Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Stephen Ambrose: Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869

"Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the 19th century." So begins Stephen Ambrose's brisk, highly readable Nothing Like It In The World, an unabashedly patriotic celebration of American ambition, ingenuity, and teamwork. Written at a time when revisionist histories seem a matter of course, the book doesn't exactly overlook the dubious financing and labor problems that hampered the project, but it doesn't dwell on them, either. By his own admission, Ambrose is more interested in the "hows" than the "whys," so a major sticking point—like the Crédit Mobilier scandal, in which investors and politicians scammed huge profits off the financing of the railroad—is but a minor blight on an awe-inspiring feat of engineering. Nothing Like It In The World is positively bursting with heroes, including Theodore Judah, the surveyor who mapped out the Western (Central Pacific) part of the track; Grenville Dodge, the general who headed construction of the Eastern (Union Pacific) section; the capitalists who risked their fortune on the venture; and the tens of thousands of Chinese, Irish, and Mormon laborers who did the dirty work. But none of Ambrose's heroes stand as tall as Abraham Lincoln, the man who not only campaigned to abolish slavery and build a transcontinental railroad, but accomplished both at the same time. While Congress wholeheartedly supported the project as an important step in uniting the country and expanding its prosperity, there were sharp North–South divisions over the route: A Southern route, for example, would be used to extend slavery along the line. Conveniently, when the Confederates started the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumter in 1861, they cleared the way for construction. Drawing from an exhaustive source-list of histories and archival materials, Ambrose reserves the majority of the book for a stirring account of the actual construction, from the initial surveys to the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit in May 1869. Despite adverse weather conditions, avalanches, nitroglycerin mishaps, and more, the laborers soldiered on, blasting tunnels through mountains of granite and laying track at 8,000 feet. Arriving on the heels of Undaunted Courage, his widely admired account of the Lewis & Clark expedition, it's fitting that Ambrose would again cross the country those men had tread. Passionate and reverent yet unimpeachable in its scholarship, Nothing Like It In The World is a rousing tribute to a railroad that unified the nation in more ways than one.


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