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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Dodge loved the flaming sumac, the gold tinge of the willows, the turning leaves on the cottonwood beside the rivers, and on the elms, black oak, and hard maple, the silvered wild grass, the variety and numbers of animals. All were fascinating to the young engineer from New England. He saw his first Western Indians, a group of Otoes, who fled. On a late afternoon in November, Dodge, on a solitary horseback reconnaissance in advance of his party, drew up at the edge of a great crescent of cliffs and beheld the river that thereafter always held him in thrall.

The Missouri was sprawled out on the floodplain that twisted and turned, gnawing at the sandbars in its sweep between the villages of Omaha and Council Bluffs. The Mormons had arrived at the latter in their wanderings in 1846 and left in 1852, en route to Salt Lake City. This reduced the population of Council Bluffs from six thousand to fewer than twenty-five hundred (Omaha had about five hundred residents). But Dodge knew, at his first glance, that here was the site for the eastern terminus for the first transcontinental. On November 22, 1853, his party caught up with him, the first surveying party to traverse Iowa from east to west. There would be others, and a race was on, but it would be fourteen years before a train crept into Council Bluffs, even as the Union Pacific reached out from Omaha into the mountains.

Dodge crossed the Missouri on a flatboat. On the western side, he had the party continue to scout while he went on ahead to examine the country to the Platte Valley, some twenty-five miles farther west. Dodge went up the Platte, looked around and studied its bank, and liked what he saw.

Dodge asked every immigrant he ran into, plus the voyagers and Indians, for all the information they could furnish on the country farther west. On the way home he took out a claim on the Elkhorn River. It was the first major tributary of the Platte, only twenty or so miles west of Omaha.

Having completed the location of the M&M, Dodge took a leave and went back to Illinois to marry Anne Brown on May 28, 1854. The couple then returned to his claim on the Elkhorn, where he built a cabin and took out claims for his father and his brother, who joined him in March 1855. Together they plowed the virgin prairie and began to farm. Emigrants crossing Nebraska in 1855 never saw a white man's house between the Dodge cabin on the Elkhorn and Denver.

In July 1855, two exhausted and seriously ill men rode up to Dodge's cabin on spent horses. Dodge was amazed; one of them was Frederick Lander, the man who had influenced him to go to Norwich University. He welcomed Lander and his companion, helped them off their horses and into the cabin, nursed them, and got their story. Lander said he had been surveying for the government from Puget Sound, in the Washington Territory, to the Missouri River, that he had started with six men but only he and the man with him had survived. Still, he had completed his survey.

That evening, Dodge and Lander sat on the banks of the Elkhorn, watching the fireflies and talking railroads. "Dodge," Lander said, "the Pacific railroad is bound to be built through this valley and if it doesn't run through your claim, I'll be badly mistaken."

"I've already figured that it will," Dodge replied. "How else could it go from the Missouri River if built this far north?"

Lander reported that Jefferson Davis, the secretary of war, didn't want the railroad to be so far north. "He wants the Pacific railroad to be to the south. I'm going to oppose his views as soon as I get to Washington."

And he did. Davis had reports that stressed the thirty-second parallel as quicker, cheaper, and more dependable than any of the others. Lander, in his report, made a frank comparison of the route from the thirty-second and the one from the forty-second (which would make Omaha or its vicinity the eastern terminus). "The northern route is longer than the southern," he confessed, "but of central position, it can be more readily defended in time of war; it can be more cheaply constructed; and, when built, will command and unite important and conflicting public and private interests." He also pointed to a further and enormous advantage -- the railroad would stay on flat ground, near water, by following the valley of the Platte.

Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.

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