In 1889, Thomas Curtis Clarke opened his essay on "The Building of a Railway" with these words: "The world of to-day differs from that of Napoleon more than his world differed from that of Julius Caesar; and this change has chiefly been made by railways."
That was true, and it had happened because of the American engineers, one of whom said, "Where a mule can go, I can make a locomotive go." The poetry of engineering, which required both imagination to conceive and skill to execute, was nowhere more in evidence than in America, where it was the most needed. In England and Europe, after George Stephenson launched the first locomotive in 1829, little of significance in design change took place for the next thirty years. In America nearly everything did, because of the contempt for authority among American engineers, who invented new ways to deal with old problems regardless of precedent.
America was riper than anywhere else for the railroad. It gave Americans "the confidence to expand and take in land far in excess of what any European nation or ancient civilization had been able successfully to control," as historian Sarah Gordon points out. The railroad promised Americans "that towns, cities, and industries could be put down anywhere as long as they were tied to the rest of the Union by rail."
Between 1830 and 1850, American engineers invented the swiveling truck. With it placed under the front end of a locomotive, the engine could run around curves of almost any radius. It was in use in 1831 on the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad. There was nothing like it in England. So too equalizing beams or levers, by means of which the weight of the engine was borne by three of the four driving-wheels, which kept the train on rough tracks. Or the four-wheeled swiveling trucks, one under each end of a car, which let the freight or passenger cars follow the locomotives around the sharpest curves. Another American invention was the switchback, making it possible for the locomotives to chug their way up steep inclines.
Something else distinguished the American railway from its English parent. In America it was common practice to get the road open for traffic in the cheapest manner possible, and in the least possible time. The attitude was, It can be fixed up and improved later, and paid for with the earnings.
The wooden bridge and wooden trestle were invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century and put to use for railways by American engineers beginning in 1840. The Howe truss, invented by an American, used bolts, washers, nuts, and rods so that the shrinkage of new timber could be taken up. It had its parts connected in such a way that they were able to bear the heavy, concentrated weight of locomotives without crushing. Had the Howe truss bridges not tended to decay or burn up, they would still be in use today.
The railways made America. Everyone knew that. But there was much left to do. Henry V. Poor, editor of the American Railroad Journal, wrote a year before the Lincoln-Dodge meeting, "In a railroad to the Pacific we have a great national work, transcending, in its magnitude, and in its results, anything yet attempted by man. By its execution, we are to accomplish our appropriate mission, and a greater one than any yet fulfilled by any nation." The mission was, he summed up, to establish "our empire on the Pacific, where our civilization can take possession of the New Continent and confront the Old."
Obviously Dodge wasn't the only engineer who did surveying on the west side of the Missouri River. But he envisioned and convinced Lincoln that the transcontinental railroad should be on a road running almost straight out the forty-second parallel from Omaha, alongside the Platte Valley until it reached the Rocky Mountains and then over the mountains to meet the railroad coming east from California. With help from many others, Dodge and Lincoln inaugurated the greatest building project of the nineteenth century.
Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
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