the same.

The train that made the modern Los Angeles started in Colorado Springs. Not literally—the town never had an L.A. Express—but figuratively, riding the tracks of history, which often run by puzzling, circuitous routes from the past into the present. While the course of progress is often thought to be the result of economic, social, technological, and environmental forces beyond anyone’s control, that was not at all true of the development of the railroads. In the robust industrial age, they were all run by powerful, strong-minded men who bent their industry, and a good deal of the country, to their will. They set the course, chose the route, and built up the cities and towns their tracks reached. In this, Colorado Springs and Los Angeles were no exception.

The fates of these two distant cities, one as big as the other is small, were linked because the railroad men behind them were linked. More than linked, in fact. Bound like a pair of conjoined twins, two bodies somehow sharing a single mind, burning as one with the identical, all-consuming determination to go west. It was freakish, but undeniable: these two wildly different men became almost indistinguishable once they focused on the same objective and did so in the full realization that only one of them could attain it. It made quite a ball of fire, this frenzied competition, a blind, stupid, and utterly destructive jealous rage. A sun all of their own making that drew all eyes to it—even as the real one rose up overhead, day after day, and silently crossed the sky to the far horizon, as if to remind these two railroad men what they were fighting for: the chance to develop and define the modern West as no one else could.

Table of Contents

Prologue: A Tale of Two Cities 1

Introduction: A Very Personal War 5

Part 1 The Raton Pass

Chapter 1 On the Train to El Moro 25

Chapter 2 The Wild West 33

Chapter 3 Beware the Prairie Lilies 48

Chapter 4 The Grid 57

Chapter 5 Where to Go 63

Chapter 6 Seeking Uncle Dick 74

Chapter 7 Santa Fe, Inc. 79

Chapter 8 Enter the Queen 90

Chapter 9 The Battle Is Joined 108

Part 2 The Royal Gorge

Chapter 10 Precious Metals 123

Chapter 11 "A Game of Bluff" 130

Chapter 12 Haw 136

Chapter 13 The Dead-line 144

Chapter 14 This Means War 154

Chapter 15 Bad Men 163

Chapter 16 Gould 172

Chapter 17 A Whiskey Salute 181

Chapter 18 Harvey Houses 186

Part 3 Los Angeles

Chapter 19 The Pueblo 197

Chapter 20 The Big Four 203

Chapter 21 "A Terrible, Single-handed Talker" 209

Chapter 22 Guaymas 213

Chapter 23 "This Is Hard" 221

Chapter 24 The A&P 227

Chapter 25 The End of the Line 238

Chapter 26 Ightham Mote 247

Chapter 27 California for a Dollar 257

Chapter 28 Boom! 262

Chapter 29 Home 272

Epilogue: The Frontier Thesis 281

Acknowledgments 291

Notes 295

Bibliography 313

Illustration Credits 325

Index 327

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