(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Nothing Like It in the World hit the top of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list right after publication and was still riding high on the list at the end of 2000. The book is an attractive, state-of-the-art production illustrated with thirty-two pages of black-and-white photographs of men, machinery, and rugged, desolate landscapes. It is a saga of man against nature. It is full of the nuts-and-bolts details of railroad building and does not contain a single female character of any importance. The only women mentioned are those who provide short-term companionship for the rough men “who work like horses during the day and spend their money like asses” at night in the “Hell on Wheels” towns that fold their tents and follow the track as it snakes across the deserted continent.

The photographs help clarify Ambrose’s descriptions of the obstacles the builders met and overcame with cuts, fills, trestles, bridges, tunnels, snowsheds, grades, and switchbacks, all designed to provide a comfortable ride for passengers and a roadbed that would allow a locomotive to pull a string of cars expeditiously over the highest summits. The book is sprinkled with many maps showing the progress of the Union Pacific westward across the plains to Utah and the progress of the Central Pacific over the Sierra Nevada and eastward to where it eventually joined the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, just north of the Great Salt Lake. The duplicate maps inside the front and back covers show the entire two-thousand-mile-long route from Sacramento across Nevada, Utah territory, Wyoming territory, Colorado territory, and Nebraska. The original grade of the transcontinental railroad is closely followed by present-day Interstate Highway 80, evidencing the skill and perspicacity of the nineteenth century surveyors.

Reviewers inevitably compared Ambrose’s book with David Haward Bain’s much longer Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (1999). Bain is more scholarly, but Ambrose is more interesting. A reviewer for Time magazine said that Ambrose “writes with a wide-open throttle.” He knows how to turn dry historical and statistical data into dramatic narrative, even though, characteristically, he has read extensively on his subject and provides reliable facts and figures.Nothing Like It in the World is generously documented with endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

In dramatizing his material, Ambrose employs some of the techniques of the New Journalism. He uses poetic descriptions of landscape and weather, invents some dialogue, sprinkles his own informal prose with earthy quotations from books, magazines, and old newspapers, and especially focuses on the biggest dramatic feature of the great building project, the competition between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. Most of the chapters alternate between the Union Pacific surveyors and workers moving relentlessly westward and their rivals just as relentlessly moving toward the east. On both sides the emphasis was on speed rather than quality or safety. According to Ambrose, the general principle was: “Nail it down! Get the thing built! We can fix it up later.” The actual builders, the men who did the hands-on work, performed herculean feats. In one instance they laid ten miles of track in a single day, something that had never been done, or even dreamed of, before. As many as fifteen thousand workers were employed on each line. Newspapers of the day compared them to the armies of the Civil War.

The overseers and the foremen were extemporizing a new form of production that would inspire men such as Henry Ford to revolutionize manufacturing with assembly-line production. Each individual or team performed a single function. One pair, for example, would do nothing but lay down the ties; a man would come along behind, setting spikes in place but not hammering them down. He would be followed by men who could drive a spike into a tie with exactly three blows of a sledgehammer. They were not overly generous with their use of spikes, either. The early trains provided a rickety ride for nervous dignitaries, sometimes crossing spindly wooden trestles and sometimes clinging precariously to cliff sides above sickening chasms. All the materials had to be shipped a great distance from point of manufacture, and the intention was to add more spikes at...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)