Rival Railways Race Across The Continent Railroad tycoon Leland Stanford drove the golden spike that connected the country's first transcontinental line in 1869, setting off decades of fierce competition for routes to the Pacific. Historian Walter Borneman follows the rails in his new book, Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad.

Rival Railways Race Across The Continent

Rival Railways Race Across The Continent

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130762740/130778827" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Author Walter Borneman has just returned from an epic journey along the lines he writes about in Rival Rails. Marlene Borneman hide caption

toggle caption
Marlene Borneman

On May 10, 1869, railroad tycoon Leland Stanford drove in the famous golden spike linking up the two halves of the country's first transcontinental railroad.

Only, the railroad wasn't quite complete. There were several gaps, including one across the Missouri River at Omaha, Neb., where passengers had to step off the train and board a boat for the river crossing. "It's really not until about 18, 20 months later that a bridge is completed there," historian Walter Borneman tells NPR's Guy Raz. In the meantime, Borneman adds, a rival railroad managed to complete the first truly uninterrupted line across the country.

Borneman's new book, Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad, follows the complex and occasionally vicious battles between railroad companies competing to control precious routes to the Pacific.

Shaped By War

Borneman says the Civil War played a huge role in determining what the country's rail map would look like. At first, people thought only one line across the country would be necessary -- and the snow-free southern route looked promising. But once the war began, the Union government wanted nothing more to do with the southern route and chose instead a route west from Omaha to Oakland, Calif.

Book Cover

Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad
By Walter Borneman
Hardcover, 432 pages
Random House
List price: $28
Read An Excerpt

Reconstruction proved to be a boom time for American railroads. Congress offered major subsidies to railroads in the form of loans and land grants.

"Some of these initial railroads, in order to get them built, the government says, 'We're going to give you what basically amounts to, for every mile of track you lay ... 6,400 acres of land.' For free," Borneman says. "And admittedly, there's nothing there in much of the country at that point, because there are no settlers out there. The railroad is really going to be the conduit of civilization that really pulls settlers in record numbers westward."

Competition Abounds

Without a map, it's almost impossible to keep all the various railroad companies straight. The Southern Pacific, Texas Pacific, Kansas Pacific, Denver and Rio Grande, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and countless others all fought over the best routes. Many of them never laid a mile of track; they were just paper companies chartered to scare off an opponent or claim a strategic tract of land.

"Part of that shows how chaotic this time was," says Borneman, "with people and investors staking roads, building railroads to almost every little mining town in the west."

All the competition led to the occasional pitched battle on the ground, as railway engineers raced to get their surveying stakes into the ground, claiming territory sometimes minutes ahead of rival teams.

One line outfought, outplanned and outlasted its rivals, says Borneman: the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, which started as a little regional railroad between two Kansas towns, but swiftly developed transcontinental ambitions.

"There was a lot less flash, if you will, and a lot more substance, to the men who were involved in that," he says. The ATSF survived the economic crashes of 1873 and 1893, and eventually became the dominant rail system in the American southwest. It's still around today, in a slightly different form, having merged with the Burlington Northern in 1995.

The Future Of Rail

The newly formed Burlington Northern Santa Fe made the news recently when billionaire investor Warren Buffett decided to buy the company outright.  Buffett said at the time that "our country's future prosperity depends on its having an efficient and well-maintained rail system."

Borneman agrees that rail can have a bright future in the United States. But he says we need to do some work to bring our high-speed passenger trains up to the standards enjoyed in other countries.

"There's so much congestion, and sometimes traveling 3- or 400 miles by air takes longer than if you could just hop on a train and be able to have a leisurely ride at 2- or 300 miles an hour. That would be pretty fascinating."

Excerpt: Rival Rails

Chapter One

Lines upon the Map

The wind makes a mournful moan as it roars through the canyons and arroyos of West Texas. But on the afternoon of September 28, 1858, a new sound pierced the air. The tinny call of a bugle announced the impending arrival of the first westbound Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach at the Pinery Station near the crest of 5,534-foot Guadalupe Pass.

Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad
By Walter Borneman
Hardcover, 432 pages
Random House
List price: $28

Eighteen months earlier, Congress had authorized the postmaster general to establish regular overland mail service between San Francisco and the Mississippi River. When bids were opened, the route was awarded to John Butterfield for the then staggering sum of $600,000 per year.The New York Times promptly termed the entire enterprise a waste of government money.

Butterfield's contract required twice-weekly service and a transcontinental schedule of twenty-five days or less. The 2,795-mile route converged from St. Louis and Memphis at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then dipped south across Texas, the Gila River country, and Southern California before swinging north to San Francisco. The Pinery was but one of 141 stations that Butterfield initially constructed to accommodate the numerous horses, mules, stagecoaches, and men required to put the line into operation.

When the coach creaked to a halt at the Pinery that September day, a sole passenger alighted and brushed the alkali dust from his clothes. If the station workers eyed him as an eastern dude, they were right.  His name was Waterman Lily Ormsby III, and he was a twenty-three-year-old special correspondent for the New York Herald. He had been enticed west by John Butterfield to record the glories of transcontinental mail service. Butterfield himself had elected to depart the inaugural run at Fort Smit.

While four fresh mules were attached to the coach, Ormsby wolfed down a hasty meal of venison and baked beans. Then the young newsman climbed back inside. The driver and conductor remounted their swaying perch,and with a flick of the reins they bounced westward across Guadalupe Pass.

That evening, as Ormsby's coach descended the pass, there was a commotion on the trail ahead. The first eastbound coach from San Francisco came into sight and pulled to a stop alongside its westbound twin. After historic pleasantries, both drivers urged their teams forward in the irrespective directions at speeds averaging five miles an hour.

Brief though it was, this encounter proved that the American coasts had been joined-however tenuously-and the neophyte Butterfield Overland Mail unleashed a huge national appetite for transcontinental connections. Whether by stagecoach, Pony Express, or iron rails, this obsession with bridging the continent would consume the American nation for the next century.

Only a half century before John Butterfield's enterprise, the American West was largely unmapped. Native Americans in much of the region lived a seminomadic lifestyle with fluid territorial boundaries. These changed over the years with intertribal warfare and pressures stirred by newcomers chased out of their indigenous homelands east of the Mississippi.

By the 1820s, the rivers flowing eastward from the Rocky Mountains had become trails into their midst. Mountain men trapping beaver were followed by traders-the risk-taking entrepreneurs of their day-who forced groaning wagons loaded with goods along the river valleys. Among the earliest and most famous of these routes was the Santa Fe Trail linking Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

But as the Santa Fe trade swelled during the 1830s, the problem in the eyes of many Americans was that Santa Fe and the entire Southwest, from California to Texas, belonged to Mexico. Once the Republic of Texas was born in 1836, this decidedly American presence looked covetously at Santa Fe and the land beyond.

The tide of American expansionism running westward along the Santa Fe Trail soon exploded under the banner of Manifest Destiny. When the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the Mexican provinces of Upper California and New Mexico-essentially, the future American states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and more than half of Colorado-belonged to the United States.

Some thought the new territory quite worthless. Others who had been in the vanguard to Santa Fe or lusted in a similar vein for California knew better. Now the race to build an empire here would not be between Americans and Mexicans but among Americans themselves.

Mountain men and traders found the routes into the Rockies, but it was a succession of military topographers who put those routes down on paper as lines upon the map of the West. It did not take long for visionaries to see those lines as logical extensions of the railroads that were beginning to extend their spidery webs about the East.

To show the importance the federal government placed on such mapping, the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was established in 1838 and put on equal footing with the army's other departments. Its first major project was the survey of the new border between the United States and Mexico after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War. The man who knew this country as well as anyone was Major William H. Emory, who had ridden west as a topographical engineer at the war's outbreak.

Even then, Emory was thinking far ahead. "The road from Santa Fe to Fort Leavenworth [Kansas]," Emory reported,"presents few obstacles for a railway, and if it continues as good to the Pacific, will be one of the routes to be considered over which the UnitedStates will pass immense quantities of merchandise into what may become, in time, the rich and populous states of Sonora, Durango, and SouthernCalifornia."

