Nothing Like It in the World gives the account of an unprecedented feat of engineering, vision, and courage. It is the story of the men who built the transcontinental railroad -- the investors who risked their businesses and money; the enlightened politicians who understood its importance; the engineers and surveyors who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives; and the Irish and Chinese immigrants, the defeated Confederate soldiers, and the other laborers who did the backbreaking and dangerous work on the tracks.
The U.S. government pitted two companies -- the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads -- against each other in a race for funding, encouraging speed over caution. Locomotives, rails, and spikes were shipped from the East through Panama or around South America to the West or lugged across the country to the Plains. In Ambrose's hands, this enterprise, with its huge expenditure of brainpower, muscle, and sweat, comes vibrantly to life.
Abraham Lincoln, who had worked as a riverboat pilot before turning to politics, knew a thing or two about the problems of transporting goods and people from place to place. He was also convinced that the United States would flourish only if its far-flung regions were linked, replacing sectional loyalties with an overarching sense of national destiny.
Building a transcontinental railroad, writes the prolific historian Stephen Ambrose, was second only to the abolition of slavery on Lincoln's presidential agenda. Through an ambitious program of land grants and low-interest government loans, he encouraged entrepreneurs such as California's "Big Four"--Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford--to take on the task of stringing steel rails from ocean to ocean. The real work of doing so, of course, was on the shoulders of immigrant men and women, mostly Chinese and Irish. These often-overlooked actors and what a contemporary called their "dreadful vitality" figure prominently in Ambrose's narrative, alongside the great financiers and surveyors who populate the standard textbooks.
In the end, Ambrose writes, Lincoln's dream transformed the nation, marking "the first great triumph over time and space" and inaugurating what has come to be known as the American Century. David Haward Bain's Empire Express, which covers the same ground, is more substantial, but Ambrose provides an eminently readable study of a complex episode in American history. --Gregory McNamee