Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad

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9781400065615: Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad
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From acclaimed historian Walter R. Borneman comes a dazzling account of the battle to build America’s transcontinental rail lines. Rival Rails is an action-packed epic of how an empire was born—and the remarkable men who made it happen.
 
After the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the rest of the country was up for grabs, and the race was on. The prize: a better, shorter, less snowy route through the corridors of the American Southwest, linking Los Angeles to Chicago. In Rival Rails, Borneman lays out in compelling detail the sectional rivalries, contested routes, political posturing, and ambitious business dealings that unfolded as an increasing number of lines pushed their way across the country.

Borneman brings to life the legendary business geniuses and so-called robber barons who made millions and fought the elements—and one another—to move America, including William Jackson Palmer, whose leadership of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad relied on innovative narrow gauge trains that could climb steeper grades and take tighter curves; Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific lines, a magnate insatiably obsessed with trains—and who was not above bribing congressmen to satisfy his passion; Edward Payson Ripley, visionary president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, whose fiscal conservatism and smarts brought the industry back from the brink; and Jay Gould, ultrasecretive, strong-armer and one-man powerhouse.

In addition, Borneman captures the herculean efforts required to construct these roads—the laborers who did the back-breaking work, boring tunnels through mountains and throwing bridges across unruly rivers, the brakemen who ran atop moving cars, the tracklayers crushed and killed by runaway trains. From backroom deals in Washington, D.C., to armed robberies of trains in the wild deserts, from glorified cattle cars to streamliners and Super Chiefs, all the great incidents and innovations of a mighty American era are re-created with unprecedented power in Rival Rails.

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About the Author:

Walter R. Borneman is author of several books, including 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America, and Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, for which he won the Tennessee History Book Award and Colorado Book Award for Biography. He is the president of the Walter V. and Idun Y. Berry Foundation, which funds postdoctoral fellowships in children’s health at Stanford University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
 Lines upon the Map


The wind makes a mournful moan as it roars through thecanyons and arroyos of West Texas. But on the afternoon of September 28, 1858,a new sound pierced the air. The tinny call of a bugle announced the impendingarrival of the first westbound Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach at thePinery Station near the crest of 5,534-foot Guadalupe Pass.

Eighteen months earlier, Congress had authorized thepostmaster general to establish regular overland mail service between SanFrancisco and the Mississippi River. When bids were opened, the route wasawarded to John Butterfield for the then staggering sum of $600,000 per year.The New York Times promptly termed the entire enterprise a waste of governmentmoney.

 Butterfield's contract required twice-weekly service anda transcontinental schedule of twenty-five days or less. The 2,795-mile routeconverged from St. Louis and Memphis at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then dippedsouth across Texas, the Gila River country, and Southern California beforeswinging north to San Francisco. The Pinery was but one of 141 stations thatButterfield initially constructed to accommodate the numerous horses, mules,stagecoaches, and men required to put the line into operation.

When the coach creaked to a halt at the Pinery thatSeptember day, a sole passenger alighted and brushed the alkali dust from hisclothes. If the station workers eyed him as an eastern dude, they were right.His name was Waterman Lily Ormsby III, and he was a twenty-three-year-oldspecial correspondent for the New York Herald. He had been enticed west by JohnButterfield to record the glories of transcontinental mail service. Butterfieldhimself had elected to depart the inaugural run at Fort Smit.

 While four fresh mules were attached to the coach, Ormsbywolfed down a hasty meal of venison and baked beans. Then the young newsmanclimbed back inside. The driver and conductor remounted their swaying perch,and with a flick of the reins they bounced westward across Guadalupe Pass.

 That evening, as Ormsby's coach descended the pass, therewas a commotion on the trail ahead. The first eastbound coach from SanFrancisco came into sight and pulled to a stop alongside its westbound twin.After historic pleasantries, both drivers urged their teams forward in theirrespective directions at speeds averaging five miles an hour.

 Brief though it was, this encounter proved that theAmerican coasts had been joined-however tenuously-and the neophyte ButterfieldOverland Mail unleashed a huge national appetite for transcontinentalconnections. Whether by stagecoach, Pony Express, or iron rails, this obsessionwith bridging the continent would consume the American nation for the nextcentury.

 Only a half century before John Butterfield's enterprise,the American West was largely unmapped. Native Americans in much of the regionlived a seminomadic lifestyle with fluid territorial boundaries. These changedover the years with intertribal warfare and pressures stirred by newcomerschased out of their indigenous homelands east of the Mississippi.

By the 1820s, the rivers flowing eastward from the RockyMountains had become trails into their midst. Mountain men trapping beaver werefollowed by traders-the risk-taking entrepreneurs of their day-who forcedgroaning wagons loaded with goods along the river valleys. Among the earliestand most famous of these routes was the Santa Fe Trail linking Independence,Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

 But as the Santa Fe trade swelled during the 1830s, theproblem in the eyes of many Americans was that Santa Fe and the entireSouthwest, from California to Texas, belonged to Mexico. Once the Republic ofTexas was born in 1836, this decidedly American presence looked covetously atSanta Fe and the land beyond.

