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 to persuade Congress and the American people to support his grandiose plan. Bain writes that despite repeated failure (and subsequent oblivion), Whitney had, by the time he gave up in 1851, “succeeded in putting his dream on the national agenda.”

In Bain’s account, a second dreamer and another Connecticut Yankee, named Theodore Judah, was the man who made the dream come true. Judah became a railroad surveyor when only eighteen years old, and went on to build some notable bridges and a spectacular railroad inside the Niagara gorge before becoming, at twenty-eight, “the pioneer railroad engineer of the Pacific coast.” That happened in 1854 when Judah went west to construct a railroad northward through the Sacramento River valley. But what actually persuaded him to accept such a remote and routine job was his ambition of building a transcontinental railroad.

Accordingly, he quickly began to search for practicable routes across the Sierra Nevada mountains. When he found one in 1860 he immediately organized what became the Central Pacific Railroad Company to construct a “people’s railroad” across the Sierras, since, as he had written some three years before, “there is not a man in the whole community”—by which he meant the entire nation—“who has hands to labor with who cannot afford to take one share of $100 and pay $10 per year, or thirty-three cents per day.” But Judah’s hope of financing a costly, colossal construction by popular subscription flagged until a coterie of prosperous storekeepers in Sacramento took over. They financed his preliminary survey of the proposed route and then sent Judah off to Washington to lobby for his railroad.

By the time he got there, the Civil War had begun. This meant that secession of the Southern states removed the sectional jealousies that had previously prevented congressional agreement on a route across the continent. Moreover Judah arrived in Washington carrying a packet of railway bonds, supplied by his backers, with a face value of $100,000 to use “for expenses and to secure aid.” By the time the bill passed, he had distributed about two thirds of them to members of Congress and other friends of the railroad enterprise. Bain calls this a “black mark” against Judah, one-time advocate of a debt-free “people’s railroad.”


But more than bribery worked in Judah’s favor. A railroad extending existing routes from Nebraska to California had become an urgent patriotic cause. Only if one was built could the Union be made strong from east to west, heading off any danger of the West Coast seceding as the South had done. Accordingly, Congress approved the Platte River route running through southern Nebraska, leaving exact details to be settled later, and accepted Judah’s surveyed line across the Sierras. President Lincoln, a strenuous advocate of the project from the start, signed the bill into law on July 1, 1862, thus subsidizing railway construction across some two thousand miles of wild, unsettled country with grants of about twenty million acres of public land along the right of way, as well as loans of $60 million, to be handed over as sections of track were completed.

The task of actually building the railroads was entrusted to what Bain calls “groups of obscure businessmen, most of whom were yet to prove themselves.” The Central Pacific Railroad Company, based in Sacramento, already existed; but its twin, which would control the eastern part of the project, the Union Pacific, had yet to be organized. Two months later, when the Union Pacific was formally set up at a meeting in Chicago, private investors were unimpressed. The only remedy was to obtain more generous public subsidies; and they were in fact repeatedly increased as the war dragged on. Renewed bribery, provoked by each new round of negotiations, routinely assured that result.

From this point on, Bain has two distinct stories to tell, and shifts back and forth between the two railroads, describing the prolonged delays and eventual triumphs each faced in getting actual construction started, in financing ever escalating costs, in mobilizing political support, and, not least, in finding ways—most of them hidden—to enrich the men who were managing the two companies.

His portrait of the coterie of Sacramento storekeepers who seized control of the Central Pacific is far more distinct and rather more sympathetic than what he has to say about the New York and Boston financiers who managed the Union Pacific. Bain’s archival researches bring to life the personalities and motives of the skinflint hardware merchant Collis Huntington and of his cheeseparing partner, Mark Hopkins, as well as of the politically ambitious wholesale grocer Leland Stanford, the gigantically successful dry goods merchant Charles Crocker, and his meticulous brother, the lawyer Edwin B. Crocker. These were the men who each had put only $1,500 of their own money into Central Pacific stock when the railroad company was first organized and who took their place on the board of directors beside Judah and some of his poorer friends. It was they who offered to sell out to Judah for a mere $100,000 when Judah began to suspect that they merely intended to build the railroad high enough into the mountains to collect initial government subsidies, where it would connect with a private wagon road they had decided to construct across the summit without Judah’s participation.

