Books: Blood, Sweat and Guile

Stephen Ambrose salutes the financiers, engineers and laborers who built the transcontinental railroad

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)...

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