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
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2000, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2001, 432 pages

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Lincoln's first query to Dodge -- the best route for a Pacific railroad -- was, next to slavery, the foremost question in his mind. He was one of the great railroad lawyers in the West. Born on February 12, 1809, to frontier parents, Lincoln had grown up poor. He educated himself and became a lawyer -- a "self-made man," in the words of his political hero, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. At age twenty-three, he had entered politics as a candidate for the Illinois state legislature over an issue that would remain with him for the rest of his life, railroads. There was a plan in the legislature to build a railroad from the Illinois River to Springfield. In a campaign speech Lincoln declared that "no other improvement...can equal in utility the rail road." It was a "never failing source of communication" that was not interrupted by freezing weather, or high or low water. He admitted that there was a "heart-stopping cost" to building a railroad, however.

Lincoln lost the election, running eighth in a field of thirteen candidates. But his campaign speech was remarkable. The Rocket, built in Britain by George Stephenson, had undergone its first successful trial at Rainhill in 1829, only two years earlier. The first American train, The Best Friend of Charleston, made its initial run in 1830, the second, The Mohawk & Hudson, in 1831. But that year the twenty-two-year-old Lincoln, with less than a year of formal education, was contemplating a railroad in Illinois and was right on the mark about the advantages and disadvantages it would bring, even though, like most Americans and all those living west of the Appalachian Mountains, he had never seen one. He had read about trains in the Eastern newspapers, but his travels had been limited to horseback or buggy, raft or boat.

The American future was hitched to this new thing, to conquer the distance across the continent which was so vast. There were bountiful farm lands that were waiting for immigrants to turn the soil. But without railroads or rivers there was no way to move products of any size from the territories in the West to markets on the East Coast or in Europe. As early as 1830, William Redfield (eighteen years later elected the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), who maintained a lifelong interest in railroads, published a pamphlet in New York City proposing a railroad to cross the country to the Mississippi, with extensions going on to the Pacific.

In 1832, the Ann Arbor Emigrant in Michigan called for a railroad from New York City to the Great Lakes, then over the Mississippi River and on to the Missouri River, then up the Platte, over the mountains, and on to Oregon. Lincoln and nearly every person in the United States wanted it done. The agitation grew over the nearly three decades between 1830 and Lincoln's meeting with Dodge in Council Bluffs. The 1830 population was 12.8 million. By 1840, it was up to seventeen million. By 1850, it had grown to twenty-three million, putting the United States ahead of Great Britain. Then it jumped up to thirty-one million by 1860.

Lincoln was a gifted pilot on Western rivers and eager to build canals -- in 1836, when he was in the legislature, he cast the deciding vote for a bill to authorize the state to loan $500,000 to support the bonds of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. But even more, he wanted those railroads, which had so many advantages over canals, and he wanted the federal government to let the state use the sale of public lands to raise the money to promote railroads.

Lincoln was ahead of but still in touch with his fellow citizens. By 1835, "railroad fever" had swept America. It was inevitable in a country that was so big, with so many immigrants coming in, creating a desperate need for transportation. Despite the limitations of the first trains -- their cost, their unproved capabilities, their dangers -- everyone wanted one. Railroads were planned, financed, laid throughout the East and over the mountains. Even though the Panic of 1837 slowed building considerably, by 1840 nearly three thousand miles of track had been laid in the United States, already more than in all of Europe.

Copyright © 2000 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.

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