Summary and book reviews of Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose

Nothing Like It In The World

The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1865-1869

By Stephen Ambrose

Nothing Like It In The World
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2000,
    432 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2001,
    432 pages.

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Book Summary

In this account of an unprecedented feat of engineering, vision, and courage, Stephen E. Ambrose offers a historical successor to his universally acclaimed Undaunted Courage, which recounted the explorations of the West by Lewis and Clark.

Nothing Like It in the World is the story of the men who built the transcontinental railroad -- the investors who risked their businesses and money; the enlightened politicians who understood its importance; the engineers and surveyors who risked, and lost, their lives; and the Irish and Chinese immigrants, the defeated Confederate soldiers, and the other laborers who did the backbreaking and dangerous work on the tracks.

The Union had won the Civil War and slavery had been abolished, but Abraham Lincoln, who was an early and constant champion of railroads, would not live to see the great achievement. In Ambrose's hands, this enterprise, with its huge expenditure of brainpower, muscle, and sweat, comes to life.

The U.S. government pitted two companies -- the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads -- against each other in a race for funding, encouraging speed over caution. Locomotives, rails, and spikes were shipped from the East through Panama or around South America to the West or lugged across the country to the Plains. This was the last great building project to be done mostly by hand: excavating dirt, cutting through ridges, filling gorges, blasting tunnels through mountains.

At its peak, the workforce -- primarily Chinese on the Central Pacific, Irish on the Union Pacific -- approached the size of Civil War armies, with as many as fifteen thousand workers on each line. The Union Pacific was led by Thomas "Doc" Durant, Oakes Ames, and Oliver Ames, with Grenville Dodge -- America's greatest railroad builder -- as chief engineer. The Central Pacific was led by California's "Big Four": Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. The surveyors, the men who picked the route, were latter-day Lewis and Clark types who led the way through the wilderness, living off buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope.

In building a railroad, there is only one decisive spot -- the end of the track. Nothing like this great work had been seen in the world when the last spike, a golden one, was driven in at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, as the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific tracks were joined.

Ambrose writes with power and eloquence about the brave men -- the famous and the unheralded, ordinary men doing the extraordinary -- who accomplished the spectacular feat that made the continent into a nation.

Chapter One: Picking the Route 1830-1860

August 13, 1859, was a hot day in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The settlement was on the western boundary of the state, just across the Missouri River from the Nebraska village of Omaha. A politician from the neighboring state of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, went to Concert Hall to make a speech. It attracted a big crowd because of Lincoln's prominence after the previous year's Lincoln-Douglas debates and the keen interest in the following year's presidential election. Lincoln was a full-time politician and a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. The local editor called Lincoln's speech -- never recorded -- one that "set forth the true principles of the Republican party."

In the audience was Grenville Mellen Dodge, a twenty-eight-year-old railroad engineer. The next day he joined a group of citizens who had gathered on the big porch of the Pacific House, a hotel, to hear Lincoln answer questions. When Lincoln had ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews
New York Times Book Review - Henry Kisor

Ambrose's scholarship seems impeccable, supported by copious notes and an extensive bibliography. He writes a brisk, colloquial, straightforward prose.

Publishers Weekly

Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, telegrams, newspaper accounts and other primary sources, Ambrose celebrates the railroad's unsung heroes--the men who actually did the backbreaking work.

Library Journal

Ambrose adds little to a much-told tale (his book does not supplant David Haward Bain's Empire Express, LJ 10/1/99), and he blinks at the ruthlessness and misery that made fortunes for the train barons. But in his hands every sledgehammer blow hits hard and every blast echoes.

Reader Reviews
Percy Douglas

I like this book. She is a very good author to be able to write this. Her contexts are in perfect harmony. Peace Out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Frank McWilliams

Ambrose details the transcontinental railroad's conception and its building in such a way as to draw the reader into the distance race between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific, America‚Äôs two first large corporations. The people, all of the ...   Read More

Miss Karen-MiChelle Collins

Overall, this book was highly factual and detailed. Ambrose truly researched his topic. However; as a history major from the University of Arkansas at Monticello, I felt these details were slightly too much. I was so bagged down with details that I ...   Read More

Dave Atkinson

I'm not a reader, but I am a construction engineer and a railroad fan. I read this book cover to cover and enjoyed every minute! I had no previous idea of this story; all we usually get is the "Golden Spike" sound bite. It is truely an ...   Read More

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