The tide of American expansionism running westward alongthe Santa Fe Trail soon exploded under the banner of Manifest Destiny. When theMexican-American War ended in 1848, the Mexican provinces of Upper Californiaand New Mexico-essentially, the future American states of California, Nevada,Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and more than half of Colorado-belonged to theUnited States.

Some thought the new territory quite worthless. Otherswho had been in the vanguard to Santa Fe or lusted in a similar vein forCalifornia knew better. Now the race to build an empire here would not bebetween Americans and Mexicans but among Americans themselves.

 Mountain men and traders found the routes into theRockies, but it was a succession of military topographers who put those routesdown on paper as lines upon the map of the West. It did not take long forvisionaries to see those lines as logical extensions of the railroads that werebeginning to extend their spidery webs about the East.

To show the importance the federal government placed onsuch mapping, the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was established in1838 and put on equal footing with the army's other departments. Its firstmajor project was the survey of the new border between the United States andMexico after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War.The man who knew this country as well as anyone was Major William H. Emory, whohad ridden west as a topographical engineer at the war's outbreak.

 Even then, Emory was thinking far ahead. "The roadfrom Santa Fe to Fort Leavenworth [Kansas]," Emory reported,"presents few obstacles for a railway, and if it continues as good to thePacific, will be one of the routes to be considered over which the UnitedStates will pass immense quantities of merchandise into what may become, intime, the rich and populous states of Sonora, Durango, and SouthernCalifornia."

Reaching California, Emory confirmed that as atransportation corridor, the route west from Santa Fe did indeed "continueas good to the Pacific." His resulting map of the Southwest showed amoderate, all-weather railroad route linking the Great Plains and SouthernCalifornia along the still-nebulous U.S.-Mexican border.

 Such a railroad was deemed by many to be essential toholding on to the fruits of the recent war. "The consequences of such aroad are immense," Colonel John J. Abert, the taciturn, no-nonsense chiefof the Topographical Engineers, asserted. "Unless some easy, cheap, andrapid means of communicating with these distant provinces be accomplished,there is danger, great danger, that they will not constitute parts of ourUnion."

 But as the boundary survey neared completion, Emory andcertain southern politicians argued that the most promising railroad route toCalifornia lay along the 32nd parallel-decidedly south of the proposedinternational border. One of the southern politicians who held that view was amongEmory's closest friends, both from their family connections and from their daystogether at West Point. His name was Jefferson Davis.

In 1845 Davis had won a seat in the U.S. House ofRepresentatives as a Democrat from Mississippi. When war with Mexico broke out,he resigned from Congress and accepted command of a regiment of Mississippivolunteers. Davis returned wounded but a hero and was appointed to a vacancy inthe United States Senate. But Davis supported states' rights so staunchly thathe soon tendered another resignation and returned to Mississippi to rununsuccessfully for governor as a States Rights Democrat.

When Democrat Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire won thepresidency in 1852, he appointed Davis his secretary of war in an effort tobalance his cabinet geographically and reunite the Democratic Partypolitically. As secretary of war, Davis was immediately involved in twocontroversies: remedying the geographic deficiencies of the Treaty of GuadalupeHidalgo and surveying routes for a transcontinental railroad.

Driven by proponents of Emory's recommended railroadroute along the 32nd parallel, U.S. ambassador to Mexico James Gadsdensucceeded in purchasing from Mexico the southwestern corner of New Mexico andthe southern watershed of the Gila River in what is now southern Arizona. TheGadsden Purchase stoked political controversies on both sides of the border,but at least it was a decisive event. The railroad surveys would prove to be anentirely different matter.

 Even before the dust of the Mexican-American War settled,railroad conventions with all the best chamber-of-commerce trappings had beenheld in key cities up and down the Mississippi Valley. Each would-be metropolisespoused itself the only logical choice for the eastern terminus of atranscontinental railroad. In reality, the competition among Mississippi Valleylocales was already round three of America's railroad sweepstakes.

When the iron horse was new in the 1830s, the East Coastcities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannahcompeted to become the first railroad hubs. In the 1840s, with railroadtechnology here to stay, the inland cities west of the AppalachianMountains-Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit,Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta-lobbied hard to become the next hubs in thespreading web of steel. By the 1850s, it was the would-be Mississippi Valleyhubs of Minneapolis, Davenport, St. Louis, Cairo (Illinois), Memphis,Vicksburg, Natchez, and New Orleans that all wanted to sit astride railroadsleading still farther west.

 Each city and corresponding geographic route had itsparticular political champion. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois liked theidea of the Great Lakes as an eastern terminal and wanted the rail line to runwest from Chicago to Davenport, Council Bluffs, and across the plains toWyoming's South Pass. The Memphis Railroad Convention of October 1849wholeheartedly declared its support for a route from that city west acrossArkansas and Texas. A Missouri faction led by Congressman John S. Phelps wantedSpringfield in the southwestern part of that state as the gateway to a routethat would run west across Indian Territory to Santa Fe.

 St. Louis interests were well represented by Senat...

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