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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 by Stephen Ambrose X
Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose
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    Aug 2000, 432 pages

    Nov 2001, 432 pages


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So many people and so much land. And the locomotive was improving year by year, along with the track and passenger and freight cars -- trains were getting faster, safer, easier to build. By 1850, the lantern, cowcatcher, T-rail, brakes, skill of the engineers, and more improvements made a transcontinental railroad feasible. Pennsylvania, with enormous deposits of both coal and iron, had more rail manufactures than all of England.

As one observer noted, "The key to the evolution of the American railway is the contempt for authority displayed by our engineers." The engineers were there to build a transcontinental railroad, as they had built so many tracks, curves, and bridges by the beginning of 1850. The country owned so much land that paying for a railroad was no problem -- just create a corporation and give it so much land for every mile of track it laid. Lincoln was a strong proponent; in 1847, just before beginning his only term in Congress, he wrote a letter to the IL Journal that supported the Alton and Sangamon Railroad and called it "a link in a great chain of rail road communication which shall unite Boston and New York with the Mississippi." He also strongly urged the United States to give 2,595,000 acres of land adjacent to the proposed road to Illinois, to enable the state to grant that land to the IC.

In a complicated case for the Alton and Sangamon, Lincoln won a decision before the Illinois Supreme Court that was later cited as precedent in twenty-five other cases throughout the United States. With seven hundred miles north and south through the state, with a branch to Chicago, the IC was the longest line in the world. The following year, 1852, he defended the yet-unfinished Illinois Central in a case involving the right of the state legislature to exempt the railroad company from county taxes. Not until January 1856 (the year the IC was completed) did the Illinois Supreme Court deliver a decision that accepted Lincoln's argument that the railroad was exempt. Lincoln handed the IC a bill for $2,000. The railroad rejected it, claiming, "This is as much as Daniel Webster himself would have charged." Lincoln submitted a revised bill for $5,000. When the corporation refused to pay, he brought suit and won.

Lincoln was at the forefront of the burst of energy created by the combination of free lands, European immigration, capitalists ready to risk all, and the growth of railroads. As a lawyer who had to ride the circuit on horseback or in a buggy, he knew how great was the demand for passenger trains. This was true everywhere, as the nation created railroads east of the Mississippi River at a tremendous pace, with Illinois one of the leaders. In the 1850s, Illinois constructed 2,867 miles of track, more than any other state except Ohio. This transformed the state's economic and social order and presented new challenges for the Illinois legal system.

Lincoln was a leader in the fray over how to establish the first state railroad regulations: What was the responsibility of a railroad to occupants of lands adjoining the track? What was a railroad's relationship with passengers and shippers? Who should regulate the affairs between stockholders and directors? These and many other questions kept Lincoln involved as he became what an eminent scholar has called "one of the foremost railroad lawyers in the West." He was the main lawyer for the IC in tax cases, in what has been characterized as "Lincoln's greatest legal achievement,...the most important of Lincoln's legal services." His cases have been pronounced by scholar Charles Leroy Brown "of extreme delicacy," which Lincoln worked on "quietly, following a program of strategy, maneuver and conciliation," saving the IC millions of dollars in taxes.

In 1857, he was thus the natural choice to argue one of the most important cases about railroads. The Rock Island Bridge Company had built the first bridge across the Mississippi River for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. This was an innovation of immeasurable proportions, for it meant the country would be able to cross its north-south rivers with railroad tracks, the essential step to building the first transcontinental railroad. But when a steamboat ran into one of the Rock Island's piers, the boat was set on fire and burned up. The owner sued the bridge company. The city of St. Louis and other river interests supported the principle of free navigation for boats, whereas Chicago and the railroad interests stood by the right of railway users to build a bridge.

Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.

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