Ambrose - working on the railroad

September 03, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Staff

"Nothing Like It in the World," by Stephen E. Ambrose. Simon & Shuster. 431 pages. $28.

Talked about for 30 years and completed in 1869, the building of the transcontinental railroad -- which ran some 1,780 miles from Omaha to Sacramento -- remains one of the most staggering and awe-inspiring industrial achievements of the 19th century. That accomplishment was similar to the successful effort of landing a man on the moon exactly 100 years later.

The collaboration of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific was the creation of a hardy and savvy band of astute businessmen who in partnership with the federal government thought nothing of stooping to financial chicanery to achieve their aims.

It was the work of determined engineers and a work force made up largely of immigrants, Civil War veterans and freed African-Americans. They fought Indians, howling weather and searing heat to push the rail line across the Great Plains and through the Sierra Nevada mountains. They created an unbroken boulevard of steel from the Missouri River to the Pacific.

Stephen E. Ambrose, one of our greatest living historians, has written widely on World War II, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, the Civil War and the opening of the West. Now he turns his talents to examining the building of the railroad and the forces and personalities that controlled its destiny.

Drawing on original sources and vivid newspaper accounts, Ambrose has created a compelling and fascinating historical narrative.

His book brims with the foibles, financial scheming and petty jealousies of the Central Pacific's grandees known as the "Big Four" and made up of Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins.

The Union Pacific was likewise run with such formidable personalities as John A. Dix, Sidney Dillon, Dr. Thomas C. Durant and railroad builder Grenville Mellen Dodge.

Other characters included in its creation included Oakes and Oliver Ames, Massachusetts brothers and shovel makers who just happened to get the U.P. shovel contract. George Francis Train, a promoter, thought up Credit Mobilier, the construction company hired to build the U.P. but owned by those in financial control of the railroad who paid themselves lavish salaries.

The men who built the C.P. were largely Chinese, while Irish immigrants built the U.P. Paid only a few dollars a day for their back-breaking labors, they worked with only a lunch and dinner break from sun-up until sun-down.

At end of track, they took their leisure in a rough and tumble portable tent and board city called "Hell on Wheels," which followed the rail workers.

They easily succumbed to the temptations of the saloon, charms of painted women and the gambling parlors, which easily took their hard-earned pay.

Of Corine, Utah, a "Hell on Wheels," a reporter for the Salt Lake Desert observed: "The place is fast becoming civilized, several men having been killed there already, the last one was found in the river with four bullet holes through him and badly mangled."

However, their construction achievements even by today's standards are overwhelming. On April 28, 1869, C.P. workers laid 10 miles of track in 12 hours.

"What the C.P. crews did that day will be remembered as long as this Republic lasts," writes Ambrose.

On May 10, 1869, the great railroad was completed when the ceremonial Golden Spike was driven into a polished cypress crosstie at Promontory Point, Utah. Telegraphers flashed the word "DONE" coast to coast.

Frederick N. Rasmussen has, for the last eight years, been The Sun's chief obituary writer. Before that, he spent almost a generation on the newspaper's research library staff.

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