Iron Rails, Iron Men – Review

Martin W. Sandler. Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation. Somerville MA: Candlewick P, 2015. Print.

Iron Rails, Iron Men presents a gripping overview of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. There had been no construction project quite like it, and it was remarkable that it was completed at all.

The book profiles a number of leaders who had a hand in it such as Theodore Judah, who envisioned it and actually helped form the Central Pacific Railroad to save months on the China trade, and William T. Sherman, who as a junior officer in the 1850s served on one of the U.S. Army surveys to determine the best route. The project actually began in 1863 during the Civil War. President Lincoln saw this as a way to further unite the country. Till then politicians argued over whose states should get the route, but with eleven southern states out of the discussion thanks to the war, Lincoln got the support he needed.

The project began to accelerate after the war. Veterans used to following orders and living a military routine fit in well. Irish immigrants escaping famine and looking for work were eager. General Grenville Dodge had done the most to keep Union railroads intact during the war, so he was recruited to supervise the Union Pacific Railroad construction from Omaha to Utah.

There were also, famously, the Chinese on the Central Pacific Railroad (Sacramento to Utah). Leland Stanford, one of the chief officers of the CPRR, thought they would be too small, but one of the other officers Charles Crocker said, “They built the Great Wall, didn’t they?” Not only were they skilled workers, but they stayed healthy. In the Sierras most water was from dirty streams and tarns, and many men sickened. But the Chinese always heated their water or made tea before drinking it, so they avoided a lot of the illnesses contracted by the other men.

The passes and trails in the Sierras were probably the most challenging to pass a railroad through, especially chipping and blasting out a towering ledge known as Cape Horn and building the Summit Tunnel a third of a mile through solid granite. Blizzards and snow avalanches caused them to build snow shacks like covered bridges to keep the lines open and the work progressing.

Alongside both railroads went telegraph lines. When the Golden Spike was finally driven in May 1869, word went out over the wires immediately to both coasts.

Thousands of men participated in this effort. Hundreds died. Sherman, now a general, had to send out troops to protect the construction workers on the plains from Indian attacks. William Cody earned his nickname Buffalo Bill by hunting bison to feed the workers. While the railroad would bring the states together and really open up the West, it also would contribute to the disruption of the traditional lives of the Native Americans and the decimation of the bison herd.

Iron Rails, Iron Men
contains an interesting epilogue. Some of the leaders of the project were honored—Dodge was elected to Congress without even campaigning and would get Dodge City, Kansas, named after him. Some of the railroad executives would get involved with the CrĂ©dit Mobilier scandal. James Strobridge, the Central Pacific construction boss, would recall in a 1917 interview the names of the nine men responsible for laying ten miles of rail in a single day. Seven were Irish. He recalled, “Nobody was crowded, nobody was hurt, nobody lost a minute.” (155)

Photographs and engravings of the project appear on every other page. In many cases, the picture is worth many words. Both railroads were alert to public relations to encourage investment. If nothing else, the pictures give a sense of the geography and construction challenges the builders of the railroad met.

Yes, it was a race, as the full title suggests. The UPRR and CPRR tried to outdo the other, but as they were getting closer, they did have to come to an agreement on where they would join. On the day he was sworn in, President Grant told the companies that they would be getting no more government support until they agreed where the tracks should connect. By the ninth of April, they had negotiated to meet at Promontory Summit, Utah. So they did. The country and even the world were never the same again.

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