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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Great American Railroad War’

- - Friday, September 21, 2012

THE GREAT AMERICAN RAILROAD WAR: HOW AMBROSE BIERCE AND FRANK NORRIS TOOK ON THE NOTORIOUS CENTRAL PACIFIC RAILROAD
By Dennis Drabelle
St. Martin's Press, $26.99, 306 pages

For more than a century, Americans have romanticized about railroads. The railroad industry played an exceedingly important role in this country's early history. Travel became easier, people were more connected, and new communities sprang up across this land. Railroads also created family fortunes, introduced some unique personalities, involved slaves and immigrants in backbreaking work and led to some memorable writing and musical ditties.

Alas, even this great institution has a sordid past that would make model-train enthusiasts and Thomas the Tank Engine fans weep. Various railroad tycoons, including Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt, were called robber barons in polite (and impolite) company. Their huge monopolies were accused of being shady organizations susceptible to questionable business practices such as bribery. Is it any wonder some people speculated on whether the last spikes that built the railways were made of gold or filled with lead?

Which brings us to the Central Pacific Railroad. Started in 1863, North America's first transcontinental railroad ran from California to Utah. This project was the brainchild of the "Big Four" in the train game: Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins. When the "golden spike" was planted in 1869, two powerful railroads, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific, were attached at the track.

Although the Central Pacific's successful completion initially had a romantic feel, this sensation ultimately turned into public disgust. Dennis Drabelle's new book, "The Great American Railroad War," examines the "notorious" railroad's fall from grace because of the work of two prominent writers, Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris. A former government lawyer, Mr. Drabelle is a contributing editor and mysteries editor for the Washington Post Book World. He has written a scintillating historical account describing how Bierce and Norris took on a major corporation in the court of public opinion -- and won.

The railway system went from "widely anticipated savior to much-maligned monster" in relatively short order. Why? The tide began to turn when Americans realized the trains had "little effect on the general level of prosperity" and the "buying of votes, which had perhaps been tolerable when done to obtain startup subsidies, became less forgivable when the grown-up railroad made it a habit." The Big Four didn't help their own cause, either. Mr. Drabelle writes that they "lacked the common touch" and turned off people when "they began building lavish mansions, touring Europe and otherwise flaunting their wealth."

In time, the U.S. government investigated the business practices of railroads. It found various instances of bribery, slander and vote-buying, to name but a few problems. The U.S. Pacific Railway Commission debated Central Pacific's future, with some commissioners recommending debt foreclosure. The majority came up with a "gentler solution" called the Reilly Bill: The debt would be converted into 50-year government-held bonds at 3 percent interest. (Huntington, the last surviving member of the Big Four, had the audacity to make a counterproposal of 85-year bonds at 2 percent interest.)

This drove San Francisco Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst up the proverbial wall. He asked his star columnist, Ambrose Bierce, to go after Huntington's funding bill tooth and nail. Hearst didn't have to ask twice. The "railrogues," as Bierce liked to call them, had been caught red-handed, and their practices needed to be exposed. As Bierce wrote in one Examiner column, anyone who sided with Huntington would have to "believe that a corporation which for thirty years has defaulted in the payment of interest and is about to default in the payment of principal because it has chosen to steal both principal and interest can henceforth be trusted to pay both." It's difficult for any capitalist to argue with this logic.

Bierce wasn't alone in this crusade. Frank Norris, a novelist, wrote a powerful trilogy that cryptically examined the Central Pacific mess. The first book's title, "The Octopus," "came from an old political cartoon that depicted the railroad as just that, with its tentacles wrapped around and crushing representatives of various sectors of California society." Mr. Drabelle argues Norris' book "may be the most artful rabble-rousing novel ever written." Considering the way it lifted the mask on this public debate, he has a point.

At the book's end, Mr. Drabelle makes an interesting assessment. Bierce's and Norris' efforts "share an unwitting flaw: bad timing." Had Huntington's controversial funding bill happened earlier, politicians might have been more sympathetic and "found the strength to reject the railroad's blandishments and impose a strong regulatory system before the corruption got out of hand."

Would the taste for justice have supplanted the romantic urges of riding the rails? It's difficult to say. Yet in today's society, where anger against capitalism and corporations has reached a pitched frenzy, Bierce and Norris would have been viewed by many as Fathers of the Occupation.

• Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.