On multiple occasions, I have written of my interest in learning about how different things were built by reading a book about the project. Loving all forms of transportation, in particular, cars, trains, and airplanes, I wrote last year of my long-standing desire to read about the building of the railroads in the US during the 19th century but how my efforts had been thwarted. I had purchased and read several books about railroads but had not gotten the story I wanted. As I said in that post:
What I really wanted to read about was the early tycoon days of how the railroads were built, the competition that ensued, and the rail barons that consolidated the many smaller roads into monopolistic larger lines.
This is the book I put on my Amazon Wish List in November 2012. Reading the book description gave me the impression this was the story I really wanted to read. But unfortunately, before I could purchase this book, it went out of print and has remained so ever since.
Then early last September, a package arrived at our house that by the look of the packaging and the feel of its contents, it was a book. Knowing that our youngest son had recently started graduate school and was purchasing his schoolbooks online, I ripped open the package thinking it was just another textbook he needed for his graduate studies.
But when I pulled it from the package, I got a big surprise—it was the book I had been wanting for almost four years.
My first thought was I had accidently spoiled a Christmas surprise for me (not the first time I had done that either). I next asked my wife if she had bought it for me to which she replied no. I then discreetly asked all three of our children if they had started their Christmas shopping early. Again the answer was no.
Then a few days later, I got a text from my brother asking if a package had arrived at the house. I replied that one had but that I had opened it potentially spoiling the surprise. He said it was a surprise but that he intended for me to open it as soon as it arrived. He explained it was not an early Christmas or birthday present but just a gift. After reading the disappointment in my voice evident from my blog post about not being able to purchase it, he had sought the book out and bought it for me. What a brother! And what a gift for what he found turned out to be a very gently used copy in excellent condition!
With book in hand, it quickly moved up my list of books to read. And read I did.
Although this booked started similarly to the one I read last year in covering the fact that many of the railroads were originally laid out along old Indian trails or stagecoach routes, I could tell this one would be different as it included a multi-page preface of the cast of characters—the railroads and the railroaders key to this telling of the history of railroads in the US.
And skipping over a few pages, I could see that it included maps that would help visualize the proposed routes of the eventual railroads.
I was not long into the book, having been introduced to some of the early tycoons that I learned of their consistent strategy. Obtain a lucrative land grant from Congress, incorporate a railroad company, name a president and other key players, vote to sell bonds or stock, and then begin construction with said funds. Since all of the land grants came with a stipulation of a certain amount of mileage completed between destinations within a certain time frame, there developed fierce competition between rival rails. And the frantic building pace frequently left the railroads in a precarious financial position with insolvency ever looming.
In fact some times “paper railroads” would be incorporated just for the sole purpose of bluffing a competitor into taking certain actions along a route or to motivate a consolidation of lines.
While a prominent milestone in the book I read last year was the famous driving of the golden spike by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, that event occurred in this book before I was even 1/3 of the way through. And what was even more interesting was the little known and often-ignored fact (disclosed in this book) that while claiming to be the first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific had not yet bridged the 1,500-foot span across the Missouri River (Until their bridge was completed almost three years later, traffic was conveyed across the water by ferry). Rather it was the final spike of the Kansas Pacific railroad at Comanche Crossing Colorado in 1870 that marked the true completion of the first uninterrupted transcontinental railroad between the Atlantic and Pacific.
Featured prominently in this book was the contentious battle between the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad and the Denver and Rio Grande railroad as well as others. Two separate struggles through narrow passes in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona highlighted the stealth and aggressive tactics executives from each company would pursue, even to the point of gunfire to claim the pass for themselves. Ultimately it was multiple court decisions all the way to the Supreme Court that settled the dispute. But not before I got a real taste of the rail baron shenanigans I was looking for.
But these conflicts were just a prelude for bigger competition. Not long afterwards, the Santa Fe and Frisco joined forces to attempt to build the third transcontinental railroad. Thwarting their efforts were none other than the Big Four out of California (Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford). And once Jay Gould began to work with the Big Four rather than against them, they proved a formidable opponent. It was exactly the battle royal among barons that I had wanted to read about. Ultimately it was the shrewd maneuvers and financial muscle of the Big Four that won the day preventing the Santa Fe from laying track into California. Left with the only option of cooperating with the Big Four, the Santa Fe and Frisco became part of a combined route with Gould and the Big Four.
But it wasn’t just the rail barons that fought aggressively with each other; towns along the proposed routes “politicked” hard to become the next rail boomtown. Recognizing the benefits to their local economy and their escalating land value, town fathers (who frequently had vast land holdings that would appreciate in value) offered enticing incentives for the railroads to choose their town. This heightened the struggle even further when competing railroads would “court” the same towns.
It was with sadness when I neared the end of this book for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, I knew how the story was going to end. While the race across the continent began in earnest during the Civil War and the expansion of the railroad network grew dramatically for the next 50 years, it was their extreme useful during World War I and II that marked the rare high-water marks that stood out among their years of decline. After World War II, it was the swiftness of the jet airplane and the individualized mobility of the automobile that doomed passenger rail service, a service I would have loved to enjoy had I been born just 15 years earlier.
Beginning in the 1950s, no longer were railroads consolidating to form mega-monopoly empires but rather merging as the only means of survival in a redefined era of freight transport sans passenger service.
Secondly, sadness that the story itself had come to an end for this book well told the tale I had wanted to read. The exciting times of railroad growth in the 19th century, the challenges the railroaders encountered in building through the mountainous west, and the machinations of the rail barons, the shrewd tactics they pursued, and the political moves they employed to build their empires all made for an extremely interesting saga. Closing the cover of the book, I felt I had learned a tremendous amount of this history, I had been entertained, and I had most certainly satisfied my quest for knowing more of this story.
So thanks Bro, for a most satisfying surprise gift!