Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois on September 4, 2000 · Page 155
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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois · Page 155

Chicago, Illinois
Issue Date:
Monday, September 4, 2000
Page 155
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Chicago Tribune, Monday, September 4, 2000 Section 5 Tempo Ambrose Continued from Pace 1 ,'the United States was young and Still learning its power and poten- :,tial. ..V "The work they did swinging ,! the sledgehammer all day long in (Nebraska cold and Nevada heat , we just couldn't do that today," said " Ambrose, who spoke from Aspen, ,Colo., where he was attending an academic symposium on global-asm. "They worked harder than we ever could." At this distance of time and tech-: nology, it's difficult to conceive just how much different life in mid-19th Century America was from what it h today. , Consider the problem of getting . from one place to another. We jump in the car, or hop an airplane. But Ambrose writes that, prior to the invention of the steamboat in 1807, "no progress had been made in transportation since ancient Greece or Rome . . . George , Washington could travel no faster 'than Julius Caesar, but Andrew Jackson could go upstream in a steamboat at a fair pace, and James K. Polk could travel in a ...railroad car at twenty miles an our or more overland. The har-Nnessing of steam power brought .greater change in how men lived Jind moved than had ever before , been experienced." 3 Another technological break-through was the telegraph, which permitted people to communicate, albeit at a fairly high per-word cost, almost instantaneously over great distances. Yet it was as though there were two Americas. In the East, railroads and the telegraph had knit to-gether the nation. The West, howev- : er, was caught in a time warp, slow to benefit from the technological breakthroughs and so isolated from the rest of the country that it might just as well have been across an ! . ocean. - In fact, one of only two ways to get from New York to San Francisco 2was to book passage on a ship going - south around the tip of South America and up to California. It was a trip, Ambrose writes, that took months and could cost $1,000 or more. The other way was to walk or ride, either a horse or a wagon, the iS.OOO miles across the continent, ' Etching a riverboat where possible. It was a trip through deserts and mountains, in territories ; claimed and defended by Indians, ; that also took months and required ' immense stamina and more than a ; .little luck. "', . No wonder there was the attrac ts? Historian Stephen E. Ambrose is the author of "Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869." The railroad was completed on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah. tion of a transcontinental railrcad (which, as it turned out, cut the trip to seven days and the cost to as little as $65 for a third-class ticket). Union Gen. William T. Sherman had predicted that building the cross-country railroad would have to be "the work of giants." And so it was, with the two railroad companies involved the Union Pacific, working from the East, and the Central Pacific, working from the West comprising, as Ambrose notes, the two biggest businesses in the nation. Indeed, they represented a new level of big business, with new administrative systems and even an early form of the assembly line. Yet, in another, deeper sense, the transcontinental railroad wasn't built by giants. It was built by the thousands of young men women played virtually no role in the project - whom Ambrose characterizes as "young lions." Describing the 10,000-man Union Pacific work force, Ambrose writes, "What the workingmen had most in common was their age, most of them teenagers or just into their twenties, and their status as Civil War veterans." Many were Irish, but there were also many immigrants from elsewhere in Europe, newly freed black slaves and other second and third generation Americans. Ambrose describes their food: "The meals consisted of coffee, potatoes, and boiled meat (usually beef; project director Jack Casement kept a herd of five hundred cattle marching along with the advance of the rails)." He describes their clothing: "They almost never washed their pants, shirts, and jackets." "r Vt It 1 I it ill. itlClllt'fik S Otf P5VCHIC And he describes their labor: "Except for some of the cooks and bakers, there was not a fat man among them. Their hands were tough enough for any job one never sees gloves in the photographs which included pickax handling, shoveling, wielding sledgehammers, picking up iron rails, and using other equipment that required hands like iron. Their waists were generally thin, but oh those shoulders! Those arms! Those