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

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Until the middle of the 19th century, travel between cities in the U.S. was something that could take weeks, even months. But a transportation revolution was also underway at the time, a revolution that historian Walter Borneman chronicles in his new book. It's called, "Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad."

He says that by the mid-1800s, the rail network in the East was pretty much established, but there wasn't a link to the Pacific. So a combination of industrialists and dreamers and rail barons began to compete to see who could be the first to connect the East to the West.

And the trigger, it turned out, was war.

Mr. WALTER BORNEMAN (Author, Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad"): Railroads really came of age during the Civil War. Before that, they're linking a few cities; they're beginning to move some goods along. But I think the pivotal point, which I write about in the book, is the Battle of Chickamauga.

The Union Forces are moving South, they've captured Chattanooga, which is a southern rail center, and they're moving South with quite a deal of confidence. And all of a sudden, the Confederates at the Battle of Chickamauga put up this great resistance and counterattack. And the reason they're able to do that is that 10,000 men in Long streets Division from the army of Northern Virginia, have been moved some 900 miles across half the South and deposited on the battlefield.

RAZ: In just a matter of days.

Mr. BORNEMAN: In a matter of a couple of days. And that's really unheard of at that point. But it really shows the growing power of railroads to move men and material around the country, and certainly, it shows the people that after the war, there's going to be some different things go on.

RAZ: I want to ask you about this law that Congress basically passes during the Civil War, the Pacific Railroad Act. By 1864, the Congress starts to offer major subsidies, right, which then begins to attract investors and it becomes a rail. Can you tell me first who decided to jump in? Who was attracted by these subsidies?

Mr. BORNEMAN: Well, there were people who were trying to build railroads from the Mississippi West, and there were also people like Collis P. Huntington who, as part of the Big Four, Leland Stanford, Charlie Crocker and Mark Hopkins, were interested in building railroads eastward from California.

RAZ: In California, yeah.

Mr. BORNEMAN: And I think the important part of that bill that you refer to, the Railroad Act originally of '62, 1862, is really a huge stimulus offering of government loans, government loan guarantees and land grants. So 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 in alternate sections on either side, 6,400 acres of land.

RAZ: That's incredible. For free.

Mr. BORNEMAN: For free. And admittedly, there's nothing there in much of the country at that point because there are no settlers out there. The railroad is going to be the conduit of civilization that really pulls settlers in record numbers westward.

RAZ: Now, the back cover of your book has a beautiful photograph from the Denver and Reno Grand line. It's in a gorge - I think it's the Royal Gorge -and you can just see how - I mean, this is - we're talking, you know, almost 150 years ago - workers who had to cut into this raw using technology that today we would think of as primitive. How did they even begin to do this, to construct these lines?

Mr. BORNEMAN: And you can see from that photograph that the Royal Gorge really is only wide enough for one set of tracks.

RAZ: Yeah, just one track.

Mr. BORNEMAN: But in order to build the rail, they had it just blast away - and remember, most of these is being done by hand - drilling into the rock by hand, settling dynamite charges that sometimes if you weren't careful, blew up prematurely with the loss of life.

But the rock would explode - and again, by hand, sometimes with horse-drawn graters and scrapers, they clear away the rubble and move forward. There's a place in the very depths of the gorge that - it is so narrow that when the railroad first constructed the route through there, they built a bridge that actually was called the hanging bridge because it did in fact sort of hang on a network of trusses above the river.

Now, as engine weights increased and everything, that was beefed up over the years. But in the beginning, it literally was sort of suspended above the river.

RAZ: If there's one rail line that kind of runs through the book as a kind of thread, it's the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, which today is known as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. What was so special about the company behind that line? And why was that line so significant?

Mr. BORNEMAN: The Atchison and Topeka - and indeed, it started that way, is just a little railroad between those two towns, added the name Santa Fe to it very quickly because its founders determined that it really was pointed West, not only to Santa Fe but eventually to the Pacific.

And I think the thing that really sets the Santa Fe off from some of these other railroads is there was a lot less flash, if you will, and a lot more substance to the men and the investors who are involved in that. That's not to say that they didn't want to make a profit; clearly, they did. But they were focused on a steady advance. They were focused on solid construction from the beginning. And they were focused on planning ahead to really secure the best routes.

So what happens is that while they do, in fact, have a number of competitors, including the Southern Pacific and the Denver and Rio Grande for a while, by the late 1880s, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe has really built from the plains of Kansas, eastward into Chicago and westward all the way into California. And by the time they secure a railhead in Los Angeles at the end of the 1880s, they really have the most direct route between Los Angeles and Chicago.

RAZ: That famous Atchison and Santa Fe line is now better known as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. It is now owned by Warren Buffett's company. He bought it for $26 billion last year. This essentially 19th century technology is still pretty profitable, right?

Mr. BORNEMAN: The future of railroads, I think, is pretty solid on the freight's side. I think the challenge in America is to look to the passenger's side and how do we get to the level of trains that are operating today in Japan or China or Europe and really begin to move people around more quickly and more environmentally, sensibly.

You look at airports - and my goodness, there's so much congestion. And sometimes traveling three 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 two or 300 miles an hour, that would be pretty fascinating.

RAZ: That's Walter Borneman. He is the author of the new book "Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad."

Walter Borneman, thank you so much.

Mr. BORNEMAN: Hey, Guy, I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

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