Empire Express by David Haward Bain
For Christmas in 2002, my law school roommate gave me a copy of Stephen Ambrose's memoirs, titled To America. He structured the book to trace American history through the series of pivotal events to which he had devoted at least one of the many books he published in his career. Thus the chapters on Lewis & Clark (covered in his Undaunted Courage), World War II (D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers), and Dwight Eisenhower (Eisenhower).
One of the most interesting chapters in the book was that devoted to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Ambrose spoke compellingly of his love of railroads, and offered a brief but fervent defense of those who led the effort to build the grand road. My father is a serious lover of trains, I have fond memories of taking the commuter rail to see my grandparents in Skokie, and the six years I lived in Utah left me with a standing fascination with the American West. So I was greatly taken in by this brief account. Ambrose explored the topic more fully in his 2000 book, Nothing Like It in the World, but the book received rather mediocre reviews. Instead I turned, after a mere six year interlude, to David Haward Bain's lengthier, much lauded, Empire Express, which opens with the story of Asa Whitney, one of several forlorn visionaries of the cross-country railroad:
The importance of such a route was incalculable, [Whitney] said. Military forces could be concentrated at any point east or west in eight days or less. A naval station near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, "with a comparatively small navy, would command the Pacific, the South Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and the China seas." Using a combined rail and steamship route between New York and China, which would require only third days, the products of American factories could be exchange for Asia's rarities. Compare this to the round-trip sailing distance between New York and China (nearly thirty-thousand miles, requiring up to three hundred days). World commerce would be revolutionized, with Whitney's Pacific route its channel. Each state and every town "would receive its just proportion of influence and benefits," he wrote, "compared with its vicinity to, or facility to communicate with, any of the rivers, canals, or railroads crossed by this great road."
After decades of having such ambitions met by total government inaction, after a series of Congressional battles pitting unholy alliances of parochial congressman and business interests against one another, the bill authorizing the building of the railroad was finally signed by Lincoln on July 1, 1862. This landmark event allegedly prompted Theodore Judah, Whitney's successor as engineering visionary, to telegraph his colleagues, "We have drawn the elephant, now let us see if we can harness him up."
It was quite an elephant--exciting, ferocious, possibly ungovernable--dubious in many respects to the public interest and formidable both in spelling out the burden on the nation and in the rights and responsibilities of the railroad builders. At a time when the resources of the federal government were taxes to the limit, with McClellan's Army of the Potomac retreating on the peninsula, with the president having desperately replaced a poseur with a paper-pusher by naming Henry W. Halleck as new general-in-chief, the people were now committed, with this act, to do what had eluded them for nearly twenty years. Some twenty million acres of public land, and a $60 million loan, at least, were to be handed over to groups of obscure businessmen, most of whom had yet to prove themselves.
The focus of the book is on the railroad's construction and little else. This is a blessing and a curse; it allows Bain to keep his story centered, without the many possible distractions of the Civil War years, and to go into great detail about everything from supply shortages to corporate machinations. But it seems odd to fill 700 pages of text without a greater sense of context; there are scattered references to the war, to the social, economic, and political pressures that ebbed and flowed, to the whiskey towns that sprung up alongside. But only rarely did I ever really feel the context, get a real sense of when and where in America's history these events were taking place. Strangely enough, one of the book's few historical markers was Mormon leader Brigham Young, whose nascent religious colony is ideally located to reap the benefits of the cross-country race:
When Samuel Reed obtained an audience with Brigham Young, the Mormon leader was eager to discuss obtaining good-paying work for his faithful. In the valley there had been, memorably, plagues of crickets and grasshoppers, but now, with the Saints' empire firmly established and blooming, there were locusts; for three years running the farmers' crops had been affected. What surplus there was of hay, oats, and potatoes, Young knew, they would sell to the railroaders. Moreover, as and original shareholder in the Union Pacific, he savored the trains' approach, still blissfully convinced that the Pacific Railroad could never avoid running through the City of the Saints. Reed had been instructed to be non-committal on which way the railroad would turn upon reaching Ogden.
One of the book's other shortcomings, to my mind, is the paucity of maps. There are only 8 maps interspersed through the many hundred pages, and while they provide a basic sense of the geography in question, they were inadequate overall. There were numerous occasions when a passage begged for a visual accompaniment, and even if I flipped fifty pages backward or forward to the closest map, it rarely fit the bill. This was particularly true late in the book, when the race between Union Pacific and Central Pacific was being fought as much in the survey maps registered at the Department of the Interior in D.C. as on the construction line.
It also would have been most helpful to have something of a cast of characters, or at least a basic visual depiction of the corporate hierarchies of the UP and CP. Particularly since the tales of these men's unbridled avarice and zeal are key motivating engines behind the railroad's construction. It can become difficult to figure out which side of the race Bain is discussing at any particular time, especially when he is focused on the corporate fundraising, infighting, or political maneuvering. Since he frequently switches from one to the next with little more than a line break, it would have been helpful to have a management structure to refer to in order to keep all the names straight.
With those caveats, this is still a laudable effort by Bain. If at times a bit confusing or narrowly focused, Empire Express provides a thorough account of one of the great feats of 19th-century American ambition, greed, labor, and technological achievement.