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