- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

The building of the first transcontinental railroad and its completion in 1869 was one of the most important feats of the 19th century. It forever changed the United States. David Haward Bain, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, spent 14 years researching and writing the "Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad," which was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History in 1999.

Mr. Bain used thousands of pages of handwritten letters, diaries, telegrams, and abundant biographical and historical texts to re-create the social and political context that led to the railroad enterprise.

Here are excerpts from an interview conducted by Assistant National Editor Jeffrey Kuhner:

Q: Was the building of the transcontinental railroad in the United States the American equivalent of building the great pyramids in ancient Egypt?

A: In terms of technology, you can make an argument for that because this was back in a time when a lot of the things that we think of as absolutely necessary had not been invented yet.

So, it was basically a pick and shovel and a wheelbarrow kind of endeavor with very primitive blasting materials and very primitive moving technology. So much of it was done by hand. And you have images which have come down to us of 10,000 or 12,000 human laborers toiling against the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains for instance … and it's quite a story.

So, in terms of large numbers of people and a national impulse and focus after the Civil War … this large construction project, … was supposed to unite not only our coasts, but finally put America on the world stage as a real actor, with all sorts of economic and political benefits.

Q: What was the major impact of the transcontinental railroad upon the United States in the 19th century?

A: When you think of the fact that most of the territory between the Missouri River and the western slope of [the] Sierra Nevada [mountains] was absolutely bereft of any [large-scale] settlements … mostly this was empty hunting territory of the indigenous Indian tribes.

So, the notion of how this country came about can just be seen in these large armies of engineers and laborers moving toward the center, where they would meet, and planting stations every 10 or 20 miles, and beginning to sell out town lots, ranch and farm lots, and … importing people from the Far East and Europe.

You begin to see the settlement pattern happening all of the unbroken sod of Nebraska turned into farmland; the dry, arid upper reaches of southern Wyoming suddenly being good for ranching and for extractive industries. You really see a large part of modern-day America beginning just through this idea of drawing a line that people could travel safely from one place to another.

Q: The sense I get from your book is that the building of the railroad was a grand, dramatic act in American history, composed of numerous heroes and villains. Could you discuss some of the major villains?

A: There are enormous amounts of villains … but I did not want to negate the enormous amount of chance [that] these people took… . So, I like to look at these people, who could be considered villains in a black-and-white situation, they were still human beings, they had families and children, and they were inventing everything as they went along.

So, the notion of the octopus that came to strangle California, which was the Central and the Southern Pacific [railroads], at this point it was just a paper entity with four men who were just devoting their energies toward a huge question mark, a huge, chancy thing. So even if they did questionable things payoffs in Congress, all sorts of fraud perpetrated on the Department of Interior and other agencies of the U.S. government and on stockholders these are human beings who were alive… .

So, I haven't painted them with that big, black tar brush that some earlier writers have done in talking about the moguls of the 19th century. I really wanted to show that they were living, breathing people, and there was an unfolding drama.

Q: One of the running themes in your book is that modern forms of corporate practice were established in the 19th century that have endured to this day. Could you elaborate on this?

A: One of the more interesting things has to do with the [creation of the] notion of limited corporate liability [in the building of the railroad] … that a businessman could get involved in the railroad, or public works, or some chancy thing and [survive], instead of the old rules, in which if a company went bust, then [stockholders] would lose their shirt and their house, or whatever private finances they had would be liable [instead of simply their stock investments].

This notion of limited corporate liability was really what made the extraordinary growth in the latter part of the 19th century possible, and it was not just the railroad industry, but also the mining, coal, iron and oil industries, all of these were based on giving businessmen a little bit of safety and insulation, so they could go out and take those risks and make [economic growth] happen. The birth of modern times really occurred in the Gilded Age.

Q: Your book discusses that there was a dark side to the building of the railroad. How important was Chinese immigration to the project?

A: On the Central Pacific side in California, there was a terrible labor market out there because there would be gold strikes up and down the Sierra [mountains]… and it was very difficult to get people to stay in one place for months and years to be paid one dollar a day doing this hard [railroad] labor.

The unskilled labor pool in California was almost nonexistent… . It was necessary to use Chinese labor, which was plentiful at that point because thousands of Chinese had come over during the Gold Rush to work sometimes for themselves, but more often for larger entities, to make their [money] so that they could go back and retire in great wealth in Canton province.

It became a successful enterprise, as the Chinese were such good workers. They did not get drunk every night, they didn't gamble all of their money away, there were no shootouts in the camps, they stayed where they were supposed to be, they took orders, and even union sentiments did not [appear] until 1868 near the end of the [construction of the] railroad.

And by their own standards did fairly well. They were paid one dollar a day 30 dollars a month and Sundays off. It was brutal only in the sense of how labor was treated in those days. There was no protection. Strong-arm tactics were typical everywhere in the world at that point.

So, there was nothing especially different [with] what was going on at California… . It was a tough world back then.

Q: And the impact on the Indians?

A: It is a tragedy to think of what was displaced in terms of the Plains Indian culture the things that were lost.

Q: Ultimately, how did the transcontinental railroad change Americans' perception of their own country?

A: If you think that back in the 1840s, we had this great American desert, this big empty spot … by the time this was over the railroad had shown … that you could settle down, you could raise a family and grow crops without a sense of fear… . With one stroke of a sledgehammer, it just united everybody.

There was no more North and South, and there was no more East and West just one nation.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide