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Hi-Line to Bottom Line

Derailing the romantic history of America’s railroads


It seems as though by definition, “visionaries” are the ones who are too short on cash or power to make their ideas a reality, so they’re forced to surrender their dreams to those who can get it done. David Haward Bain’s Empire Express, like any good work of history, entrenches you in the mindset of the time (1844-1872), but also begs the question “what if.” What if the visionaries, who first conceived of the transcontinental railroad as a gigantic nonprofit public works project, actually built the thing? What if it were constructed by honest contractors, who believed the railroad to be a sort of crusade for national unity? It all sounds foreign, socialist and unlike the America we all know and love. But rest assured that idealism failed and capitalism prevailed, because of two familiar reasons: money and politics. In some ways the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad is the story of the triumph of the bottom line in America.

A few details about life here in 1844: When Asa Whitney (visionary extraordinaire) brought the first railroad bill into Congress, the U.S. was comprised of 13 free and 13 slave states. The West began at the Missouri River, and Iowa, Wisconsin, and Florida were territories. The prevailing belief was that from the Missouri to California lay only trackless waste, the uninhabitable Great Western Desert, which could conceivably separate the two halves of the country forever. The only reliable way to get to California involved sailing around Cape Horn or doing an overland portage through Nicaragua (45 days).

If those details remind us of how much our country has changed, everyone will recognize certain similarities. The altruistic railroad bills all failed because congressmen and senators alike could not figure out how Whitney would profit by the railroad, but they were sure he would. The endless debates about what route should be taken involved much more pork and prestige than any close look at the surveys. And it is a stunning commentary on our representative democracy that no legislation about the railroad could be passed until the Southern states had seceded from the Union—at which time the Northern states could have it their way. In a complicated federally subsidized bond scheme, which Bain treats exhaustively, the first company that could build 40 miles of track would be able to access bonds staggered in value: $16,000 for each mile built on easy grades, $32,000 for the high plains, and $48,000 for mountain stretches. Sharp businessmen could see that despite the regulations and catches, there was a tremendous opportunity, but it would take the nerves of a gambler. It was up to the visionaries to push it along, because, as Bain says, “there was a war on, with quicker and surer ways to invest money,” like selling rebel cotton on black market in Europe, or just investing in the machinery of war, on either side.

However, because this was America, there were always gamblers enough, and two companies, the Central Pacific from Sacramento, and the Union Pacific from New York, began a nine-year construction project that would eventually meet west of Salt Lake City. Bain’s 14 years of research has yielded an excruciating level of detail, including diaries, letters, newspapers, and telegrams (his bibliography alone is 19 pages of minute typeface) about these two companies. In alternating chapters, Bain traces the fortunes of the two competing companies that emerge as the protagonists of the book. Most of the book is concerned with the white-collar wheelings and dealings that go on in California, Washington and New York. Here, in the detailed characterization of the board members and their rapacious struggles for money, Bain is in his element.

Dr. Durant, director of the Union Pacific, is described by his chief engineer as “a man who has not an honest drop of blood in his veins.” It was standard practice of his to issue construction contracts to the same members of the board who had approved these contracts and then wrote the checks to pay for the work. A phony financial institution, the infamous Crédit Mobilier, was incorporated by the Union Pacific for just this reason. Railroad bonds were sold and traded for legislative favors openly in the Capitol, and Collis Huntington (think Huntington Library), a man who began his entrepreneurial career as a peddler with a wagon and later cleaned up selling equipment to the ’49ers, complained in one letter to his associates: “There are more hungry men in Congress this session than I have ever known before.” A venerable senator from Nevada needed $50,000 for his re-election campaign; $25,000 went to “employ” the distinguished congressman from New York; one congressman needed law books; another needed a good lawyer to help his brother beat a murder rap. No compunction was evidenced in selling these securities to legislators, who would soon be voting on laws affecting the railroad.

Perhaps Bain’s approach to the subject could be deemed old-fashioned; he deals mainly with plutocrats and politicians. But in 700 pages, there is plenty of time to stop and look at the scenery of one of the most wide-open times in American history. He is able to shift from skeptical analyses to long, poignant descriptions, like that of Lincoln’s funeral train. And finally, Bain’s argument that the transcontinental railroad was second only to the Civil War as the 19th century’s most transformative event in the end justifies his almost exclusive treatment of the progenitors of today’s corporate America, who created, in Bain’s words, “like them or not, like it or not, the American nation we know today.”

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