Perhaps Huntington and his friends doubted whether a railroad ever could surmount the formidable obstacle of the Sierras. Perhaps they would have been glad to sell their holdings in the Central Pacific if Judah had been able to find financiers in New York to buy them out, as he angrily set out to do. But since Judah died of yellow fever, contracted while crossing the isthmus of Panama en route to New York, the four Sacramento shopkeepers and a Sacramento lawyer remained in charge. In the following five years they managed to cooperate effectively. With the exception of Stanford, who had become governor of California, they all devoted enormous personal effort to building the railroad, and even lent substantial sums from their mounting personal fortunes when funds temporarily ran short.

To be sure, they had strong incentives. Immediate profits could be made by contracting with the railroad to provide all the supplies and vast amounts of labor it required, and the Associates, as they called themselves informally, contrived to handle most of that business themselves, doing so secretly through various disguises. Needless to say, they profited handsomely, but personal enrichment was not everything. They soon began to pride themselves on the railroad they were building and on the unprecedented feats of engineering required to cross the Sierras. From the start, Charlie Crocker gave up his store to manage construction, while Hopkins kept careful track of where all the money went and E.B. Crocker arranged the flow of construction materials. Stanford protected the entire enterprise from outsiders by mustering political support in California and later in Nevada and Utah, while Huntington, who went off to New York to purchase supplies from the East—rails, locomotives, shovels, and much other equipment—did the same by attending to relations with the federal government. He also besieged East Coast financiers with offers of CP bonds whose sale was necessary to keep fresh money flowing west.


Bain bases his account of the CP on the tangled and abundant correspondence between Huntington and his colleagues, and centers his history of the CP around their cooperation and brusque but transitory differences. He has less to say about the surveyors and engineers who laid out and built the railroad, overcoming avalanches, floods, and the difficulty of tunneling through miles of granite, using wheelbarrows and shovels, hand drills and black powder—eventually supplemented by far more powerful nitroglycerin, manufactured on site daily by a chemist imported from England for the purpose. On the other hand, Bain makes much of the quiet diligence of the Chinese labor gangs who (with horses) did most of the muscular work of construction and emphasizes the grudging respect they won by the time the railroad surmounted the crest of the Sierras in December 1867.

Thereafter, Bain’s two stories merge into one, since the two railroads entered upon a race to decide where they would meet. There was bitter rivalry between them, as well as shoddy construction and absurd waste, particularly when they constructed parallel roadbeds across much of eastern Utah. But the struggle ended with ceremonial reconciliation at Promontory Point, north of Great Salt Lake, where the last pair of rails linking the lines together were laid down on May 10, 1869.

Bain’s account of how the Union Pacific crossed the plains, surmounted the continental divide in Wyoming, and met the CP in Utah is distinctly less sympathetic to the financiers and managers who were involved. He is also at some pains to describe the greedy land speculation and “Hell on Wheels” Sin Cities that accompanied the mainly Irish work gangs across the continent, forcibly disrupting the lives of the Plains Indians and spreading a debauched version of American civilization as they advanced.

Stephen Ambrose, for his part, concentrates on the actual construction of the Union Pacific. He wastes no sympathy on the Indians, so captivated is he by the feats of engineering, mobilization, and teamwork that built the railroad:

Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century….

It could not have been done without a representative, democratic political system; without skilled and ambitious engineers, most of whom had learned their craft in American colleges and honed it in the war; without bosses and foremen who had learned how to organize and lead men as officers in the Civil War; without free labor…; without the trees and iron available in America; without capitalists willing to take high risks for great profit; without men willing to challenge all, at every level, in order to win all. Most of all, it could not have been done without teamwork.

