Empire Express
Building the First Transcontinental Railroad

David Haward Bain 1999

It is amazing that the first transcontinental railroad was even built.  It was built despite accidents, politics, materials shortages, conflict, opposition, suspicion, greed, logistics, geography,  Indians, skullduggery, snowfall, self-interest, labor problems, shoddy construction practices, dishonesty, criminality, boardroom drama, Civil War, desert, sleight of hand, character assassination, financial problems, stock manipulation, Congress, lawsuits, death, blackmail, threats, and gawking celebrities.

It was a remarkable confluence of governmental action, entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, Chinese and Irish labor, heroism, and bribery that overcame the elements and overcame human nature.  Empire Express explores all of that with a greater focus on CPRR building and UPRR human nature than vice versa.  It is perhaps because human nature, at least on the UPRR, provided such fertile ground that a major part of the book deals with that.

This book is a tome at over 700 pages which gives space for a lot of detail.  It is heavily footnoted to support the great detail and the many stories.  There are some pictures and a few maps, but the bulk of the story comes from a heavy use of the letters and telegrams of the principals into which they recorded their deeds (mis and otherwise) and observations.  A typical history book focuses on events.  This one does that but its primary focus is going into the personalities involved.   It’s not just the “great men” whose thoughts and actions are reported.  The author focuses too on the lesser personalities.

Besides the heavy use of the words of the people involved, the other strength of the book is that it places the whole story of the transcontinental railroad into the historical context of what else was happening:  the Civil War was raging during approval of the railroad and during the first part of the construction;  the plains Indian wars were going on; three major amendments were made to the Constitution; and Mark Twain was a famous writer for example.

The story starts with Asa Whitney taking a railroad trip in 1844.  The casual history reader probably has no idea that there were people pushing for a transcontinental railroad long before the CPRR and UPRR got into the game.  Asa Whitney was amazed by the “lightning speed” and wondered “where will it end?  Can it be happy?”  “I fear not.” Nevertheless he began planning for a railroad to cross the continent to annihilate, distance, ignorance, want, and barbarism with U.S. trade to the Orient and Christianity.  Whitney’s plans came at a time when the U.S. was engaged in a monumental change, the Industrial Revolution and geographic expansion.

He started pressuring Congress in 1845.  A lot of what he recommended would end up in the Railroad acts that would come in the 1860’s.   It is this kind of context that helps make this book a valuable read if you want to understand the coming of the “Empire Express.”  Asa Whitney did not build the railroad but he got the nation talking.

The 1850’s saw governmental survey parties begin to explore the west looking for possible railroad routes.  Then Theodore Judah appeared on the scene and the book moves to the background of the railroad in California, before the ultimately successful Big 4 got involved.  We learn about the first railroads in California, Judah’s part in them, their owners and even William Tecumseh Sherman who would later make a name for himself during the Civil War.

Theodore Judah was the driving force in getting the railroad started.  He visualized trains crossing the continent at 100 MPH in just 40 hours.  Clearly, even today, he was ahead of his time, but he visualized that which had not been done.  Unfortunately, after laying out the western route and getting Congress moving, he was pushed aside and died.  He never saw his railroad.  The amount of work he did is almost unbelievable.  He crossed the Sierra at least 23 times in plotting his route and went back and forth to New York and Washington D.C. a number of times.  Today that’s not such a big deal.  In the 19th century each trip was a months long affair.  Judah made maps with scales of 400’ to the inch, one 90 feet long, to convince Congress that a transcontinental railroad was possible. If it had not been for “Crazy Judah” there would have been no mid-19th century transcontinental railroad.

There are lots of stories in this book to illustrate the dangers, corruption, success, and human elements in the construction and that is a strength.  For example, Collis Huntington of the CPRR’s Big 4, had a parsimonious personality.  He was a whiz at geography.  On a trip to San Francisco by ship the passengers mutinied, put the crew ashore and took the ship to San Francisco themselves.  Nothing was done to the passengers and Huntington was in California where he developed a prowess as a merchant.  He required that his employees be home by 9 PM and never gamble or visit prostitutes.  It is that kind of detail that personalizes the quest to build the railroad.

Now wearing a black eye patch, Strobridge (CPRR construction chief) was a commanding presence at an inch over six feet and made of solid iron – but not just because of appearance.  A pure fire-breather with a demon’s temper, asbestos lungs, and the sharpest, most profane tongue in the state, he use physical fear as his prime managerial tool.  Like Crocker, Strobridge was  vehement teetotaler,

Another story, having to do with the UPRR, says the Indians were interested in the boxes (box cars) so they set out to waylay a train.  A hand car came along first which was attacked. The occupants were scalped and then the Indians waylaid a real train.  They satisfied their curiosity by opening the box cars and plundering the contents.  Stories like that later became subjects of modern westerns.

Detail makes for interesting reading too.  For example,  part of the context of the railroad was Lincoln’s death. Lincoln’s funeral train bearing his body traveled to his burial site.  School children had thrown so many flowers on the tracks in Pennsylvania “that the engine lost traction - the train almost stalled more than once.”

Despite the length, the greater detail, the stories, the descriptions, and the words of the participants all make for a good story and strong book.