Posted by Steven S. Berizzi on 9/4/2000
Is there a more skillful writer of American narrative history practicing today than Stephen Ambrose. Not in my opinion. In this exceptionally fine book, Ambrose tells the story of the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century: the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which connected Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (only a couple of female characters figure prominently in Ambrose's story, although many others played important roles behind the scenes), included some of the most famous names in the history of 19th-century politics, business, finance, and industry, as well as tens of thousands of virtually-anonymous workers who provided millions of man-hours of sweat equity in this extraordinary project. This book is especially compelling because, more than anything else, it is a great human drama and some of its passages are as poignant as How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn's great tale of Welsh coal miners. However, Ambrose is painting on a much larger canvas.
We all know how the story will end - the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met at Promontory Summit north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah on May 10, 1869 - but Ambrose's narrative is given an urgency by his effective use of newspaper and magazine accounts of the events which transpired in the 1860s. Ambrose acknowledges that all of his research assistants were members of his family, and they are to be commended. The technical details about the vast quantities of materials purchased and the travails involved in transporting them to where they were needed are fascinating. In addition, this book's many outstanding features includes its collection of photographs. Anyone familiar with Civil War-era photography will recognize the facial types, but I was amazed by photographs depicting engineering and construction marvels: bridges, tunnels, snow sheds, trestles cuts, and a myriad of others. The ability of the surveyors, engineers, construction foremen, and workers to overcome every type of natural obstacle during the course of construction was simply remarkable, and Ambrose's description of building the Central Pacific through the Sierra Nevada mountains is thrilling. Ambrose clearly was impressed by the enormity of the railroad builders' accomplishments, but he occasionally offers some wry humor. The Hell-on-Wheels towns which sprung up around the railroads' tracks were rough places then but sources of some amusement now. And Ambrose makes much of the delightful irony that Leland Stanford was elected governor of California in 1861 in part because he aggressively slandered Chinese immigrants as the "dregs of Asia" and "that degraded race," but, if it had not been for the efforts of thousands of Chinese laborers, the Central Pacific portion of the railroad might never have been finished. (Equivalent numbers of Irish workers performed most of the construction on the Union Pacific line from the east). According to Ambrose, many of the Chinese were less than five feet tall and weighed no more than 120 lbs., but they proved to be ideal workers: industrious, intelligent, and generally uncomplaining. When a construction foreman declares "I will not boss Chinese!", one of the Central Pacific's directors replies: "They built the Great Wall of China, didn't they?" The men who conceived, financed, designed, and built the railroad are Ambrose's real story, but this book is made additionally enjoyable by appearances, sometimes extended, sometimes cameo, by a number of the most famous men of the age, including Presidents, Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant, Brigham Young, General William T. Sherman, and Horace Greeley. There are a few instances where this book could have used more careful editing. For instance, Charles Francis Adams is first identified, incorrectly, as the "grandson of two presidents" and only later, correctly, as "grandson and great-grandson of U.S. presidents." And we probably only needed to read once that the wife of the Central Pacific construction boss accompanied her husband throughout the project, living in a passenger car from which she hung a caged canary around her entrance. But I consider these to be very minor defects.
With the possible exception of the 1780s and the 1940s, no decade in American history was more exciting than the 1860s. It included a successful resolution of the greatest crisis in American history, the Civil War, and the extension of the transportation infrastructure from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Railroad construction was the largest industry of its time, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad (and the telegraph line built alongside it) was an indispensable precursor to American greatness. By 1900, in large part as a result of its extensive system of internal transportation, the United States was the strongest economic power in the world.
Less than a week after it was released, Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It in the World is already well on its way to becoming a national bestseller, and its success could not be more richly well deserved. I do not remember the last time I enjoyed a book so much.