Friday, September 26, 2014

Rail's Manifest Destiny

Union Pacific 4014 engine being restored in Cheyenne, WY*
The death of writer Stephen Ambrose at age 66 was a tragedy of unborn popular histories. Ambrose was noted for his novelistic approach to history writing, primarily in dealing with war: WWII and its generals and privates, the internal struggles of the Civil and Indian wars, the American Revolution. Exceptions have focused on individuals: Eisenhower, Nixon, Lewis and Clark. 

 In one book, however, Ambrose writes of the host of personalities and historical motives impelling a single great enterprise. Nothing Like It in the World is the story of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad linking the east and west coasts of the United States. The story details the political and financial battles that culminated in the driving of the golden spike, and explains the need that drove the construction, and the consequences of its completion. 

Some of the most poetic writing I have read from this author is found in the introduction, in which Ambrose rides a train pulled by a steam locomotive to help develop the sense of ambiance he will bring to the novel:
To be in the locomotive of a steam-driven train, riding from Omaha to Reno, was for me... a memorable experience. First of all, [firemen] Steve Lee and Lynn Nystrom are big men, 250 or more pounds each, who put every ounce of themselves into their job... What impressed me most, however, was the size of the crowds... From what we could tell, every resident was beside the tracks, or up on a ridge we passed under, or out on a bluff that offered a view. Thousands of spectators. Tens of thousands...

I've led a life that makes me accustomed to people pointing cameras at me because of the man I'm with... I've never known anything like this... Much of the time we were paralleling Interstate 80. At rest stops, we would see semi-truck drivers on top of their vans, taking pictures... I asked Steve Lee if he had ever stopped to take a picture of a semi-truck. He said no. He added that the semi-truck drivers never stop to take a picture of a diesel locomotive.

It was then I learned that America has lost her heart to steam-driven locomotives.

So Nothing Like It in the World is a historical romance novel, and as is common in such stories, its heart is a broken one. Steam has been relegated the innards of generating plants and the rails of museums, and rarely plumes the sky with its driving power. All that pent-up motive power has been harnessed instead to this novel.

Ambrose brings into focus this first American super-structure, of which in its time it was truly said that there was nothing like it in the world. Names familiar to students of US history (Lincoln and Grant, Brigham Young, "Boss" Tweed) take their places in this story next to names really only familiar to those in their home states (Leland Stanford, William Ogden, Collis Huntington, Frederick Lander, E. B. Crocker), and others whom we meet for the first time in these pages (Theodore Judah, Peter Dey). 

Sadly, we will have no more from Ambrose's pen. Now that he is gone, there is nothing like him in the world. 

* Attribution for 4014 Photo: "UP Big Boy 4014". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UP_Big_Boy_4014.jpg#mediaviewer/File:UP_Big_Boy_4014.jpg