By the 1860s, there were a few powerful men who decided they wanted to see the railroad
built and wanted to make a killing in the process. As Congress balked at sponsoring any one particular railroad route, these men formed two private companies, the Central Pacific
and the Union Pacific
, one at either terminus of the track-to-be. Ambrose details the political intrigue, bribery, and cajoling that went on between these men and members of government to get the money, land
, and support needed to build this seemingly impracticable transcontinental
But the narrative goes beyond politics and finances. After the introductory chapters, we take a year-by-year journey through the construction of the railroad itself, alternating chapters between the workings of the two companies. Ambrose describes the physical undertaking of finding a route through the mountains without the benefit of a bird's-eye view or a map, the men carrying their food and water and, never knowing what would lie ahead. He writes of the deadly hazards of using black powder to blast, inch by inch, through the Sierra Nevada
range. We watch workers grade the road, lay the rails, and hammer the spikes to make the track grow, by manpower alone, at the astounding rate of one to two miles per day. We learn of the Chinese and Chinese-American workers who lived entire seasons in burrows beneath six feet or more of snow, drinking tea and exploding tunnels in the rock to lay track. We learn of the Irish and Irish-American workers building from the other terminus despite violent raids by furious Native Americans. In large part, this book is the story of the physical construction of the railroad and therefore an illustration of the audacity, perseverance, and even idealism of the men who built it.
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Railroads became the fastest transportation for people and the most economical for goods during the 19th century. The Union Pacific Railroad was organized to be the eastern part of the first transcontinental railroad, extending west from the Missouri River. Signed by President Lincoln on July 1, 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act provided federal support for the building of the transcontinental railroad.