Here is a soothing bit of perspective to consider the next time you are belted in on the runway and the captain announces, "We are 14th in line for takeoff." Before 1869, it could have taken the better part of a month for a stagecoach to make its way across the plains and over the mountains of North America. After 1869, the time was cut to about one smoky, jolting week on the newly completed link known as the transcontinental railroad.
"Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869" (Simon & Schuster; 431 pages; $28) is Stephen E. Ambrose's account of the visionaries who planned, financed and finagled the project, and the thousands of Civil War veterans and new immigrants who laid the tracks.
Ambrose, well known for his narratives of World War II and for "Undaunted Courage," a fresh retelling of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, writes with a wide-open throttle: "Only in America was there enough space to utilize the locomotive fully... Only in America was there enough labor or enough energy and imagination." Elsewhere the newly connected nation is described as "an empire of liberty running from sea to shining sea."
It takes some kind of undaunted courage to write triumphalist history in an age of revisionism and rigid identity politics. America's Industrial Revolution, once celebrated by statesmen and poets alike, differs markedly from a subject like World War II, with its clear consensus about good and evil. Ambrose's latest saga is not a historical blame game played by today's rules. Still, the author has more respect for the past than to pretend that the transcontinental railroad could have been built without financial corruption, treacherous working conditions, the blood and sweat of scoundrels and bigots, and the killing of Indians who fought the iron horsemen because their rails altered bison migration patterns.
In his enthusiastic and briskly written 800-page "Empire Express," published last year and now in a Penguin USA paperback edition, Middlebury College scholar David Haward Bain follows the money and backroom politics in more detail than Ambrose provides. Not unexpectedly, the G.I.s' chronicler prefers the front lines, where he is at his best describing men, armed with only hand tools, hacking and scraping their way over 2,000 inhospitable miles. When black powder proved too slow in piercing mountain granite, more powerful but dangerously unstable nitroglycerin was used even though that meant more blasters would die.
Calling on his skills as a military historian, Ambrose excels at moving from individual engagements to the big picture. He casts the 19th century's most ambitious undertaking as a war fought on two fronts. Building from opposite directions, men of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific threw themselves at seemingly impregnable obstacles and rewrote the engineering textbook. In one feat, two teams boring toward each other through the Summit Tunnel in Nevada were off only two inches when they met. Adjusting for some patriotic windage and unedited repetitions, Ambrose's latest rouser is also on the mark.