Ri­val Rails: The Race to Build Amer­ica’s Great­est Transcontinental Rail­road

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by Wal­ter R. Borne­man, Ran­dom House, 406 pages — Rob DeWalt

We live in the age of transcontinental air travel. Trains are for hob­by­ists, his­tory buffs, and tourists — not the av­er­age Joe or Josephine try­ing to get from New York to L.A. in time for a wed­ding. These days, rail­roads are usu­ally writ­ten about and dis­cussed within the frame­work of nostal­gia — which is dif­fi­cult to do with air­lines when, in the midst of a re­ces­sion and Wall Street bailouts, they see fit to charge pas­sen­gers for ev­ery­thing but the chew­ing gum stick­ing to the bot­tom of their seats.

The skies aren’t so friendly now, and in Wal­ter Borne­man’s new book, Ri­val Rails: The Race to Build Amer­ica’s Great­est Transcontinental Rail­road, read­ers learn that rail­roads weren’t such eth­i­cal en­ter­prises ei­ther. Borne­man, a his­to­rian whose other ti­tles

in­clude Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, and Polk: The Man Who Trans­formed the Pres­i­dency and Amer­ica, delves into the con­tentious busi­ness deal­ings and shady govern­ment-cor­po­rate al­liances that oc­curred dur­ing the race to lay tracks across the coun­try — es­pe­cially the Amer­i­can West — in the mid-1800s.

By 1848, af­ter the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can War, the U.S. Army Corps of To­po­graph­i­cal En­gi­neers had mapped out mul­ti­ple routes head­ing West for trade wag­ons, cavalry, and in­fantry. When Congress passed the Pa­cific Rail­road Sur­vey Act of 1853, nu­mer­ous en­trepreneurs and en­gi­neers hop­ing to cash in on the U.S. govern­ment’s search for a di­rect train route from New Eng­land to Cal­i­for­nia be­gan sur­vey­ing pos­si­ble west­ward track lines from points as far east as St. Louis, Mis­souri. Borne­man writes well about the money-chas­ing stam­pede but falls flat when de­scrib­ing the hos­tile con­di­tions and un­knowns that im­peded western ex­pan­sion be­fore and dur­ing the Civil War.

Borne­man ex­plores plenty of rail­roads, de­tail­ing the dou­ble-cross­ings and ques­tion­able ethics that were com­mon among those with their heads and wal­lets solidly in the game. “There are hun­dreds, per­haps thou­sands, of rail­road names scat­tered about the Amer­i­can West,” he writes. “The vast ma­jor­ity were ‘paper’ rail­roads, in­cor­po­rated legally to hold a route, bluff an op­po­nent, or ap­pease lo­cal eco­nomic in­ter­ests — all with­out lay­ing a sin­gle rail­road tie.” Twenty rail­roads and 20 rail­road­ers are Borne­man’s main fo­cus here, and he high­lights the most no­table rail­road wheel­ers and deal­ers of the era, in­clud­ing Fred Har­vey; Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor and sen­a­tor Le­land Stan­ford; ar­chi­tect/de­signer Mary Jane Colter; and Atchi­son, Topeka, and Santa Fe Rail­way pres­i­dent (1881-1889) Wil­liam Barstow Strong.

De­spite the author’s at­ten­tion to a hand­ful of rail­road­ers, keep­ing them and their fi­nan­cial in­volve­ments in mul­ti­ple rail­road com­pa­nies straight is still a chore. A list of them at the be­gin­ning of the book — and a short, chrono­log­i­cal play-by-play his­tory of transcontinental-rail­way con­struc­tion — isn’t as help­ful as it may sound, es­pe­cially given the nu­mer­ous sub­sidiaries, joint ven­tures, and his­tor­i­cal de­tours Borne­man sees fit to in­clude in later chap­ters.

What be­comes clear early on in the book is that Amer­i­can pol­i­tics haven’t changed much since the last spike was driven to con­nect the Union Pa­cific and Cen­tral Pa­cific lines in 1869. As a U.S. sen­a­tor and sec­re­tary of war un­der Pres­i­dent Franklin Pierce, Jef­fer­son Davis (later the pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica) was re­spon­si­ble for pre­par­ing mul­ti­ple re­ports on train-route sur­veys for the Pierce ad­min­is­tra­tion. Ad­dress­ing Congress in 1858, ac­cord­ing to Borne­man, Davis noted the ten­dency of politi­cians to for­get the gen­uine well­be­ing of all Amer­i­cans in fa­vor of pro­tect­ing those who serve them well both po­lit­i­cally and fi­nan­cially. “In Congress, with all due re­spect to my as­so­ci­ates, I must say the lo­ca­tion of this road will be a po­lit­i­cal ques­tion. It should be a ques­tion of en­gi­neer­ing, a com­mer­cial ques­tion, a gov­ern­men­tal ques­tion — not a ques­tion of par­ti­san ad­van­tage, or of sec­tional suc­cess in a strug­gle be­tween par­ties and sec­tions.”

As sur­vey­ors from mul­ti­ple territories with po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions of their own (es­pe­cially those with deep roots and pock­ets in seem­ingly im­pass­able, min­er­al­rich por­tions of the Colorado Rock­ies) were low-balling rail-con­struc­tion costs to earn fa­vor with Pierce’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, sen­a­tors and gov­er­nors were play­ing their own shell games, cre­at­ing paper rail­roads to block the vi­a­bil­ity of routes that ran, lit­er­ally, in op­po­si­tion to their own in­ter­ests.

The ne­ces­sity for a web of rail lines and not just a sin­gle, straight shot from east to west was clear to rail­road en­gi­neers and to­pog­ra­phers early on. Borne­man de­scribes in ob­ses­sive de­tail why it took so long and cost so much to com­plete. Un­for­tu­nately, in do­ing so he leaves the text dry and ab­sent of hu­man drama. Even the 16 pages of pho­to­graphs and cap­tions are rather dull. Per­haps his in­ten­tion was to write a book ex­clu­sively for train his­to­ri­ans and busi­ness schol­ars. But the ti­tle of this book and its jacket de­scrip­tion prom­ise more.

There are in­sights about the vic­tims of all this cor­po­rate noodling — in­clud­ing slaves and fam­i­lies who moved to rail­head towns only to watch them erode as the tracks were placed some­where else at the in­sis­tence of politi­cians. But they’re way too ab­bre­vi­ated for any­one seek­ing a lit­tle cul­tural con­text for the out-of-con­trol money train.

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