Ambrose gives a technologically informed and explicit account of exactly how the railroad track was surveyed and then graded, ties and rails laid, and an unceasing flow of necessary supplies marshaled at the railhead. His admiration is unstinted:

No minutes, or even seconds, were wasted on the UP. On August 2, [1866,] the Omaha Weekly Herald reported that the previous day the government commissioners had accepted thirty-five miles of the track after being “surprised almost beyond measure at the rapidity with which the work is being pushed forward—thirty-eight miles having been built in twenty-eight days and in one instance 2 miles one day.”

Or again:

Americans were a people such as the world had never before known. No one before them…had had such optimism or determination. It was thanks to those two qualities that the Americans set out to build what had never before been done.

The most important Americans in the building of the Union Pacific were two Massachusetts-born Yankees: the financier Thomas Clark Durant and Grenville Mellen Dodge, a Civil War general and railroad engineer. Bain and Ambrose’s judgments differ about each of them. Durant, whom Bain describes as “an absolute genius at manipulation, whether it be of high finances or of his fellow man,” is seen more generously by Ambrose:

More than anyone else on the line, he is associated with getting it built fast…. He had made a lot mistakes, done lots of things wrong, but this must be said of Doc: without him, don’t ask me how they would have built the Union Pacific in so short a time.

Dodge, likewise, is called the man who “rightly gets most of the credit for building the UP,” while Bain finds him competent as an engineer but also prone to exaggerating or even lying about his adventures in war and peace.

The Union Pacific left a tangled paper trail, but nothing remotely comparable to the Huntington archive. Instead, Durant’s more-than-rugged individualism led him to hide most of his schemes from everyone else, and Bain, like earlier researchers, can only guess at his motives, hopes, and fears. As for Dodge, according to Bain his autobiography is unreliable, and detailed contemporary records of his activities remain scrappy. One thing is clear: from the start the board of the Union Pacific directors was torn between Durant’s creatures and other investors who suspected that he was cheating them as well as the government and the general public. Nothing like the cooperation that prevailed in California was ever achieved. Yet efforts to oust Durant all failed until after construction ended, whereupon Durant resigned, since the immediate basis of profit-making from inflated construction costs and land speculation had dried up.

The distrust prevailing at the top of the Union Pacific was aptly illustrated by what happened on the very eve of the final ceremony at Promontory Point. The train carrying Durant to that event was delayed for two days while unpaid construction workers held him and his fellow dignitaries hostage until their back wages were hastily delivered from a head office that had just been transferred to Boston in order to avoid bankruptcy proceedings launched against the Union Pacific in New York State courts. But, as Chief Engineer Dodge wrote afterward, “there is no doubt this was an arrangement made by Durant for the purpose of forcing the company to pay” a contractor, who was, he believed, simply a front man for Durant himself.

Dodge, too, in Bain’s estimation, was flawed by his own greed, even though as chief engineer he regularly opposed and usually prevailed over Durant’s efforts to alter the roadbed he and his surveyors had laid out. Durant’s strategy was, presumably, simple enough. Land prices fluctuated with every rumor about where the track would run, and by staking out Dodge’s chosen route and then sending someone else to explore a slightly different one, Durant was in a position to manipulate local land values at will and could profit both from their rise and collapse, knowing in advance what would happen.

From an engineering viewpoint, construction along the Union Pacific line was far easier than crossing the Sierras, and tunnels remained shorter and fewer, even when the railroad got into the Rocky Mountains. The management concentrated on laying down maximum mileage for minimal effort so as to qualify for fresh loans of government bonds. Accordingly, Durant and his subordinates cut corners, using ties made of soft and rot-prone cottonwood, cut from the bottom lands of the Platte River, and ballasting them with sand from the river’s banks instead of importing the gravel needed to withstand erosion by wind and water. Wooden bridge trestles, prefabricated in Chicago from Wisconsin timber, were often rickety. And to reach Promontory Point in time the UP built precarious, temporary rail lines around uncompleted tunnels through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah.

Where Bain emphasizes these shoddy construction practices, Ambrose takes a more tolerant view. When Dodge claimed in 1866 that “the road is a first class American road,” Ambrose comments: “That last phrase was at best a forgivable exaggeration. The road needed lots of work—new ties, stronger rails, gravel to ballast the rails, new bridges, fewer curves, and more—but none of that mattered at the time. All that mattered was getting the thing built….”

