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November 21, 2008

Nothing Like it in The World

The men who built the transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869
Stephen E. Ambrose – ISBN – 9780743203173

Indeed, there was not! Unlike several other Ambrose works this is quite well done. As is not uncommon with my critiques (to quote a onetime patron of Mozart), “it has too many notes.” That is, there is more information than I’d like to have available, but that is what comprehensive history is about. So, with that caveat . . . and advice to skim thru some of the wordy parts:

Herein is a clear and authentic picture of what it took for and from the dreamers, planners, sponsors, financiers and workmen who built this railroad. Actually, there were two: the Central Pacific Railroad (moving east from San Francisco) and the Union Pacific Railroad (moving west from Omaha.)

Over hill and dale, across grassy plains and deserts, thru and around mountains, over rivers and not a few creeks, using quite primitive mechanical devices a “first in the world” transcontinental railroad was fashioned out of steel and wood, with monumental engineering skill, physical risk, labor, and not a little blood, by Irish immigrants and imported Chinese labor (and in Utah, Mormons), much of it back breaking . . . even heroic, against heat and drought, snow and cold, sometimes removing snow in order to build it. When built it required many snow sheds over the tracks to keep them passable. One such shed became known as “the House Without End,” deservedly at twenty-nine miles, which required one hundred million board feet of lumber. One season it withstood sixty-five feet of snow load.

Grades were sometimes a hundred feet wide—all made with wheelbarrow delivered fill—to create wide avenues thru forests to avoid trees falling upon the completed rails. Thousands of laborers were needed, which necessitated housing, food, laundry facilities, etc. Of course there were camp followers to provide entertainment: alcohol, prostitutes, etc. Quartermaster duties, alone, were almost beyond comprehension, though the recent Civil War had taught many lessons.

Roadbeds were carved from mountain sides with near vertical drop-offs, the most dangerous of which was over three miles long. More than a dozen tunnels were driven thru mountains of rock by hammering star drills to chisel away small tracts in stone, packing them with powder, blasting away inches at a time a semi-circular hole 16 ft. in diameter. Working 24 hours a day, progress was painfully slow; only six to twelve inches per day. The rocky debris was hauled away—by hand, in wheelbarrows; hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of the stuff. The longest was the Summit Tunnel, 1,659 feet in length and 7,043 feet above sea level. It required a million dollars for the blasting powder, alone. It was “drilled” thru living rock, separately from each end, and when the two excavations were joined midway they were but two inches off!

Other physical obstacles were bridged with forests of wood for trestles and bridges, while additional forests were used for the railroad ties. All of the steel rails were made in the eastern U.S. and transported by ship to California, either around South America or thru the jungles of Columbia (now Panama). The engines were shipped, complete, in the same way, over a monumental distance of 6,000 miles, creating yet other problems and expenses. Needless to say there was the impediment of lawyers filing suits for whatever against whomsoever (can’t do without them, of course.)

Grading required armies of men, while the laying of ties, placement and securing the rails with spikes required platoons of disciplined workers. Anyone my age who has watched the roustabouts drive in tent stakes for the erection of the Circus Big-Tops of our youth can readily imagine the coordination required to drive steel spikes into the ties; this after the synchronization of previous teams handling the paired rails with similar aplomb, placing them exactly where necessary, upon ties carefully laid down beforehand. All of this was accomplished in a minute or so per rail; averaging about a mile per day. The sequence was repeated over a million times before the final spike was driven at Promontory Point, Utah (a place Ambrose notes had never been visited before—nor has it been since.)

Interest was international, and fed by regular reports “from the front” by telegraph. It was the world’s largest undertaking . . . ever. The two railroads were the first big businesses in America, raising and solving myriad complex problems as they opened up the west. The life of the country was changed immeasurably by the project, as it irreparably altered that of the Native Americans.

Being deemed “the most important event of modern times,” is hardly an exaggeration. “A man [born before 1869] had been born into a world in which President Andrew Jackson traveled no faster then Julius Caesar, [wherein] information could be transmitted no faster than in Alexander the Great’s time,” yet the railroad, paired with a telegraph line, permitted a man to move at 60 miles per hour and transmit information from coast to coast all but instantly. One could now go from New York to San Francisco in less than a week . . . and for as little as sixty-five dollars; saving months in a Conestoga wagon and over several thousand dollars in expense. Mail delivered to California cost dollars per ounce; by rail it cost pennies. It authored the standardization of time across the U.S., where before it had been determined by local needs.

Together, the transcontinental railroad and the telegraph made modern America possible. While hoped for trade with Asia didn’t deliver as expected, “the enormous development of local business surpassed anything . . . ever dreamed of.” The UP and CP were the largest corporations of their time, and the first to have extensive dealings with federal, state, county and local governments, originating much of the law required for such integration. Lavish riches were created and spent while facilitating other businesses creating like fortunes.

It is likewise cogent to note that at the time Washington was paying fifty cents per ton of supplies to remote outposts. Upon completion the railroads reduced this to less than ten cents, saving over two million dollars per year, not to mention delivery within days not weeks, with little risk of loss. The benefit to the country is virtually incalculable.

It was alleged by historians of the early 20th century that the lands granted the builders were alone worth more than the railroads, when built, which was typical of the “robber baron” mentality of the time. In fact, however, these grants never brought in enough money to pay the bills. It didn’t even come close. True, land could be sold for $2.50 per acre in town, but much of the remaining land was worthless. It is not altogether by accident that the government still owns vast tracts of land in the west.

The total value of the land, as determined by the Interior Department in 1880 was about $392,000,000. In that same year, total investment in the railroads in the U.S. was about $4,650,000,000, representing nearly a 12 fold difference! Furthermore--New Deal socialist representations notwithstanding--much of the land was secured by bonds, that is, debt which had to be repaid (and was!) In 1898-99, alone, the government collected $167,746,490 on an initial loan of $64,623,512; “financially not less than brilliant” according to Hugo Meyer, an economics professor at Harvard.

“An automatic reaction that big business is always on the wrong side, corrupt and untrustworthy, is too easy, and the error is compounded if we fail to distinguish between incentives, for example, and fraud.” Not a bad idea to keep in mind when hammering on corrupt corporations vs. the (ig?)noble congress.

Posted by respeto at November 21, 2008 12:50 PM