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Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69 – Review

Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69 is a thorough, readable accounting of the toils and overspending it took to complete the Transcontinental Railroad.

Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen Ambrose

Starting with the support of President Abraham Lincoln, the Transcontinental Railroad began from opposite sides of the country. The goal of course was to connect east and west coasts. Railroad construction had exploded since the 1830s east of the Mississippi River. The western frontier remained difficult to traverse. California was a land of opportunity and abundance, but to get there took too long. Only a connecting railroad could make it safe enough and fast enough to grow the country and benefit from this abundance.

The Transcontinental Railroad was built by two companies: Central Pacific and Union Pacific. Both were backed by the government and both had high-powered leaders dedicated to getting it done as fast as possible. And to making themselves rich in the process.

Ambrose does an excellent job explaining the expense of building fast and also how a select few became extremely rich off the process. This contrasted greatly with the laborers who did the literal back-breaking work. They often didn’t get paid or were grossly underpaid.

Not Only the Chinese Built the Railroad

Nothing Like it in the World is often repetitive and overwrought with stats. But the book also covers the backgrounds of a lot of the workforce doing the building. Much of the Central Pacific rails were built by Chinese. They were treated poorly and underpaid. But many of them were able to return to China comparatively rich. Their work ethic was incredible; their demeanor to be emulated.

Other large groups of workers included Irish, former Civil War veterans (from both sides), and Mormons from Brigham Young’s flock. All these groups of laborers leveled and filled land, made cuts, placed rail by hand. They even dug out tunnels through solid rock with only the aid of black powder and later nitroglycerine. The only mechanical aid consisted of the steam engines themselves to haul materials to the end of the line.

The Telegraph and Transcontinental Railroad were the two most amazing technical advancements in the 19th century. The railroad connected the east with the west immediately after the Civil War had reconnected North with South. Ambrose’s book is an important read about this often overlooked piece of history turning a period of incredible change.