Dodge often objected to shoddiness, but generally went along with cost-cutting policies and was justly proud of the rapidity with which his crews of surveyors, graders, and rail-layers moved through unsettled landscapes and among hostile Indians. Supplying them with food and shelter, as well as with all the tools, rails, and other materials required, was like maintaining Sherman’s army as it marched to the sea from an ever more distant base. But Dodge himself and his principal subordinates were all veterans of the Civil War, and the Union Pacific work crews were mostly discharged veterans recruited both from Union and Confederate ranks. Their off-duty drunkenness, gambling, and sex were carryovers from life in the army. Bain clearly disapproves of the traveling “Hell on Wheels,” and all the saloons, brothels, and gunfights that accompanied the construction crews across the plains and mountains. (Chinese work gangs, in contrast, amazed white Americans by remaining in their sleeping quarters on Sundays to wash their clothes. They also puzzled them by gambling in games the whites did not understand, and by quietly smoking opium.) Bain is also critical of the ruthless way the US Army protected the UP from Indian raids by confining Indian buffalo hunters to reservations where their old way of life was impossible. Their partial survival came to depend (like the railroad) on government subsidies.

Indeed, construction of the Union Pacific was, from many points of view, a continuation of wartime methods of management and mobilization. This is a theme Ambrose emphasizes and Bain almost entirely ignores.

Ambrose’s admiration is contagious, and he comes close to reproducing the boosterism of the times he writes about, but he is given to exaggeration. He calls a wooden bridge that was 700 feet long and 126 feet high “one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century,” even though, as he says himself, it was subject to “swaying in the Wyoming winter winds,” and had to be replaced with iron almost at once. His patriotism can also lead him to boastful statements. For example, he ignores subsequent Canadian and Russian accomplishments when exclaiming:

Only in America was there enough space to utilize the locomotive fully, and only here did the government own enough unused land or possess enough credit to induce capitalists to build a transcontinental railroad. Only in America was there enough labor or enough energy and imagination…. The railroad was the longest ribbon of iron ever built by man. It was a stupendous achievement…. It had inaugurated a new age, begun what would be called the American Century.

Bain, meanwhile, reflects our contemporary revisionism. He remains ambivalent to the end, concluding by saying of the men who built the two railroads: “Indelibly, though, they left their footprints…, creating—like them or not, like it or not—the American nation we know today.”

Nevertheless, each writer consciously addresses modern readers by setting out to correct myths from the past. Bain finds them in newspapers and in self-serving autobiographies like General Dodge’s. Ambrose, on the contrary, wants to dispel myths he encountered in the academic classrooms of his youth, where, as a result of the 1930s Depression, his professors “were brought up to blame big business for everything.”

Bain does not flaunt his opinions as flamboyantly as Ambrose does, relying on his unusual diligence in the archives to “prove” his conclusions, whereas Ambrose relies on contemporary newspapers and General Dodge’s autobiography. Where, then, is truth? Ambrose emphasizes—indeed rhapsodizes over—undoubted facts of engineering, but for Bain those same facts remain ambiguous accomplishments that transformed but also corrupted American society.

The contrasting tone of these two books shows, I think, that getting closer to the sources is no guarantee of historical truth. Inevitably, it is the mind of the historian that chooses what to pay attention to, and what to play down or disregard entirely. That is how human intelligence uses language to make sense of the world. And historians are altogether human, even when, as Bain does more than Ambrose, they seek to hide the way they shape the history they write, “proving” their organizing ideas by appealing to what always has to be a small selection from the noisy confusion of “all available sources.”

Wisdom and detachment remain splendid goals. Bias and partial information remain an inexorable human condition. One can always hope that across long enough time a marketplace in ideas will winnow out the less plausible versions of the past and retain those that more adequately explain what happened. But given human appetite for collective (and individual) self-flattery, it is unlikely that competing versions of the past, like those Bain and Ambrose offer us, will ever disappear.

This Issue

September 20, 2001