Reaching California, Emory confirmed that as a transportation corridor, the route west from Santa Fe did indeed "continue as good to the Pacific." His resulting map of the Southwest showed a moderate, all-weather railroad route linking the Great Plains and Southern California along the still-nebulous U.S.-Mexican border.

Such a railroad was deemed by many to be essential to holding on to the fruits of the recent war. "The consequences of such a road are immense," Colonel John J. Abert, the taciturn, no-nonsense chief of the Topographical Engineers, asserted. "Unless some easy, cheap, and rapid means of communicating with these distant provinces be accomplished, there is danger, great danger, that they will not constitute parts of our Union."

But as the boundary survey neared completion, Emory and certain southern politicians argued that the most promising railroad route to California lay along the 32nd parallel-decidedly south of the proposed international border. One of the southern politicians who held that view was among Emory's closest friends, both from their family connections and from their days together at West Point. His name was Jefferson Davis.

In 1845 Davis had won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Mississippi. When war with Mexico broke out, he resigned from Congress and accepted command of a regiment of Mississippi volunteers. Davis returned wounded but a hero and was appointed to a vacancy in the United States Senate. But Davis supported states' rights so staunchly that he soon tendered another resignation and returned to Mississippi to run unsuccessfully for governor as a States Rights Democrat.

When Democrat Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire won the presidency in 1852, he appointed Davis his secretary of war in an effort to balance his cabinet geographically and reunite the Democratic Party politically. As secretary of war, Davis was immediately involved in two controversies: remedying the geographic deficiencies of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and surveying routes for a transcontinental railroad.

Driven by proponents of Emory's recommended railroad route along the 32nd parallel, U.S. ambassador to Mexico James Gadsden succeeded in purchasing from Mexico the southwestern corner of New Mexico and the southern watershed of the Gila River in what is now southern Arizona. The Gadsden Purchase stoked political controversies on both sides of the border, but at least it was a decisive event. The railroad surveys would prove to be an entirely different matter.

Even before the dust of the Mexican-American War settled, railroad conventions with all the best chamber-of-commerce trappings had been held in key cities up and down the Mississippi Valley. Each would-be metropolis espoused itself the only logical choice for the eastern terminus of a transcontinental railroad. In reality, the competition among Mississippi Valley locales was already round three of America's railroad sweepstakes.

When the iron horse was new in the 1830s, the East Coast cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah competed to become the first railroad hubs. In the 1840s, with railroad technology here to stay, the inland cities west of the Appalachian Mountains-Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta-lobbied hard to become the next hubs in the spreading web of steel. By the 1850s, it was the would-be Mississippi Valley hubs of Minneapolis, Davenport, St. Louis, Cairo (Illinois), Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and New Orleans that all wanted to sit astride railroads leading still farther west.

Each city and corresponding geographic route had its particular political champion. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois liked the idea of the Great Lakes as an eastern terminal and wanted the rail line to run west from Chicago to Davenport, Council Bluffs, and across the plains to Wyoming's South Pass. The Memphis Railroad Convention of October 1849 wholeheartedly declared its support for a route from that city west across Arkansas and Texas. A Missouri faction led by Congressman John S. Phelps wanted Springfield in the southwestern part of that state as the gateway to a route that would run west across Indian Territory to Santa Fe.

St. Louis interests were well represented by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who for decades had trumpeted Missouri as the logical gateway to the West via the central Rockies. The St. Louis Railroad Convention heard the indomitable Benton urge Congress to build a western railroad and do so in order to have "the Bay of San Francisco at one end, St. Louis in the middle, and the national metropolis and great commercial emporium at the other end." And on it went.

With such hometown boosterism and concomitant sectional rivalries, it was little wonder that a national railroad bill got nowhere in the United States Congress. This was despite the presumption-often rebutted in antebellum days-that national interest should come first in such matters. Part of the reason for the strong sectional rivalries that attached themselves to the vigorous debate about a transcontinental route was that even the most visionary assumed there would be only one western railroad-one railroad that would make or break the geographic section it embraced or bypassed.

