American schoolchildren are taught that the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed when the golden spike was driven on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah. While it was a historic moment, the linking of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad was not the denouement of cross-country rail travel; rather it was the catalyst for further expansion. And the dreams, schemes and struggles to build more national rail lines are colorfully captured in Walter R. Borneman’s Rival Rails.
The first transcontinental railroad wasn’t necessarily the best. This inaugural line from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California, was over long miles and rough, snowy terrain, but another, shorter route with milder weather existed between Chicago and Los Angeles. Thus, the race was on to be the first to complete the line through America’s Southwest, with the promised prize of fame and fortune.
Borneman’s telling of this story is admirable foremost because of its detail and historical accuracy; his extensive research is put to good use. But he also is a gifted storyteller, and he introduces his readers to an array of characters who are part of this transcontinental treasure hunt. They include Wall Street bankers, robber barons, land speculators and outright thieves who stop at nothing to build their fortunes. Borneman details unscrupulous land deals, in which Native Americans were paid a pittance for their land, with railroad executives reselling it for huge profits. He tells of unseemly businessmen who bribed politicians, created phony railroad charters and sold stock in shell companies. The race even prompted some to build flimsy railroad lines and bridges, placing their passengers in grave danger.
Rival Rails also includes its share of heroes, such as Edward Payson Ripley, the executive who saved the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe from bankruptcy and the entire rail industry from financial collapse, and Mary Jane Colter, an architect who muscled her way into a male-dominated world to design a series of landmark buildings at Grand Canyon National Park. Borneman’s book is an enjoyable read for railroad buffs, Old West aficionados, serious-minded historians and anyone who finds romance in the sound of a train whistle in the night.