Steven E Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World tells the story of the first transcontinental railroad. It follows the project’s history chapter by chapter, from choosing the route for the future road to driving the last spike in Utah. Concluding with the brief assessment of the road’s importance, the book offers thorough coverage of one of the feats of American engineering throughout the 19th century.
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The book begins with an explanation of why the United States was in such need of a transcontinental railroad. As the author explains, the road was a necessity due to the rapid pace of American territorial expansion. The railroad ensured that “towns, cities, and industries could be put down anywhere” as long as they had access to swift and transportation (Ambrose 21). California was a fairly agreeable ending point for the road due to being the most populated and economically important region on the Pacific Coast. Still, building a railroad long enough to connect Iowa to California would require “real men, dedicated men, adventurous men, men of muscle and brain power” (Ambrose 64). The author sets this thesis forth in the first three chapters and then proceeds to cover the process of building the road in more detail.
The book continues with the foundation of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1862. Due to the unprecedented nature of the task, Ambrose describes the goal set before it as the “most formidable task imaginable” and lists numerous difficulties in financing and administering the project (83). The author also describes how different parties opposed the building of the transcontinental railroad due to their economic interests. For example, “the company that brought ice from Alaska to the San Francisco market feared that the CP might replace it with ice from the Sierra Nevada” (Ambrose 104). By covering these problems, Ambrose points out that those building the road had to grapple not only with engineering difficulties inherent in the project of such magnitude but also with the internal opposition.
Speaking of the work on the project itself, the author begins with the surveying. Before even a mile of the road could be built, people had to survey the possible routes through the perilous and often unmapped territory to prepare a detailed plan. The author posits that the original surveyors did a fantastic job. In order to justify this high evaluation, he points out that the surveyors planning the Interstate 80 ended up following “almost exactly the route laid out by the original surveyors” (Ambrose 127). Yet surveying was still only the first phase of the work – there was much more to be done after that. One of the obvious obstacles to overcome was the mountain ridge of Sierra Nevada – a fearsome impediment of the road to California. Yet even as the project was still in its infancy, the railroad began to show its potential for economic improvement in the surrounding territories. As the author notes, Omaha “was the first to benefit” from the construction, nearly doubling its population in 1865 (Ambrose 167). It was up to the working men to ensure this optimism was justified.
Getting things done was anything but easy, as the purely physical factors continued impeding the railroad builders. For once, the 1866-1867 winter “was one of the worst in the whole of the nineteenth century” for North America (Ambrose 207). Low temperatures, freezing winds, and snowstorms made it all but impossible to make any progress, and the necessity of transporting enough fuel to keep men and animals warm increased the risk of fires. The terrain was also an enormously important factor in the pace of the work. While Union Pacific could lay a mile or two of track per day, Central Pacific’s progress “was measured in yards, not miles” (Ambrose 230). The reason why was the fact that the Central Pacific had to overcome the Sierra Nevada – and it had finally reached its summit by 1867. Enormous as the difficulties were, they proved no match for the ingenuity and hard-working nature of Americans who worked on the road.
With these successes, even the skeptics understood that the transcontinental railroad was a very feasible prospect that would likely be completed in mere years. As Central Pacific and Union Pacific raced toward each other, this friendly rivalry “became the top of the news” (Ambrose 249). It did not mean, though, that the difficulties were over – for example, laying tracks through Nevada required “covering the vulnerable sections of the track with snowsheds” to protect them from avalanches (Ambrose 302). Still, the companies were able to overcome any and all obstacles and race into Utah by early 1869. In May, “the Golden Spike went into the last tie to connect the last rail,” thus connecting two parts of the country and ushering a new era of transportation (Ambrose 356). The book ends with a brief description of the long-term socioeconomic effects of the railroad.
To summarize, Nothing Like It in the World offers a vivid account of the numerous and daunting difficulties that had to be overcome in order to finish a project of such magnitude successfully. Beginning with the organizational difficulties of operating unprecedentedly large businesses and ending with the purely engineering issues of crossing the mountains of protecting the track from avalanches, Ambrose presents a fearsome list of challenges. The book’s coverage of how those working on the railroad overcame each and every one of these obstacles confirms the assessment of its title: the transcontinental railroad was truly a project unlike anything else in the world.
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Ambrose, Steven E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869. Simon & Schuster. 2012.