Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869
By Stephen E. Ambrose
In many ways, the story of the Union Pacific is our story in Omaha, Nebraska and our story as a nation catapulted into the Industrial Age. Men took what they learned from leadership and organization and moving mass amounts of troops and supplies and created a couple of large companies to accomplish something not done on this scale. – Eric
Many of my favorite quotes:
The transcontinental railroad was the last great building project to be done mostly by hand.
Something else distinguished the American railway from its English parent. In America it was common practice to get the road open for traffic in the cheapest manner possible, and in the least possible time. The attitude was, It can be fixed up and improved later, and paid for with the earnings.
The explorers could not settle the question of where to build. Slavery made it impossible. Davis wanted the thirty-second-parallel line. He maintained that a route from New Orleans through southern Texas, across the southern parts of the New Mexico and Arizona Territories, and on to San Diego was the obvious one, because it would cross the fewest mountains and encounter the least snow. That was true. But no free-state politician was ready to provide a charter or funds for a railroad that would help extend slavery.
Robert Louis Stevenson described Nebraska: “We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression—on the Plains. . . . I spied in vain for something new. It was a world almost without a feature, an empty sky, an empty earth, front and back. . . . The green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven. . . . Innumerable wild sunflowers bloomed in a continuous flower-bed [and] grazing beasts were seen upon the prairie at all degrees of distance and diminution . . . in this spacious vacancy, this greatness of the air, this discovery of the whole arch of heaven, this straight, unbroken, prison-line of the horizon.”6
OF all the things done by the first transcontinental railroad, nothing exceeded the cuts in time and cost it made for people traveling across the continent. Before the Mexican War, during the Gold Rush that started in 1848, through the 1850s, and until after the Civil War ended in 1865, it took a person months and might cost more than $1,000 to go from New York to San Francisco. But less than a week after the pounding of the Golden Spike, a man or woman could go from New York to San Francisco in seven days. That included stops. So fast, they used to say, “that you don’t even have time to take a bath.” And the cost to go from New York to San Francisco, as listed in the summer of 1869, was $150 for first class, $70 for emigrant. By June 1870, that was down to $136 for first class, $110 for second class, and $65 for third, or emigrant, class. First class meant a Pullman sleeping car. Emigrants sat on a bench.
The total value of the lands distributed to the railroads was estimated by the Interior Department’s auditor as of November 1, 1880, at $391,804,610. The total investment in railroads in the United States in that year was $4,653,609,000.11 In addition, the government got to sell the alternate sections it had held on to in California and Nebraska for big sums. Those lands would have been worth nearly nothing, or in many cases absolutely nothing, if not for the building of the railroads.
But they were not a gift. They were loans, to be paid back in thirty years or less. The requirement was met. In the final settlement with the railroads, in 1898 and 1899, the government collected $63,023,512 of principal plus $104,722,978 in interest, making a total repayment of $167,746,490 on an initial loan of $64,623,512. Professor Hugo Meyer of Harvard looked at those figures and quite rightly said, “For the government the whole outcome has been financially not less than brilliant.”12 An automatic reaction that big business is always on the wrong side, corrupt and untrustworthy, is too easy, and the error is compounded if we fail to distinguish between incentives, for example, and fraud.