T.H. Watkins is author of "The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America.""Empire Express" isn't the only recent book celebrating the trials and triumphs of locomotion and exploration. We asked historian T.H. Watkins to pick some of his favorites.
The Search for the Northwest Passage, by Ann Savours (St. Martin's). In a compelling narrative, Savours lays bare a dream that simmered in the fevered minds of explorers for nearly three centuries -- that of a commercially navigable transportation route to the Far East through the sprawl of the North American continent.
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, by Gary Kinder (Atlantic Monthly). Had there been a commercially viable Northwest Passage, the SS Central America, with some 600 passengers and 21 tons of California gold, would not have been sent to its grave by a hurricane off the Carolinas in 1857. But then we would have been deprived of Gary Kinder's marvelous account of the disaster and his equally fascinating story of one man's struggle to find and recover the ship's treasure.
Railways and the Victorian Imagination, by Michael Freeman (Yale). In Great Britain, the steam locomotive, the Great Machine of the 19th century, became a force that for decades helped shape everything from class structure to the rhythms of rural life. "Ultimately," one author writes, "the departure time of the milk train in country districts became the arbiter of milking time."
The Miracle of Flight, by Stephen Dalton (Firefly). From the wing structure of the Concorde to that of four-winged insects, the mystery of nearly all things that fly is explicated here in stunning photography, line drawings and clearly written text by a man who obviously would love to have wings himself. As who wouldn't?
Prince Borghese's Trail: 10,000 miles Over Two Continents, Four Deserts, and the Roof of the World in the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, by Genevieve Obert (Council Oak). In 1907, Italian prince Borghese and his writer companion, Luigi Borzini, joined the world's first international automobile rally, a race from Peking to Paris. On hand for a recreation of that race 90 years later was automobile writer and enthusiast Obert, who cunningly blends her own adventures with that of her predecessors.
The Deal Maker: How William C. Durant Made General Motors, by Axel Madsen (Wiley). Henry Ford may have been the first giant of the automobile industry, Axel Madsen makes clear in this solid study, but it was William C. Durant who recognized the value of consolidation. Between 1908 and 1910, Durant put together a conglomerate that included 25 individual companies, and, after his corporate enemies took it away from him, he founded Chevrolet, used it to win back the whole kaboodle, and forged GM into an entity that survived long after Durant himself was wiped out in 1929.
The Drive-In, the Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941, by Richard Longstretch (MIT). If there is any doubt left regarding the transformative power of the automobile age, Richard Longstretch obliterates it in this heavily illustrated, often technical but still fascinating look at the evolution of commercial space in the first American city to give itself, whole-souled and unafraid, to the world of wheels.