I read Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad, by Martin W. Sandler, as part of an early reviewer’s program. My edition is a large format (10 ½”w x 9”h) softcover Advance Reading Copy with low resolution period photographs that are nevertheless breathtaking. The hardcover official edition (released September 2015) makes it a tempting buy if only for the higher-res versions of these photos. This volume is directed towards a young adult audience, grades seven and up, yet the engaging, generally well-written narrative is hardly dumbed down.
There have been many books chronicling the dramatic story of the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860’s, during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Most Americans have some familiarity with the race from the West Coast by the Central Pacific with its predominantly immigrant Chinese labor force, in fierce competition with the race from the Midwest by the Union Pacific and its predominantly immigrant Irish labor force, that culminates in the driving of the “golden spike” that represented a connection between the Atlantic and Pacific and an America – now reunited after a long bloody rebellion – that had in some respects conquered the continent. Most treatments focus upon the “heroic” aspects of the tale, and there certainly is much heroism and grit in evidence, but of course there are dark sides too that are often overlooked, especially in history books designed for a younger audience.
To Sandler’s credit, without sacrificing the heroic drama of the narrative, the author manages to apply a completely modern historical approach that takes into account the negative consequences of the railroad for Native Americans, the unjust and ungrateful treatment of Chinese workers, the criminality of top executives in both competing companies, and the horrific violence that was endemic to the colorful “Hell on Wheels” towns that materialized suddenly as track-layers came along and then evaporated once they had moved on. Sandler’s style – much like the quality Time-Life series volumes found in many homes when I was growing up – is such that it is often difficult to detect that he is writing for younger readers rather than adults, and the difference is extremely subtle. For instance, conspicuous in its absence in passages describing the gamblers and murderers that populated the “Hell on Wheels” towns is any reference to the prostitutes who were fellow travelers. Naturally, in America it is always forbidden to discuss sex with children, but murder remains fully acceptable!
Still, it is the wealth of superlative outsize black-and-white photographs of the era that dominate this book and enhance the narrative. Sandler tells us that photographers accompanied the engineers and made great efforts to chronicle what they knew was an initiative of epic proportions, and an impressive sample of such photos are included: of the rails, of the trains, of the people, of the spectacular scenery, of the immense obstacles. The text is also enhanced by cut-outs that profile prominent individuals, groups and events of significance, as well as maps, a timeline and an epilogue that follows key figures in the years beyond.
One significant blemish to an otherwise creditworthy effort is a historical error of some consequence that occurs early in the work as the author narrates the backstory to the birth of the transcontinental railroad. “Despite the many different compromises that had been attempted,” Sandler relates, “the northern and southern regions of the nation had grown further apart over the fact that the slaveholders in the South refused to give up their slaves.” [p11] Now that sentence is not simply an over-simplification, it is absolutely wrong. The south may indeed have felt that its “peculiar institution” was threatened, but notwithstanding the rhetoric of the tiny abolitionist contingent in the north there was never any federal attempt to compel “slaveholders in the South … to give up their slaves.” Rather, the southern states that seceded to form the Confederacy did so because of their desire to expand slavery into the vast western territories, something that was resisted by “free-soilers” such as Lincoln’s Republican Party. This may seem like a quibble to some, but it decidedly is not. Such an error is not tolerable to a historian and makes me want to fact-check the rest of the narrative.
That error aside, which I can only hope will be corrected in future editions, I very much enjoyed reading this book and especially admiring the accompanying photographs. As such, I would recommend Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation to readers young and old.