Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869

I really had no idea what to expect from this book. I’ve always appreciated the author, especially as it relates to Band of Brothers, but I’d never really thought about the first transcontinental railroad before. I got the book used at our local “friends of the library” book store and figured it would meet my goal for the year of reading a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t normally select.

I really enjoyed the book. Ambrose does a good job of making the arduous work of building a railroad at a mile per day or digging tunnels at a couple feet per day easy to read and even compelling. He does in this book what he does best, making the most of the biographical sketches of the key players while he records the history of building the railroad. The level of detail of these men was more than sufficient for me and I would say I feel like I know Durant (and wouldn’t trust him with my dog) and would like to shake the hand of General Dodge. Most of all, I have untold respect for a man I’d never heard of before, Theodore Judah, whose imagination, hard work, and relentless passion were the reasons this railroad got designed and built in the first place. After becoming enamored with him, I became quite upset to read that he died prior to seeing his vision fully realized.

I suppose one of the most thought provoking comments made in the book was near the end when Ambrose suggested that of all the generations who witnessed change, those alive during the 2nd half of the 19th century America probably experienced more personal change than anyone else in history. They got the railroad, the ability to move freely across great distances, the telegraph, electricity, the end of slavery, and much more. Yes, something like the internet was massively disruptive in everyone’s lives but he could be right that it was this time period that changed the most considering prior to these inventions people more or less communicated and did commerce in the same was as Alexander the Great.

I would certainly recommend it. I suppose the highest praise I can offer the book is that it made me, a non-reader, want to read more detail about certain elements he covered in the book such as the real truth on relations between settlers and Native Americans and the development of corporations.


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