385: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose

by Gerard


385.0973: Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. 382 pp. ISBN 978-0-7432-0317-3.

Dewey Construction:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 380: Commerce, communications, and transport
  • 385: Railroad transportation
  • +0973: United States

One of the many good things of having a weekend without a long to-do list is being able to indulge and enjoy your hobbies. Clearly, mine’s reading. I got an unprecedented 12 hours of free time this weekend and I put it to good use. Apart from catching up on e-mails and messages, I was able to sit and leisurely enjoy today’s book (most of the time, I’m a bit nervous about keeping my schedule). Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World is an incredibly thorough history of the building of the U.S. transcontinental railroad. When completed in 1869, it spanned from ocean to ocean, and was considered the foremost achievement of man.

Plans for a railroad across the United States were forming in people’s minds almost immediately after the invention of industrial locomotives and the tales of Lewis and Clark’s journey reached the masses. But the man who really pushed everything along was Abraham Lincoln. Apart from being a brilliant public speaker and lawyer, he was fascinated with trains and rail systems. So, when he finally had the political and financial clout to authorize the world’s first transcontinental rail, he took it.

To start the railway, two companies began at either terminus. The Central Pacific started in Sacramento and the Union Pacific built from Council Bluffs, Iowa (there was already a route from the Atlantic coast to Council Bluffs in place). It took six years, millions of dollars, and tens of thousands of workers from all over the world to get it done. They encountered run-ins with hostile Native Americans, the formidable indifference of nature, and even a few internal squabbles among investors, but the men of each rail company finally met each other at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869.

Ambrose’s account of the construction is massive. It details not only the physical task, but also looks at the event from a political, social, economic, and even a global perspective. There have been allegations that this book is full of errors and even plagiarism, but the story is entertaining nonetheless. The scope is immense, but you always feel like you can’t get enough details. The only issue I had with this one is that many of the financial transactions made by both companies are discussed at length and it bogs down the pace somewhat. Other than that, I enjoyed this one a lot.