Where No Railroad Had Gone Before
In this issue we welcome author Stephen E. Ambrose back to our pages. When this magazine started out as American History Illustrated way back in April 1966, Ambrose was one of the magazine’s associate editors (as well as an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University). In the years since, he has become one of the country’s best-known historians and, as anyone who has read D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, Undaunted Courage, or any of his other books knows, one of the finest. His latest work is Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1865.
As the book’s title indicates, building the transcontinental railroad was an unprecedented achievement. It required massive infusions of capital, monumental amounts of man-hours, tons of steel and blasting powder, and a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. In its engineering challenges and cost–and its sheer audacity–the railroad can be compared to the effort the nation expended to put men on the moon a century later. It even had a similar competitive element–where we were racing the Soviet Union to the moon in the 1960s, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were racing to lay down the most track.
Yet after Apollo 11 reached the moon in 1969, the nation gave a collective shrug and turned its attention elsewhere. For many Americans the moon landing was a stunt, little more. The railroad’s impact was on a different level; it helped tie the nation together. As Ambrose points out in his book, before the railroad opened in 1869 it took people months to travel from New York to San Francisco, at a cost of up to $1,000. “But less than a week after the pounding of the Golden Spike, a man or woman could go from New York to San Francisco in seven days,” Ambrose writes. In the summer of 1869 a first-class ticket for that trip cost $150.
It’s astonishing to look back at the rise of the railroads. In 1865 the country had about 35,000 miles of rails. By 1916 that number had soared to 254,000 miles. The rails were a transforming force, for good and ill. Towns sprung up alongside them in what had been empty deserts. As railroads appeared across the globe, the world shrank. Because of railroads and the speed of the trains, the nations of the world began dividing up the planet into recognized time zones. Farmers could now sell their crops in distant cities.
Today, railroads are less of a vital force in this country, but they remain a strong element in American folklore, which is filled with stories of the Iron Horse, ill-fated engineer Casey Jones, lonesome whistles echoing down the tracks, and outlaws looking to pull off a great train robbery. There’s also something relentless, like the force of history itself, about the movement of the rails westward. But as Ambrose demonstrates in his book, it took a tremendous amount of people to put that seemingly inexorable force in motion. Some of their names–such as the “Big Four” of Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins–are remembered today. Far more of them–the Irish and Chinese who labored day after day to put those rails down through harsh desert, blast tunnels through the unyielding rock, and build fantastic trestle bridges over deep gorges–are faceless and nameless today. Nonetheless, they too literally made history.
Tom Huntington, Editor, American History