An accessible history of the forces behind the saga of the transcontinental railroad, by Williams (History/Indiana State Univ.), a frequent contributor to such journals as Military History and Atlantic Monthly. Last year saw the publication of the official history of the Union Pacific (Maury Klein's Union Pacific); but that was a specific story, bound to the tale of the race for continental unification, while here Williams lays cultural frameworks as the railroad men of the era laid tracks--one by one, the whole yielding a grand unity. Along the way, we meet fascinating characters--Theodore Judah (who, though visionary, was unable to sell any stocks in his railroad scheme, but who managed to interest Huntington and Leland Stanford in his plans), Buffalo Bill, Custer, and Charlie Crocker. This is a gutsy. passionate history (""So the work gangs, like snow moles, toiled in harsh beauty and splendid isolation""), full of the vision and corruption that ultimately led to Credit Mobilier, but also to Promontory Point. Through Williams' narrative, we find a railroad-crazy nation that saw track mileage explode from 23 miles in 1830 to 30,626 by 1860. (Even Abraham Lincoln got in on the act, not only splitting rails, but quietly buying up building lots in Council Bluffs, a likely terminus for linking East with West.) Fine, teeming history that will grip equally railroad buffs and lovers of the Old West.