So when after lengthy debate Congress finally passed the Pacific Railroad Survey Act on March 2, 1853, it was not to designate one grand railroad to the Pacific but to authorize extensive explorations along the contested routes. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was charged with ordering army expeditions into the field and completing the gargantuan task within eleven months.

By looking at the routes through the eyes of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, Congress hoped-as did Davis-that one route would emerge with qualities so apparent as to stifle sectional rivalries. Thus, the surveys "promised to substitute the impartial judgment of science for the passions of the politicos and the promoters."

The great equalizer in this impartial judgment was to be grade, the yardstick by which all railroad routes are ultimately measured. Grade is a critical limiting factor in railroad operations because locomotives simply stagger to a halt if they are unable to pull their load up a particular incline. The lower the grade, the more efficiently loads can be moved along it. Consequently, finding the most direct route with the lowest possible grade was the key to building a competitive railroad.

Jefferson Davis couldn't be sure, but based on every thingthat William Emory had already reported, there was an excellent chance that their favored southern route would outshine them all. Davis promptly tapped Emory to oversee the surveys. Given the unrealistic timetable and the vast terrain to be covered, these efforts became general reconnaissance surveys rather than mile-by-mile grade surveys. Still, by the standards of the day, they were costly undertakings. Congress appropriated an initial $150,000, added $40,000 a year later, and then put another $150,000 on the table to complete the work and publish the reports.

Emory saw to it that in addition to army topographers and engineers, each contingent included a wide array of scientists: anthropologists, botanists, cartographers, geographers, geologists, meteorologists, paleontologists, and zoologists, as well as illustrators and artists. "Not since Napoleon had taken his company of savants into Egypt," historian William H. Goetzmann later observed, "had the world seen such an assemblage of scientists and technicians marshaled under one banner."

Initially, four parties were dispatched along specific parallels of latitude: the northern route between the 47th and 49th parallels leading west from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the upper Missouri; a south-central route up the Arkansas River through the central Rockies to the Great Salt Lake along the 38th parallel; the 35th parallel route from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Albuquerque, northern Arizona, and California; and investigations in California for passes through the Sierras between the 32nd and 35th parallels.

There were two obvious omissions. No work was ordered on Stephen Douglas's proposed north-central line from Council Bluffs to South Pass or on Davis and Emory's favored line along the 32nd parallel. In the final report of the surveys, Davis himself brushed off the absence of work on the South Pass route and merely referenced the earlier reports of surveyors John C.Frémont and Howard Stansbury through that general vicinity.

As to the southern route, perhaps Davis thought that Emory's work had already identified the merits of the 32nd parallel. Perhaps he simply delayed sending a contingent to this area while negotiations for the Gadsden Purchase were under way. Davis may even have wanted to demonstrate some measure of sectional impartiality by dispatching the northern expeditions first. Whatever the reasons, it was October 1853 before Davis ordered a two-prong look at the 32nd parallel. So, amidst the politics, the parties took to the field in the summer of 1853 to see if science could declare a sure winner in the transcontinental sweepstakes.

If there was any survey commander apt to be overly biased in favor of his appointed route, it was Isaac I. Stevens, formerly an officer in the Corps of Engineers but now, thanks to political connections with President Pierce, the freshly appointed governor of newly created Washington Territory. Stevens was charged with examining the northern route and ultimately linking the watersheds of the Missouri and Columbia rivers. While the governor's main party moved westward from St. Paul across Minnesota, the Dakota plains, and the headwaters of the Missouri, a detachment under Captain George B. McClellan probed the Cascade Mountains at the western end of the route.

Following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, Stevens located possible passes across the Continental Divide and then met up with McClellan's troops in the Bitterroot Valley south of what would later become Missoula, Montana. Young McClellan, who would go on to frustrate Abraham Lincoln as his dilatory commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, showed his lifelong disposition to glory without risk when he decidedly overestimated the snow depth on passes through the Cascades and twice refused to cross them. Civilian engineers subsequently made the trips without incident.

Excerpted from Rival Rails by Walter R. Borneman Copyright © 2010 by Walter R. Borneman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.