Building the First

Transcontinental Railroad

By David Haward Bain

Viking. 797 pp. $34.95

Reviewed by H.W. Brands

"THIRTY SECONDS to a rail for each gang, and so four rails go down a minute. . . . Close behind the first gang come the gaugers, spikers and bolters, and a lively time they make of it. It is a grand Anvil Chorus that those sturdy sledges are playing across the plains. It is in triple time, three strokes to a spike. There are ten spikes to a rail, 400 rails to a mile."

So wrote a journalist reporting the construction of the Union Pacific, the eastern half of the transcontinental railroad, in the late 1860s. Had the journalist ventured farther west, to where the crews of the Central Pacific carved a line across the Sierra Nevada, he would have been even more impressed. Merely surveying a route that didn't exceed the pulling capacity of the era's locomotives demanded imagination and courage; converting the surveyors' notes into roadbed and rails required filling canyons with tens of thousands of cubic yards of earth delivered one cartload at a time, blasting tunnels through some of the hardest rock in North America, building snow sheds against 60-foot drifts, and dangling Chinese laborers down sheer stone faces to chisel out ledges.

David Hward Bain's Empire Express is a breathtaking tale enthusiastically told -- of vision, greed, adventure, courage, betrayal, accomplishment. And fittingly so. The transcontinental railroad was the construction project of the century -- arguably the most important one in American history. From the 1830s onward, occasional dreamers had talked of spanning the continent with a railroad; the original impetus was a desire to ease commercial access to China. But the conquest of California in the Mexican War, and the discovery of gold there -- a discovery first exploited not by the region's new owners but by argonauts from Peru, Chile and even Australia, which were effectively closer to the diggings than the populated portions of the United States were -- intensified demand for a fast route across the plains and mountains. Even then, however, the sectional politics of North and South stymied construction, as neither side would agree to a route that might favor the other. Only after the South left the Union did a decision become possible.

The labor did not come without its problems. The Chinese, brought across the Pacific for their presumed acquiescence in low pay, recognized their importance and struck for higher wages. "The truth is, they are getting smart," said Central Pacific lawyer E.B. Crocker. Smart, but still at a disadvantage: The railroad withheld food rations until the starving workers capitulated.

That the federal government would be involved in building the transcontinental railroad was inevitable from the start. The territory traversed by the road was almost entirely federal land, and without federal subsidies and guarantees, private capital would not be forthcoming. Yet the inevitable required help. Bain makes clear how many palms had to be greased to get the railroad legislation through Congress. "No man can call $50,000 per mile for a road up the Platte Valley anything else but a big swindle," fumed an Iowa Republican -- whose chief complaint was not the size of the subsidy but that it was going to someone else. (Nowadays, when Internet startups pay their bills with shares of their own stock, it is instructive to note that the Union Pacific pioneered the process in the 1860s. One hopes the dot.coms don't follow the railroad in using their stock to bribe lawmakers.)

Construction commenced during the Civil War, which provided not merely the logistical model for transporting workers and materiel but also the conquering mood. "The time is coming, and fast too," predicted one young engineer on the job, "when in the sense it is now understood, there will be no West." Eliminating the West -- in terms of a distant frontier -- entailed eliminating many of the inhabitants of the West. Contrary to popular myth, the wagon trains that crossed the plains during the 1840s and 1850s encountered relatively little resistance from Indians. Things changed when the rail crews arrived, with the change reflecting both a recognition by the Indians that these latest interlopers were not simply passing through and a more belligerent policy by the U.S. government. The Sand Creek massacre of 1864, in which hundreds of Indian women and children were killed, marked the beginning of a war on the plains that didn't end until the rails had gone through and the Indian culture -- not to mention many thousands of Indian lives -- had been destroyed.

Bain's is a sprawling book, and shows some of the faults of sprawl. He repeats himself (for example, twice quoting Charles Crocker's self-praise on labor relations); he annexes New Mexico too soon (1846 rather than 1848, although he later gets it right); he confounds the financial Panic of 1837 with the economic depression that followed; he suggests that the crux of the slavery question in the late 1840s was the status of the peculiar institution in the Southern states, rather than in the Western territories.

But nothing this ambitious can avoid all error. Empire Express is a spirited telling of a complicated tale. In the end the accomplishment was what mattered. The transcontinental railroad secured the union of East and West, as the armies of Lincoln and Grant had secured the union of North and South. The former was no less important than the latter in the subsequent rise of America to global preeminence. An early advocate of the transcontinental railroad scorned criticism brought by a political foe: "Though the demagogue may rave and rage, it is against a destiny he cannot change, a power controlling all, and he must fall to the ground." The critics indeed fell to the ground, the anvil chorus sang across the continent, and the unified nation embarked on an enterprise unparalleled in world history.

H.W. Brands teaches history at Texas A&M University and is the author, most recently, of "Masters of Enterprise."