It's the 1860s and the West is just opening up: there are gold-digging settlements in California, the odd ranching town, but essentially the huge sweep of the mid-West remains home "only" to Native Americans and buffalo. Control and settlement of this vast country urgently requires infrastructure, to enable faster, safer and higher-volume transport than can be achieved by wagon train or long shipping routes. The land is ripe for the picking when the railroad men step in, hastily throwing down thousands of miles of track and picking up, in return, enormous government subsidies and eye-popping land grants that extend tens of miles to either side of their lines.
Brown spends the first half of the book describing how the first transcontinental line was laid: the engineering challenges, the savage competition between the companies building from opposite ends, the outright disregard for native rights, and most of all the shameless swindling of the public purse by the scoundrels at the top. For bribed politicians and ruthless railway tycoons alike, the railroad was only the means to an end - not of conquering the land, but of making themselves immensely rich by scandalous financial arrangements, to which building and running railways was merely an afterthought, a minor legal hoop to jump through. Consequently the lines were poorly and rapidly built, taking routes chosen not for speed or safety but to maximise the rewards from completing the miles:
As for Dr. Durant and his cronies, there is no record of what they sang as they collected the $16,000 per mile from the government for the track laid by the workmen, the $25,000 per mile of excess profits from Credit Mobilier, the 12,800 acres of land per mile, and whatever else they were able to divert from the sales of stocks and bonds.
[A government examiner's] report to Congress, however, like most honest reports that might interfere with the exploitation of the public, was filed away and quickly forgotten by the people's representatives in Washington.
Notwithstanding these distasteful machinations, there is a spirit of adventure in these escapades and a true sense of achievement, albeit tempered by the job being done badly for greed instead of well for progress. The two sides of this coin are perfectly symbolised when the tracks from the east and west are to be joined by a golden spike: executives from both companies, concerned only with finance and not at all with engineering, swing their sledgehammers and miss!
After this first conquest, the book explores other aspects of the railroads' impact: the experiences of travellers, the Hell On Wheels towns that followed the construction teams, the southern and northern lines, the conning of migrants into buying worthless land and their further exploitation through high freight-rates for their meagre produce. The picture is colourful but not pretty, and Brown shows how the outrageous huckstering and profiteering led to the miserable, vestigial railways that drearily cross the USA today, undermaintained, underdeveloped and underused - yet paid for by public taxes several times over.
Although his milieu is the 19th-century, Dee Brown's books teach political lessons that seem ageless. If reading them is sobering, it is nonetheless most certainly educational: we can't learn these things often enough. - Oh, and it's a rollicking good read too.