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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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Dodge agreed. He sought the route using the private funds of Farnam and railroad promoter Dr. Thomas Durant, who had interests in the Rock Island. In 1856, Dodge had made a private survey up the Platte Valley to and beyond the Rocky Mountains, and reported to his financiers. Farnam and Durant set out to induce Eastern capital to help complete the road across Iowa, then across the Missouri River into Nebraska and farther west. On the basis of Dodge's reports, they selected Council Bluffs as the place for the Rock Island to end and the Pacific railroad, when the government decided to build it, to begin. This was an adroit and far-seeing move in 1857, and it induced Dodge to make a claim across the Missouri River and near the town of Council Bluffs. Railroad activity was down, however, because of the Panic of 1857.

But this economic downturn must be kept in perspective. In the 1850s, an average of 2,160 miles of new track was laid every year. More miles of track were laid in the United States, mainly in the north, than in all the rest of the world, and by 1859 just under half of the world's railroad tracks would be in the various states of the Union. The brand-new rail network would carry some 60 percent of all domestic freight.

The growth of railroads in the United States had been astonishing. The tracks more than doubled in each decade. In 1834, there were but 762 miles. In 1844, it was up to 4,311 miles. By 1854, the trackage numbered 15,675 miles. On January 1, 1864, the amount of completed railway had grown to 33,860 miles, with sixteen thousand more miles under construction, most of it in the Northern states.

In 1858, Farnam and Durant -- who had a medical degree but never practiced and instead operated on Wall Street, where he was called "Doc" -- asked Dodge to visit them in New York City, at the office of the Rock Island Railroad, located over the Corn Exchange Bank. Dodge thus was present at a meeting of the board of directors, where a secretary read his report on the Platte route. "Before he was half through," Dodge reported, "nearly every person had left the room, and when he had finished only Mr. Farnam, Doc Durant, the reader and myself were present." Dodge had heard one of the directors say "he did not see why they should be asked to hear such nonsense." But Dodge told the two remaining directors: "I believe your road will draw the bulk of emigration crossing the Missouri. From Council Bluffs it will then go up the north side of the Platte River along the Mormon trail. The Pacific railroad is bound to be built along this trail."

Farnam and Durant believed him. And they acted on that belief, saying they felt "that if they could stimulate interest in the Pacific road it would enable them to raise funds to complete their line across the State." Dodge went to work making a grade east from Council Bluffs.

By no means was anything, much less everything, settled, even though in 1856 both political parties had advocated the transcontinental railroad in resolutions. But whether there would be a Pacific railroad as long as the United States remained half slave, half free, was a long way from being decided. "Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently -- forever -- half slave, and half free?" Lincoln had written to a Kentucky correspondent in 1855. If the country did not change, no one could tell where or if the Pacific railroad would run.

But if the railroad was to be built beside the Platte River, it was the buffalo and the Indians who first picked it out. Then it was used by the mountain men and the fur traders, then by the travelers on the Oregon Trail, then it became the route for the Mormon emigrant trains and their handcarts. It was called the Great Platte Valley Route. Lander and Dodge had seen immediately that this was the route for the Pacific railroad. Dodge once remarked that any engineer who overlooked the Platte Valley route as a natural highway to the mountains was not fit to follow the profession.

Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.

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