Book review: ‘Rival Rails’ by Walter R. Borneman

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Rival Rails

The Race to Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad

Walter R. Borneman

Random House: 408 pp., $28

When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined rails on May 10, 1869, it was celebrated as the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad. In fact, historian Walter R. Borneman points out in his book “Rival Rails,” the rails weren’t quite complete: Passengers still had to be ferried across the Missouri River between Nebraska and Iowa. The final spike was driven on the nation’s first uninterrupted transcontinental railroad 15 months later, and anyone who thought that a single entity might ever control rail traffic across America would have known better if they looked more closely: Passengers from Jersey City to Oakland traveled on the tracks of no less than six companies.

And those six were just a few of the lines competing ferociously for business — not to mention government land grants and bond issues — as railroad tracks spread across the nation after the Civil War. Borneman helpfully provides lists of the principal railroads and the men who led them, as well as a timetable of major events from 1853 to 1908, when the main transcontinental routes were firmly established. Readers will find themselves referring to those pages frequently as the formidably knowledgeable author lays out the tangled saga of railroad construction west of Chicago. He doesn’t always untangle it sufficiently for any but the most ardent railroad buff, but those with a serious interest in American history can extract some fascinating material from his unwieldy narrative.


Though national unity was the lofty justification given for the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, the staggering financial incentives the federal government offered (particularly in an 1864 amendment described by Borneman as “the sweetheart deal of the century”) made it clear that money was the motive driving the captains of industry in this enterprise. They threw themselves into the race to lay track through Kansas cattle towns and Colorado mining camps to the Southern California backwaters of Los Angeles and San Diego, which aspired to emulate their powerhouse neighbor to the north, San Francisco.

San Francisco was the base of the Big Four — Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford — who controlled the Central Pacific and intended to dominate all railroads to the east and south. At the Pennsylvania Railroad, J. Edgar Thomson’s motto was “build west,” and his associates William Jackson Palmer and Thomas A. Scott later led smaller lines that contested the Central Pacific and its Southern Pacific offshoot for supremacy across the plains and south from Colorado to Mexico.

Wall Street wizard Jay Gould also aimed for transcontinental dominance, often by forging alliances and taking over boards; at one time or another, he controlled five separate railroads. Cyrus K. Holliday, William Barstow Strong and their successors at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway managed their company conservatively and sometimes played a waiting game, but the Santa Fe (as it was generally known) participated in some of the fiercest battles of the railroad wars: the fights to lay the sole tracks through Colorado’s Raton Pass and Royal Gorge.

Those epic battles provide Borneman with colorful anecdotes. A Santa Fe manager heading toward Royal Gorge on a rival line was recognized by the conductor, who kept his train idling in the station to buy time for his company’s construction train to get there first. Legendary Dodge City, Kan., lawman Bat Masterson took a posse into Colorado to defend the Santa Fe’s stake, although, as Borneman notes, “just what authority a sheriff of a Kansas county had to lead armed men into a neighboring state and do the bidding of a private company is debatable.”

There was no debate among the railroad men: The public good was subordinate to their private interests. Palmer not once but twice halted his Denver and Rio Grande railroad miles short of a town to bully residents into voting a bond issue to finance his construction. This was small potatoes compared with what the Southern Pacific extorted from Los Angeles: a $610,000 bond issue, plus control of a small local railroad that was the city’s link to the coast.

What choice did L.A. have? The Big Four, in addition to the Southern Pacific, owned or controlled every other railroad with any chance of laying tracks into the city in 1872.

There were more — many more — such instances of strong-arm tactics as the various companies eventually established multiple transcontinental routes to create a competitive, overlapping transportation system. Try as they might, no single railroad ever managed to maintain a monopoly, and it would be unreasonable to expect Borneman to craft a more unified account of a struggle whose participants were so numerous. He displays partiality for the Santa Fe, giving it the lion’s share of space in hasty wrap-up chapters sketching developments since 1908. The Super Chief certainly was among the most glamorous of the streamlined passenger trains, buttressing Borneman’s claim that the Santa Fe, aided by Fred Harvey’s sparkling restaurants and hotels along its line, gained its spot among the winners in the railroad race by emphasizing customer convenience and comfort. Still, it’s clear throughout that freight traffic and real estate (sales of plots from those government land grants) were indispensable aspects of the railroads’ profits as they extended, and often over-extended themselves, across America.

Borneman’s densely detailed text vividly evokes the freebooting, no-holds-barred ethos of nascent American capitalism. “Rival Rails” is not the easiest read in the world, but worth the effort for the insights it provides into the way one of the nation’s most significant industries was developed.

Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”