RIVAL RAILS by Walter Borneman


The Race to Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad
Email this review


Workmanlike history of the post–Civil War effort to lace the western United States with steel rails.

That war, writes lawyer-historian Borneman (Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, 2008, etc.), proved the efficacy of the railroads in moving men and supplies over great distances in short periods. One who learned that lesson was Union general William S. Rosecrans, who was outflanked thanks to a rebel railroad at Chickamauga, a potential catastrophe for the Yankees narrowly averted thanks to future president James A. Garfield. Rosecrans took the lesson to heart and, after the war, made his way to Southern California, where much of Borneman’s drama plays out as rival entrepreneurs attempted to build on the achievement of the completion, in 1869, of the first link of the transcontinental railroad by seeking routes across the western mountains that were relatively free of snow and ice. Other major players included Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford, who battled among other giants to determine which combination—the Kansas Pacific, the Santa Fe, the Central Pacific, etc.—would predominate. The author ably shows how their struggles over the decades are reflected in the current geography of the American West, explaining why Tucson, Albuquerque and other points became important precisely because the iron horse came galloping through. However, his account is rather colorless, certainly as compared to Stephen Fried’s vigorous Appetite for America (2010) or David Lavender’s older biography of Huntington, The Great Persuader (1970). Still, Borneman provides a solid business history, illustrating once again how the ones who make the real money in any given venture are usually the ones a step or two behind the true pioneers.

Railroad buffs will be delighted to note that the great project chronicled here is still unfolding, with the hotly contested corridor between Chicago and Los Angeles still “one of the most heavily traveled rail routes in North America.”

Pub Date: Sept. 28th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6561-5
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2010


NonfictionTHE GREAT RAILROAD REVOLUTION by Christian Wolmar
by Christian Wolmar