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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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Peter Dey almost agreed. "Dodge and I read up everything on this subject," he declared. "We read all the government reports of everything that had been discovered regarding the routes across the continent. Dodge was deeply interested in them and I was to a considerable extent....He made his claim on the Elkhorn river...[because] it was his belief that the Platte valley would be the line." But Dey wasn't ready to go as far as Dodge. He said that Dodge had "taken a great fancy to the Missouri River" and that the sprawling, muddy stream held a fascination for him: "He always felt at home along its shores."

Dodge, meanwhile, was collecting oral and written information about the country west of his farm and studying the routes from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. He drew up his own map of the country, "giving the fords and where water and wood could be found, etc." He called it "the first map of the country giving such information."

The old M&M had new directors in 1856. They got started by telling the citizens of Pottawattamie County (where Council Bluffs is located) that if the citizens would vote for a $300,000 bond issue for the railroad, they would begin to grade for track eastward across Iowa. Then they crossed the river to Omaha to tell the citizens that, for a $200,000 bond issue from them for the M&M, work would start in Council Bluffs during the year. The Council Bluffs bonds were voted June 13, 1857, but in October the road went into the hands of receivers because the Panic of 1857 caused everything to fall through. Western Iowa and eastern Nebraska saw land that had boomed to $7 an acre fall to $1.

In 1858, Dodge decided to move across the river and make his permanent home in Council Bluffs, where he went into banking, milling, merchandising, contracting, freighting, and real estate -- a good indication of how varied were the interests of businessmen in the Missouri River towns in the late fifties. He bought lots in the "Riddle Tract," down on the Missouri River floodplain, the same location as the lots Lincoln was willing to assume in 1859 as collateral.

The Council Bluffs Bugle was very suspicious. "It has been rumored that G. M. Dodge, in consequence of being so largely interested in the Riddle Tract, was bound to make his surveys in such manner as would insure his own investments." Dodge was buying for the M&M, which wanted to retain a portion of the land for the road's shops and yards and to subdivide the remainder and place them on the market. Norman Judd, attorney for the M&M and a legal and political associate of Lincoln, borrowed the money from Lincoln to buy seventeen lots for $3,500, using the lots as collateral.

In the spring of 1859, Dodge went up the valley of the Platte on a third survey for Henry Farnam of the Rock Island. He got back to Council Bluffs on August 11, the day before Lincoln arrived in town. Lincoln had been making some political speeches in Iowa and Nebraska. When he reached St. Joseph, Missouri, he could have taken the only line of railroad across the state to return to Illinois, but instead he had gone aboard a stern-wheel steamboat that toiled up the Missouri River for nearly two hundred miles to Council Bluffs. Lincoln wanted to check out what the situation was with regard to the Pacific railroad, because of -- as J. R. Perkins, Dodge's first biographer, noted -- "his far-seeing plans to identify himself with the building of the great transcontinental railroad."

The Republican paper in town, the Nonpareil, gave Lincoln a warm welcome, saying that "the distinguished 'Sucker' [Iowa slang for someone from Illinois] has yielded to the solicitations of our citizens and will speak on the political issues of the day at Concert Hall. The celebrity of the speaker will most certainly insure him a full house. Go and hear old Abe."

The next morning, Lincoln, his friends the Puseys, and other citizens of the town strolled up a ravine to the top of the bluff, to view the landscape. From the point where he stood, now marked with a stone shaft and a placard, the vast floodplain of the Missouri stretched for twenty miles north and south and for four miles to the west, to Omaha. What he saw was similar to what Lewis and Clark had seen fifty-five years earlier, in 1804, when they stood on the same bluff. (Their visit is also marked by a statue and a placard.) In 1859 as in 1804, there were no railroad tracks crossing each other, no houses, only unbroken fields of wild grass and sunflowers, but there were a few streets in the rapidly growing village of Omaha running up and down the river hills.

Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.

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