EMPIRE EXPRESS by David Haward Bain


Building the First Transcontinental Railroad
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A compelling, comprehensive account of one of history’s greatest construction projects. On May 10, 1869, when telegraph lines carried the news that the transcontinental railroad was finally complete, cannons in New York City and San Francisco roared, fire alarms went off in major cities across the country, and tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to celebrate. Similar festivities might well accompany the publication of this remarkable book. Bain (Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines, 1984, etc.), who spent fourteen years in research, moves with impressive felicity through this complex, fascinating subject. He focuses the light of his considerable intelligence on a vast array of topics, brightly illuminating the daunting construction problems (one tunnel in the High Sierra was 1600 feet long), the alliances (quickly formed, quickly broken) of politicians and entrepreneurs, the pervasive corruption of Gilded Age public officials (a “Babel of special interests,” Bain calls it), the tragic relocations (and eventual decimation) of the Plains Indians, the exploitation of construction workers, the genesis of legendary Western towns (Laramie and Cheyenne among others). With disinterested clarity he portrays rail barons Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and many others—and sketches some supporting actors whose names would later be known in other contexts: Henry M. Stanley (the reporter who found Dr. Livingstone), George A. Custer, Mark Twain. Bain chronicles the egregious excesses of the builders: the acres of prairie set afire for nocturnal entertainment, the carloads of Easterners who wanted to shoot buffalo for sport, the tens of thousands of dollars that changed hands when decisions were made. Humorous and ironic moments abound as well. The friendly Pawnee like to joyride on the roofs of boxcars; “a fresh importation of strumpets” arrive for duty in Julesburg, Colorado; and some Chinese workers are dissuaded from laboring in the desert by tales of 100-foot-long snakes whose meal of preference is Chinese. Empire Express is a brilliant work, a stunning fusion of splendid scholarship and graceful writing. (16 pages of maps and photos, not seen) (Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-670-80889-X
Page count: 800pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1999


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