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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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  • First Published:
    Aug 2000, 432 pages

    Nov 2001, 432 pages


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The day he met Lincoln, Grenville Dodge was twenty-eight years old. Born April 12, 1831, in Massachusetts, the son of a common laborer, he had worked on his first railroad at age fourteen, as a surveyor for Frederick Lander, who became one of the ablest surveyors in the exploration of the West. Lander was impressed by Dodge and told him to go to Norwich University in Vermont to become an engineer. He also gave Dodge his first vision of a Pacific railroad.

In 1848, Dodge entered Norwich, where the enthusiasm for railroad expansion was at a fever pitch. He found a faculty in Norwich who were, in his words, "filled with enthusiasm for expansion of railroads from the Atlantic to the Pacific." Like them, Dodge was also strong for steam power. In his diary in the fall of 1850, he wrote: "Forty-three years ago to-day, on October 12, 1807, Fulton made his first steamboat trip up the Hudson River. How wonderful has been the effect of his discovery. In the short space of forty-three years steam power has revolutionized the world." Two months later, Dodge moved to Illinois, where the Rock Island was just getting ready to grade for the track. He worked for the Rock Island and other railroads. All travel to the West was still over the Indian trails and the plank roads and down the canal. There was much to do.

In January 1852, Dodge went to work for the IC. The railroad drove up the price of lands per acre from $1.25 to $6 in 1853, and to $25 by 1856, the year it was completed. But the twenty-one-year-old Dodge was more interested in the Rock Island's construction to the west than in the IC headed south. He quit the IC in 1853 and went back to work with the Rock Island, writing his father, "It is the true Pacific road and will be built to Council Bluffs and then on to San Francisco -- this being the shortest and most feasible route."

He was right about part of this. The Chicago, Rock Island was the first railroad to cross Illinois from Chicago to the Mississippi River. Henry Farnam, who had railroad experience in Connecticut, and Chicago resident Joseph Sheffield had done a survey westward from Rock Island. In 1852, they made another survey across Iowa, this time for the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad, organized by the Rock Island with Peter A. Dey as engineer.

In the autumn of 1852, Dodge made an application to Dey. Dey later said that he took Dodge on that fall and "very soon I discovered that there was a good deal in him. I discovered a wonderful energy. If I told him to do anything he did [it] under any and all circumstances. That feature was particularly marked. He so enhanced my opinion of him that in May, 1853, when I came out to Iowa City to make surveys from Davenport west, I took him with me." Since Dey was one of the best railroad engineers in the country, if not the best, that was gratifying. Dodge called Dey "the most eminent engineer of the country, [a man] of great ability, [known for] his uprightness and the square deal he gave everyone." Dey put the youngster to work on a construction party, then as a surveyor across Iowa for the M&M.

Iowa was a natural link between the roads being pushed west from Chicago and any road crossing the Missouri River. When Chicago became a railroad center, Iowa became the necessary bridge between the Midwest and the Far West. The M&M had made a bargain with the Davenport and Iowa City Railroad by promising to complete the main line from Davenport to Iowa City in two years. Two weeks after this agreement, Dey went to work, with Dodge helping. Then Dodge went surveying on his own, west of Iowa City, with the Missouri River as his destination.

It was 1853. Dodge led a party of fourteen men, including a cook and a hunter. He hoped to make the Missouri before the snow fell. His expenses ran to $1,000 per month. He was pleased by the opportunity and overjoyed at the wilderness he was entering. He wrote his father, "Oh, that you could come out and overtake me on the prairies of Iowa, look at the country and see how we live." He was also ready to seize the main chance: he told his father, "We shall make an examination of the great Platte as far into Nebraska as we think fit."

Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.

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