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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Lincoln represented the Rock Island Bridge Company in the landmark case. He went to the river and examined the rebuilt bridge, measured the currents in the river, and interviewed river men, all based on his experience as a pilot. At the trial he argued that the steamboat had crashed into the bridge because of pilot error, but he also put the case into a broader context, nothing less than national economic development. He pointed out that there was a need for "travel from East to West, whose demands are not less important than that of the river." He said the east-west railroad connection was responsible for "the astonishing growth of Illinois," which had developed within his lifetime to a population of a million and a half, along with Iowa and the other "young and rising communities of the Northwest."

The jury deadlocked, and the court dismissed the case. It was thus a victory for the railroad. When an Iowa court later found against the builders and ordered the bridge removed, the Supreme Court overruled and declared that railroads could bridge rivers. Had Lincoln never done another thing for the railroads, he had earned their gratitude on this one.

When Lincoln met Dodge in Council Bluffs in 1859, the IC was the largest rail system in the world. The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad was running trains to the Missouri River and laying tracks on the other side. In January 1860, it ran a small engine on tracks spiked to telegraph poles and laid on the ice over the Missouri. Thus the train came to Kansas and the Great Plains. This was not unexpected. With the improvement of train technology plus the discovery of gold in California, and because of the extreme difficulty of getting to California, there was an overwhelming demand for a transcontinental railroad.

In 1853, Congress had called for a survey of possible routes. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, sent out four teams of surveyors to explore alternatives from the north, near the Canadian border, to the south, near the Mexican, from the forty-ninth parallel on the north to the thirty-second on the south. They did path-breaking work, and eventually a railroad would be built over each route. Their work was published in eleven large volumes by the government, with stunning drawings and maps. They did not explore the forty-second parallel.

The Pacific railroad surveys did the opposite of what Congress said it wanted. They presented a much more favorable picture of Western climate and resources than had previously been assumed. What was thought of as "The Great American Desert," they reported, turned out to be ready for settlement, or at least much of it, with fine agricultural lands and a wealth of minerals. Further, the surveys showed that not one but several practical routes for railroads existed.

The explorers could not settle the question of where to build. Slavery made it impossible. Davis wanted the thirty-second-parallel line. He maintained that a route from New Orleans through southern Texas, across the southern parts of the New Mexico and Arizona Territories, and on to San Diego was the obvious one, because it would cross the fewest mountains and encounter the least snow. That was true. But no free-state politician was ready to provide a charter or funds for a railroad that would help extend slavery. The Free-Soilers wanted Chicago or St. Louis or Minneapolis as the eastern terminus, but no slave-state politician was willing to give it to them.

That is why Lincoln's question to Dodge was inevitably an integral part of the question of slavery's future in the American Republic, an economic question that was also the burning political and overwhelmingly moral question of the day. Lincoln, meanwhile, was about to accept seventeen lots in Council Bluffs as collateral for a loan he was considering making to fellow attorney Norman Judd. So he was in Iowa, among other reasons, to see for himself if the lots were worthwhile as collateral. The answer to that question was the railroad potential of the Great Plains.

Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.

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