Continental Choo-Choo

The two eminently readable histories by David Bain and Stephen Ambrose treat the same subject, the history of America’s first transcontinental railroad, and were published only a year apart, yet the authors’ paths apparently never crossed—or, if they did, each chose to ignore the other. The fourteen years that Bain spent reading original sources, finding “refutations of myths passed down for generations,” and then writing his book clearly exceeded the effort Ambrose put into his. Some of Ambrose’s footnotes refer to the same archives that Bain used so strenuously; but they are relatively few.

Instead of deciphering the difficult handwriting of old letters, as Bain did, Ambrose read the historical literature, employed members of his immediate family to search contemporary newspapers and other sources, and took special pains to inspect the transcontinental terrain himself, first by car and then by rail in the company of official historians of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railways. Consequently, personal observations about the routes and feats of engineering abound in his pages, and most of his footnotes cite the work of other historians.

Yet by asking down-to-earth questions he was able to write a brisk account of how the transcontinental railroad was built. Other aspects of the enterprise—especially who profited from it and who was bilked by it—take second place. Instead, Ambrose looks for heroes to admire, while treating villains as colorful characters rather than as corrupters of American society. Bain, on the contrary, sees heroic accomplishment, villainy, and corruption irretrievably intermingled; he recognizes losses as well as gains, and refrains from hyperbolic assertions of the sort that we find in Ambrose’s pages.

Thus, as we might expect, the two writers have quite different views when it comes to attributing motives and assessing personalities. Bain’s book is also nearly twice as long as Ambrose’s, offering a detailed, close-up narrative that relies largely on letters and other archival documents. This requires his readers to keep track of how the information on each page fits into the larger picture, and I, for one, found that sometimes hard to do, largely because he had two geographically separated stories to tell, and his maps, being few and large-scale, are sometimes far removed from the relevant text. As for Ambrose, his big picture is never in doubt, thanks to unambiguous enthusiasm and comparative brevity.

Bain starts his story earlier than Ambrose does, devoting his first fifty pages to “A Procession of Dreamers,” chief among them a Connecticut Yankee named Asa Whitney, who, after suffering the miseries of a 153-day voyage to China in a leaky sailing ship, conceived the idea of building a transcontinental railroad to shorten the way to the wealth of China and the Indies. This, he believed, would allow the United States to surpass Great Britain by becoming the principal commercial crossroads of the earth. Accordingly, after his return to New York in 1844, he abandoned private business and began a strenuous writing, speaking, and lobbying campaign …

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