Nothing Like It In The World, by Stephen Ambrose
This is the history of the transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. I re-learned the amazing history of this project, and also learned much new to me.
The project actually began before the the Civil War, with surveying and route selection. President Lincoln was a big supporter, promoted some of the initial legislation and was somewhat involved in selecting the actual route of the road. Union General Grenville Dodge was the Chief Engineer on the Union Pacific, but several times refused that job offer until after war was over. Construction actually began during the Civil War. President Grant was also an enthusiastic supporter, particularly of the Union Pacific. The Army was a big supporter during and after the war, including Generals Sherman and Sheridan.
The Union Pacific crews (working westwards from Omaha/Council Bluffs) were largely both Union and Confederate veterans along with immigrant Irish. The geographic and weather conditions of construction were astoundingly harsh. In Wyoming "the country through which we run was if possible more barren than yesterday. There is no water within ten miles of our line. We had to haul our water in barrels. . . . The weather was suffocatingly hot. . . .The team returned with casks filled with water. But it was so full of all kinds of poison that we could not use it. It was red as blood and filled with all sorts of vermin."
There were frequent Indian raids on the Union Pacific crews and surveyors. The Army could not be everywhere. "This meant that UP's workers would, in most cases, have to protect themselves. [Grenville] Dodge ordered it. He wanted every man armed." "They had to keep their rifles within easy reach--life on the frontier."
The excavation and earth moving was all done by muscle power, hard to even imagine today.
On the Central Pacific (working eastwards from Sacramento) the required tunneling in the Sierra Nevada progressed at inches per day, using black power and muscle power with sledge hammers for drilling. The recently developed nitro glycerin (two words then) was tried, but was generally too dangerous.
The work was all done with muscle power with no power tools or excavators.
In winter all workers sometimes had to be employed in simply shoveling snow out of the way, sometimes in near constant blizzards. "In the High Sierra in the winter of 1866-67, there were 44 storms". "Even the tops of telegraph polls were covered by drifts."
Even after getting out of the mountains, conditions for the Central Pacific were heartless. From the Truckee River to the Humbolt Sink was 100 miles alkali desert without water or trees, so harsh that "a jack rabbit had to carry a canteen and haversack to get across it".
At the end, as a stunt, the Central Pacific crews built just over 10 miles of track in one day. That was about 240 feet of track every 75 seconds, again all done by muscle power. That's about the same speed of movement as a horse walking.
Reading this book I was constantly amazed at the dedication and endurance of the all people involved -- including the both the financiers, promoters, stockholders, and executives (including all the many extrordinary scoundrels), as well as all the managers, supervisors and all the the work crews.
The changes in the USA were enormous, much more rapid than is the case now. In a little more than a decade the U.S. fought a Civil War, freed the slaves, built a transcontinental telegraph, built a transcontinental railroad, started the commercial use of electricity, and greatly expanded steel production, oil production and the use of steamships for ocean travel and transport of goods.
Before it took immigrants an entire season of 6 - 9 months of very dangerous arduous travel to move from Independence Missouri or Council Bluffs Iowa to Oregon or California. After the completion of the railroad 1869 it took a little more than a week, at perhaps a tenth of the financial cost. With the simultaneous completion of the telegraph communication became instantaneous. The change was enormous, something that's hard to appreciate today, and not often even thought about.
I recommend this book. You can tell that I am enthusiastic about the book, usually my reviews are just one or two sentences.
Edits for grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Last edited by ruralavalon
on Sat Dec 10, 2016 1:14 pm, edited 24 times in total.
"Everything should be as simple as it is, but not simpler." - Albert Einstein
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