Greedy and corrupt politicians. Monopolists. Lobbyists. Hard-working, Chinese and Irish manual laborers. Surveyors camping under the stars. Cavalrymen waging a war of extinction against savage tribes. Does reading about any of those things interest you?
Then you need to read Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose. It is an excellent book about one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments.
You might be wondering why I started off my summary and review of Nothing Like It in the World with a list of professions and types of people. It certainly was not a traditional opening.
However, I think it does get at the theme of Nothing Like It in the World, which is the men who built the transcontinental railroad after the Civil War. Rather than discussing only the planning and logistics of building the railroad, the theoretical arguments for and against it, or other “big picture” concepts, Ambrose tells the story of the men who actually built it and created the policy that led to it being built.
Because of that, it is really a book about the triumph of the human spirit and will to succeed rather than a book just about a great project.
So, if you want to read about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into building the railroad that united America, you need to order and read a copy of Nothing Like It in the World for the reasons you will read in my summary and review of it.
Summary of Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose
As I said in my review, Nothing Like It in the World is a book not about the theoretical underpinnings or big picture of the transcontinental railroad, but is instead about the men who built it, both big and small.
Beginning with Theodore Judah, the man who explored the Sierra Nevada mountains and showed that building the transcontinental would be possible, Ambrose gives story after story about how the transcontinental got built.
Ted Judah camped in the mountains and explored until he found a pass from California through the Sierra Nevada mountains to Nevada. The “Big Four”– Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker- a group of California businessmen who almost single-handedly funded building the Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental (the portion that was built from California to Utah).
And, of course, there is Stockdale, the CP’s head of construction, who somehow figured out how to build tunnels through the granite of the Sierra Nevada mountains using nothing but muscle and black powder. Those were the great men of the Central Pacific.
Doc Durant was the stock market speculator from New York who, despite his many moral failings, made sure that the Union Pacific (the portion of the transcontinental railroad built from Omaha, Nebraska to Utah) was built as quickly as possible. The Ames Brothers made sure Doc Durant and his cronies did not steal all of the Union Pacific’s money. General Dodge was a Civil War general who was put in charge of building the Union Pacific and did so with military-like discipline and precision.
And there is Brigham Young, the Mormon leader who so desired for a transcontinental railroad to be built that he enticed thousands of young Mormon men to build railroad sections for the Union Pacific. Those were the great men of the Union Pacific.
Of course, there are many other great and influential men in Nothing Like It in the World. One, for example, is General Sherman, who went after the Indian savages that attacked the railroad, stealing company supplies and killing workers. At least then he was using his war-criminal tactics against savages and murderers rather than southerners. But the men in the paragraphs above are my favorite. They are the ones who were the most colorful characters and did the most to make sure the railroad actually got built.
But, the “little man” is just as central to the story of the transcontinental told in Nothing Like It in the World as any of those great men. On the Central Pacific, thousands of Chinese laborers worked hour after hour, day after day, to grade the road and build it out of hand-sawn ties and iron rails.
They labored in the snow of the mountains, where they used sledgehammers and black powder to carve their way through solid-granite mountains, and the scorching heat of the Nevada deserts, where they built miles of rail a day despite being dozens of miles from any source of water. One day, towards the end of the race, those men built, by hand, ten miles of railroad in a single day, a feat that was never equaled.
Similarly, on the Union Pacific side, according to Ambrose in Nothing Like It in the World, thousands of Irish laborers and, in Utah, Mormons, worked day after day to lay track across the plains. They dealt with they Wyoming snow, built bridges across ravines, and even fought off the Indians that were raiding the railroad; at times, they had to drop the shovels and picks and pick up rifles to fight off the Indian raiders.
And, of course, in Nothing Like It in the World, Ambrose writes about the types of men everyone thinks of when they hear of the transcontinental railroad. The lobbyists that got great terms for both companies. The corrupt politicians that accepted stock in the Central Pacific or Union Pacific as bribes. The stockholders of the Credit Mobilier company that received huge dividends from it as it siphoned money out of the Union Pacific’s coffers.
