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Empire Express
Building the First Transcontinental Railroad

A New York Times Notable Book
Library Journal Best Books 1999
Ebook Now Available

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It was the dawn of the Gilded Age; it welded the new western United States to the east with twin bands of iron; it opened a path for settlement and exploitation which utterly transformed the West as it sealed the doom of the free-roaming, indigenous Plains Indian culture; it was the culmination of the backbreaking labors of more than twenty-five thousand laborers, most of them Chinese immigrants and Irish roustabouts; it was a national enterprise not unlike the construction of the Pyramids in Egypt; it set patterns of corporate and political practice which have endured until this day; it was the collective dream of American society, from its roughest muddy-boots base to its silk-hatted pinnacle; it was, without a doubt, the century's second most transformative chain of events after the Civil War. Empire Express is the story of that gigantic enterprise to build a railroad from the Missouri to the Pacific, across the great unknown of the West, which culminated in the driving of the Golden Spike in the Utah desert in 1869 but ended in pervasive national scandals just four years later. It's also about the building of the enterprise known as the United States of America.

Spanning three dramatic decades, during which America effectively doubled in size, dreamed of glories upon the world's stage, fought three wars, and began to discover itself,
Empire Express reads like a novel--colorful, lively, extremely dramatic–--a page-turner, told from the points of view of participants, the dreamers and the doers, the explorers, surveyors, tracklayers, soldiers, politicians, the pushcart salesmen-turned-railroad moguls, the Chinese and Irish immigrants, and the Native Americans who were thus displaced. It uses their voices and words to great dramatic effect. It draws on original sources as no previous chronicler has done––thousands of pages of handwritten letters, diaries, telegrams, and an array of biographical and historical works. Empire Express is also the first work on this subject to treat all the events in the building of the railroad in context, intrinsically connected to larger or distant events, part of a much larger, national picture viewed through a clear, discerning wide-angle lens. Exploration, territorial expansion, settlement, national politics, the Civil War, the rise of the national business community, all have a part in this story of the Pacific Railroad–but this is most dramatically evident in its treatment of the story of the Plains Indians–the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho who resisted the cavalry and settlers' incursions, and so dramatically fought the railroad. Time and time again in this story, skirmishes and raids along the Nebraska–Wyoming railway are shown to be linked to distant events––far out of earshot and gunshot range in other territories as well as far away in political Washington, D. C.

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Empire Express begins in 1842, off the Cape of Good Hope on the deck of a poky, Asia-bound ship, with the story of the bereft and bankrupt merchant Asa Whitney, who regained his fortune in China and discovered his true calling upon returning home, devoting his fortune and his life to getting a Pacific Railroad on the national agenda by haunting the halls of Congress. The narrative ends thirty years later, under the Capitol rotunda, with the crushing fall of a popular politician and the exposure of a powerful, hidden railroad lobby during a six-month period of Washington scandal and inquiry which obsessed the press and the national imagination. In between there are the dramatic, often cliff-hanging stories of an unforgettable procession of characters: exploring engineers like Theodore Judah (who discovered the magic track route across the 7,000-foot-high California Sierra in the footsteps of the tragic, doomed Donner Party) and Grenville Dodge (who found the way across the Rockies while being pursued by an Indian war party); self-made entrepreneurs like Thomas Durant (who commanded the Union Pacific Railroad like a hidden puppeteer, and who made millions) and Collis Huntington (who built a railroad empire across the west, buying and selling politicians along the way); brave, doomed frontier surveyors like Percy Browne and L. L. Hills (killed by Indians reacting to foolish, ignoble Army actions hundreds of miles away); anxious, forbearing women like Frances Casement and Jennie Reed, left back home in the settled towns to raise the children while their husbands faced danger out on the Great Plains; beleaguered tribal leaders like Spotted Tail and Red Cloud, who alternated between conciliation and defiance as the bluecoats and the puffing Iron Horse heralded the onrush of farmers, ranchers, prospectors, and townsfolk which ended the old ways of life in the West. There are also the nameless legions of laborers, especially the Chinese with their exotic food and opium pipes, and the Irish (most fresh off the Civil War battlefields) with their fondness for the dusty diversions in the shoot-'em-up, Hell-on-Wheels railroad towns. Throughout this story there are, too, the familiar Civil War-era faces of Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, and beloved literary figures like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, all of whom appear and reappear, their lives inextricably linked––as are we all––to the story of the Empire Express.
Main selection, Book-of-the-Month Club; Selection, History Book Club, Quality Paperback Club–– Finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Award; Finalist, Francis Parkman Prize–– Featured on CSPAN "Booknotes" with Brian Lamb–– New England Historical Association Book Award, 2000–– National Railway & Locomotive Historical Society Award, 2001–– "TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD" PBS "The American Experience" two-hour documentary directed by Mark Zwonitzer (Hidden Hill Productions)
"Empire Express'' is well researched, well written, refreshingly revisionist where the sources indicate, illustrated by well-chosen photographs and studded with beautiful topographical maps indispensable to the construction story. The book promises to endure as the standard history of the Pacific railroad. -- Robert M. Utley, New York Times Book Review

"A breathtaking tale enthusiastically told -- of vision, greed, adventure, courage, betrayal, accomplishment -- a spirited telling of a complicated tale." -- H.W. Brands, Washington Post Book World (front page)

"An extremely thorough history of the competition between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroad companies, rich with scandal, tragedy and visionary characters. In it, David Haward Bain brings alive a freer -- that is, more ruthless -- era of homegrown capitalism, when hardly anybody worried about little things like ecocide or conflict of interest.....Descriptions of the shady business deals, the quick-rotting railroad ties, the lies and tricky lobbying all delightfully appall the reader. . . . Bain is a graceful stylist, gifted with empathy for the many mores and cultures involved in this story. This long and detailed book deserves both to be taught in American history classes and to be read for fun. I wish it were even longer.
--William T. Vollmann, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review (front page)

"The definitive story of the heroism and heartbreak that produced a railroad that crossed the mountains, desert and prairies and that stands as a monument to American technology and vision. In mass, detail and sweep, "Empire Express" is an accomplishment befitting its subject. Like the railroad itself, it is a chronicle of the American character. "
--David Shribman, Wall Street Journal

"This is a big book (at 797 pages), but it is a big story, authoritatively told, and there is scarcely a detail that a reader would happily forgo. . . .thoroughly masterful."
--Michael Kenney, Boston Globe
Highlights the bold spirit that built the mammoth transcontinental railroad. His book is an epic voyage westward, creating a story that interweaves American history with the railroad's progress."
-- Diane Struzzi, Chicago Tribune

"David Haward Bain's monumental history of the achievement, and how it changed America forever, is exhaustively researched, even-handed in judgment and lucidly written. It is the quintessential American story
. [It] will be the definitive account of the transcontinental railroad for many years." -- Dave Drury, Hartford Courant

"Connecting the coasts by rail was one of the great achievements of 19th-century America. To tell the story of this epic, Bain knits together excellent storytelling and exhaustive research in a rich contextual tale of vision, ambition, and, ultimately, political and personal corruption." Library Journal––Best Books 1999
A richly detailed composition. . . .Displaying energetic research and enthusiasm for the subject matter, Bain brings the linking of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the era that produced it, back to life." -- Publishers Weekly*

Empire Express is more than a study of the building of a railroad. It encompasses the range of 19th-century American life as it swept up Native Americans, women, settlers, con men and speculators in one of man's greatest accomplishments." -- Dick Kreck, Denver Post

"Dreamers and dirty dealers abound in Bain's engrossing account. . . .portrays key characters and events in a way that makes each chapter a fascinating story on its own.
--Allene Symons,

"Many histories have been written about this, one of the crucial episodes in a remarkable century of nation-building, but David Haward Bain's Empire Express is the most ambitious and comprehensive. , , , Readers of this fine history will look back in both directions and appreciate quite a story of a remarkable enterprise. --Elliott West, History Book Club

"Like David McCullough's
The Path Between the Seas and Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, Empire Express is a book as grand as its subject. Railroad buffs will love it, of course, but so will all of our members who enjoy a good history that entertains while it illuminates." -- Book-of-the-Month Club (1999) Main Selection

"Stunningly researched, prismatically written mix of Robert Caro, David McCullough, Shelby Foote and Connie Bruck." ––
Salon  Read the whole text

"A breathtaking tale enthusiastically told-of vision, greed, adventure, courage, betrayal, accompishment. . .
Empire Express is a spirited telling of a complicated tale." Chicago Sun-Times Read the whole text

"This is truly a monumental work, equal to the monumental era it portrays."
Florida Times-Union

"A compelling, comprehensive account of one of history's greatest construction projects. Empire Express is a brilliant work, a stunning fusion of splendid scholarship and graceful writing." -- Kirkus Reviews*

"This rich work establishes the transcontinental-railroad project as a transcendent event in the development not just of the American economy but of the nation itself." --Jack Dierdorff, Business Week

“The fullest, most detailed account yet of the building of the first transcontinental railroad, a complex tale in epic form….The research is solid, extensive, and careful, buttressed by explanatory (and exploratory) notes that are as reasoned as the prose is colorful. ” – Maury Klein, Business History Review, Autumn 2000
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