A story of rapacious railroads and angry pens in the Gilded Age.
On May 10, 1869, the rails of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined at Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory, creating the first transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad soon became the object of public ire. Not only did it fail to bring longed-for prosperity, but the railroad charged unfair rates and suborned lawmakers and regulators; its major backers lacked the common touch and built offensively lavish mansions with their newfound wealth. Washington Post Book World contributing editor Drabelle (Mile-High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode, 2009) offers a bright, anecdote-filled account of the rise of the railroad corporations, their corrupt business practices and how through journalism and fiction, two leading authors—Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris—made the Central Pacific “a symbol of everything that ailed Gilded Age America.” The complex business story involved surveying, overcoming obstacles (weather and cholera), finding laborers, and cajoling investors, including the federal government, which provided massive aid for construction. Rail barons “achieved a near-miracle by building a railroad through some of the roughest terrain in the country,” but they “couldn’t overcome the widespread perception of their company as a monster that threatened the American republic form of government itself.” In more than 60 articles written in the 1890s for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, Bierce reamed the railroad and its owners. Based on Bierce’s writing and other sources, Norris then wrote The Octopus (1901), a novel about a railroad whose tentacles wrapped around California. Drabelle’s claims for both authors' works seem excessive—he ranks Bierce’s articles with Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate coverage, and places The Octopus in the company of Moby-Dick—but his chapters on Bierce and Norris make fine introductions to these important but lesser-known American writers.
A nicely crafted portrait of monopolists and muckrakers.