However, one thing that separates Nothing Like It in the World from other books about the transcontinental is that Ambrose dispels myths about that corruption. While many writers attack the land grants and bonds given to the railroads, Ambrose shows that those grants and bonds were a great financial decision for the government and actually made it lots of money over the long term.
So, while there was some corruption, it was generally blow out of proportion by the fake news muckrakers that discovered the Credit Mobilier scandal. Although the Grant Administration was corrupt, as I discussed in my summary and review of his Memoirs, that corruption that related to the transcontinental was relatively tame, especially in comparison to Joe Biden’s corruption.
But, generally, Nothing Like It in the World is a positive story. Rather than being about only those corrupt men that stole from the government and American people, Ambrose generally tells the stories that make you proud to be an American; the stories about the heroes of both companies that overcame enormous odds and built a railroad across the vast, and mostly empty, North American continent in a few short years.
My Take on Nothing Like It in the World
I thought Nothing Like It in the World was a fantastic book. Many nights, when reading it, I could not make myself put it down. I was too curious to find out what Doc Durant was up to, too enthralled reading about the almost unbelievable feats that went into building the road, or too amazed at what odds the great men and laborers alike were able to overcome. It really was a magnificent feat and American triumph.
On that note of triumph, I think there is something significant in the date of the transcontinental’s completion. It was completed in 1869. A mere hundred years later, we were landing men on the moon, as you can read about in Carrying the Fire. America was able to complete both those projects, mainly because of mutually-beneficial relationships between innovative businesses and government agencies.
There are other similarities between the projects, of course. In both cases, the race created by public hype surrounding the projects led to inefficiencies and greater than necessary expenses. Lobbying was needed to make things happen a certain way. A race was involved that put the projects on an almost impossible schedule. But I think the most important similarity is that both were great triumphs and evidence of American ingenuity and will to succeed.
But that is just a side note. My main takeaway from Nothing Like It in the World was sheer amazement that the project was completed. Workers had to hammer away at granite and spikes or carry 560 pound rails around all day, without break. Confederate and Union veterans of the Civil War worked side by side. Lobbyists for both companies had to work government officials to make sure the projects were actually completed. And the greed of Doc Durant almost sucked the UP’s coffers dry, so it was always on the verge of bankruptcy.
What makes Nothing Like It in the World so great is that Ambrose tells the stories of how those struggles were overcome. You will have to read it to find out how they were, so order a copy and get started reading!
Additionally, Ambrose hints at just how paradigm-shattering the completion of Nothing Like It in the World was, which is very interesting. He discusses how it made it possible to ship goods across the country and to travel across it. Produce grown in the Midwest could be shipped back to markets, making it more likely that those lands would be settled.
The Army was finally able to transport its troops where it needed to and as quickly as it needed to, so the Indian threat could finally be put down. And, because of the telegraph poles that went along the railroad, events from across the nation could be transmitted almost instantaneously.
People who a few short years before had been able to travel no faster than Julius Caesar and communicate no faster than the ancients were, all of a sudden, able to cross a continent in a few days and communicate as quickly as they wanted to. That was an amazing, almost unbelievable shift. And it was made possible because of American sweat and ingenuity.
Other than some parts of California, which had been settled only because gold was found, and Salt Lake City, which was settled because the Mormons needed a refuge, the land bought by Thomas Jefferson and conquered during the Mexican War was still in the same condition when the transcontinental was started. But, as it progressed across the continent, that vast, untamed wilderness was finally settled.
Nothing Like It in the World is a book I cannot recommend highly enough. It has something that can appeal to anyone- fights between the cavalry and Indians, discussions of architectual feats along the road, discussions about finance and investing, stories about the American wilderness that was conquered by the road, and great stories about some of America’s most famous and influential businessmen.
So, if any of those things interest you, buy and read a copy of Nothing Like It in the World. You will likely be just as enthralled as I was.
By: Gen Z Conservative