Acclaimed historian Ambrose (Comrades, 1999, etc.) takes on one of the biggest and most influential engineering projects in American history—the building of the transcontinental railroad.
Ambrose begins his tale with the fascinating "bureaucratic" history of the railroad—the struggles to gain a federal mandate for the construction of the road and to fix starting points for it at a time when there was little going on in Washington except, first, the precursors to the Civil War and, later, the war itself. Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman are all shown to be "railroad men" and influential to the project. Ambrose then moves on to immense fiscal maneuvers necessary to finance the railroad, and to the ensuing Credit Mobilier scandal (regarding the financing of the railroad, and of the fortunes that were made, Ambrose makes a salient point when quoting historian Charles Francis Adams Jr., who claimed that "when the Pacific Railroad was proposed, [no one] regarded it as other than a wild-cat venture . . . those men went into the enterprise because the country wanted a transcontinental railroad, and was willing to give almost any sum to those who would build it"). It is when the human drama of the actual construction of the railroad begins that Ambrose's narrative picks up speed. Although not many first hand accounts exist from railroad workers, what material he does have is woven skillfully into the whole to create a picture of various ethnic groups working together (and frequently warring with each other as well).
A master historian and writer takes on another pivotal epoch in American history.