BEFORE IT WAS FLYOVER COUNTRY. It was there. It was "The Great American Desert." It was "Indian Country." It was tough on horses and ox teams pulling prairie schooners. It was tough to build a transcontinental railroad across it, and after the railroad was finished, the least aesthetic (read: flat and featureless) stretches saw the passages of the express trains at night. The Lincoln Highway provided a motorway of sorts across it, and now Interstate 80 allows the gear-jammers and the road-trippers a relatively effortless passage. But the plains and the mountains and the alkali flats are still there, and some colorful characters still inhabit the towns that time forgot and the decades could not improve.
Author David Haward Bain won a race-to-press with Stephen Ambrose to produce a popular history of the transcontinental railroad. I have Bain's book, and Ambrose's, and Maury Klein's two volumes about the Union Pacific, and perhaps as a summer service, I will offer reviews of all of these. Tonight's Book Review No. 9 is Bain's The Old Iron Road, sort of a "what-we-did-on-summer-vacation" story of a road trip his family took to celebrate the completion of his history. Mr Bain was able to forestall the "are we there yet?" from the kids by making the purpose of the trip a tour of assorted museums, geologic landmarks, abandoned railroad grades, and the hometowns of friends. Although the family started in Vermont, the narrative picks up in the Missouri River valley. (That leaves open a retrospective on the relics of the "Granger Pool" railroads that fought over the Union Pacific traffic east of Council Bluffs. Norfolk Southern sort of gets in a hit, going the long way 'round via Kansas City; Union Pacific has the North Western, CN the Illinois Central, Burlington, as BNSF, really is "everywhere west," and Iowa Interstate still attempts to carry on for the Rock Island. Milwaukee and the Chicago Great Western are relics only. Hmmm, don't intend to stay at the day job forever.)
The book combines some railroad history with lots of vignettes. In some ways, the most colorful characters are the people who settled in the mountains far from the main lines and the later interstates. The railroad history provided me some new information. Apparently two railroads were racing west from the Missouri, out of Kansas City and out of Omaha, during the Southern Rebellion. The first past the 100th meridian would obtain the franchise to build toward the coast. Union Pacific won that race, and their surveyors were aggressively projecting a route TO the coast (a survey team went as far as [Humboldt] Wells, Nevada to identify a grade east, and absent an intervention from Washington, those survey teams might well have identified a line west.) Without Charles Crocker's smarter older brother Edwin Bryant Crocker's efforts to keep the Central Pacific supplied, Mr Bain suggests Union Pacific might well have made it to the coast first. (Mr Bain organized the microfilms of E.B. Crocker's papers, apparently for the first time. I must start reading his history of the transcontinental to see what use he made of them. Aspiring dissertators must read and understand the passage on page 377 of Iron Road. Those are words I live by. Don't bring that "there's no data" (translation: I can't find a government website to download numbers from) around my office.)