Excerpt from Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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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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  • First Published:
    Aug 2000, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2001, 432 pages

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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 finished and the crowd dispersed, W.H.M. Pusey, with whom the speaker was staying, recognized young Dodge. He pointed out Dodge to Lincoln and said that the young engineer knew more about railroads than any "two men in the country."

That snapped Lincoln's head around. He studied Dodge intently for a moment and then said, "Let's go meet." He and Pusey strolled across the porch to a bench where Dodge was sitting. Pusey introduced them. Lincoln sat down beside Dodge, crossed his long legs, swung his foot for a moment, put his big hand on Dodge's forearm, and went straight to the point: "Dodge, what's the best route for a Pacific railroad to the West?"

Dodge instantly replied, "From this town out the Platte Valley."

Lincoln thought that over for a moment or two, then asked, "Why do you think so?"

Dodge replied that the route of the forty-second parallel was the "most practical and economic" for building the railroad, which made Council Bluffs the "logical point of beginning."

Why? Lincoln wanted to know.

"Because of the railroads building from Chicago to this point," Dodge answered, and because of the uniform grade along the Platte Valley all the way to the Rocky Mountains.

Lincoln went on with his questions, until he had gathered from Dodge all the information Dodge had reaped privately doing surveys for the Rock Island Railroad Company on the best route to the West. Or, as Dodge later put it, "He shelled my woods completely and got all the information I'd collected."


The transcontinental railroad had been talked about, promoted, encouraged, desired for three decades. This was true even though the railroads in their first decades of existence were rickety, ran on poorly laid tracks that gave a bone-crushing bump-bump-bump to the cars as they chugged along, and could only be stopped by a series of brakemen, one on top of each car. They had to turn a wheel connected to a device that put pressure on the wheels to slow and finally to stop. The cars were too hot in the summer, much too cold in the winter (unless one was at the end nearest the stove, which meant one was too hot). The seats were wooden benches set at ninety-degree angles that pained the back, the buttocks, and the knees. There was no food until the train stopped at a station, when one had fifteen or fewer minutes to buy something from a vendor. The boiler in the engine was fired by wood, which led to sparks, which sometimes -- often -- flew back into a car and set the whole thing on fire. Bridges could catch fire and burn. Accidents were common; sometimes they killed or wounded virtually all passengers. The locomotives put forth so much smoke that the downwind side of the tracks on the cars was less desirable and it generally was on the poorer side of town, thus the phrase "the wrong side of the tracks."

Nevertheless, people wanted a transcontinental railroad. This was because it was absolutely necessary to bind the country together. Further, it was possible, because train technology was improving daily. The locomotives were getting faster, safer, more powerful, as the cars became more comfortable. More than the steamboat, more than anything else, the railroads were the harbinger of the future, and the future was the Industrial Revolution.

Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.

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