legs! They were men who could move things, hammer things in, swing things, whatever was required, in rain or snow or high winds or burning sun and scorching temperature, all day, every day. . . . They didn't whine, they didn't complain, they just kept working." And what was true for the Union Pacific work force was equally true for the 10,000 laborers on the Central Pacific with one exception: Four of every five workers on the western branch of the line were Chinese immigrants. Denigrated as "coolies" and "half-made men," the Chinese workers, nonetheless, won the grudging respect and admiration of white bosses and observers. As one minister wrote, "They are ready to begin work the moment they hear the signal, and labor steadily and honestly until admonished that the working hours are ended. ... Not having acquired a taste for whiskey, they have few fights, and no 'blue Mondays.' " In earlier books, Ambrose chronicled the world-shaping Allied invasion of Normandy and the battle for Europe at the end of World War II, and, in "Undaunted Courage" (Simon and Schuster); he told the saga - 1 A '! Slfslf? Pi) .x M -Jl?f M M w. v) m m Vbo -ibJ if . w - yuu ms m cats. Log on, click "BusinessStocks", find: Small Business Top Companies Latest Market Updates Silicon Prairie High-Tech News Chicago Insider Your Money Chicago Tribune Columnists 0llDSlMfili,Du3MD11o(D(0)u1S11 flAvr- X r A A P , ..... . ih . , fin j ii t$yfy0 ' mkr Railroad booster? Abe, honest One of the most important laborers in the building of the transcontinental railroad had something else on his mind as well the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, a former railroad lawyer, "was a driving force" behind the move to link the two ends of the continent by rail, explained historian Stephen E. Ambrose. It was Lincoln, long a booster of the idea, who, on July 1, 1862, signed the legislation that made construction of the railroad possible. "It couldn't have been done without him," Ambrose said. Yet, Lincoln's role is often overlooked. His major biographers over the last half -century barely mention, if at all, the transcontinental railroad. "Well, Lincoln is Lincoln," Ambrose said in explanation, of discovery of the Lewis and Clark expedition. "Nothing Like It in the World" combines both elements. Ambrose writes, "Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad . . . was the greatest achievement of the American people of the nineteenth century." It was "a work that was to change the whole world," because, by linking together the continental United States, the railroad created a huge national market that permitted access to a vast amount of natural resources and enabled an unprecedented economic expansion. It also was "the last great building project to be done mostly by hand." The men whose hands built the railroad knew what they were do gm-, J V " ' 5 H !l 1 ? O O I""' O ' L m k 3 L j 'Kj .lou, ..... 0 "V meaning that Lincoln's involvement in prosecuting the war and abolishing slavery was so monumental as to overshadow virtually everything else about his presidency. Also, Lincoln never made a major public statement about the railroad and its significance, the way he did, with much eloquence, about the Union and slavery. One final note: It was the outbreak of the Civil War that made the transcontinental railroad possible. Before that, efforts to build the road had been stymied over questions of where it should be constructed in the North, where it would help build up the free states, or in the South, where it would make easier the expansion of slavery Patrick T. Reardon ing. "They wanted to be there," Ambrose said. "In the war, they'd identified with something that was bigger than they were. The railroad was next." In some ways, it was like a giant camping trip a bunch of guys out in the fresh air flexing their muscles, working up an appetite and taking in the scenery. "Anybody who's ever driven Interstate 80 knows this is a marvel-ously scenic route," Ambrose said, "and these guys were the first large group of Americans to see it. They were seeing the glories of the American West, and they were conquering the American West." It's clear from the enthusiasm that Ambrose brings to the subject of the railroad, and displays in his inn a PifihlT 7MV earlier works on Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Custer and Crazy Horse, and the experience of soldiers in battle, that he enjoys his own labors. Born in Decatur, 111., on Jan. 10, 1936, Ambrose was 6 when he moved with his family to the North Side of Chicago for a year while his father, a doctor who enlisted in the Navy the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, was assigned at a local naval base. (Ambrose tells the story of learning to swim in Lake Michigan. His instructor was Bud Collyer, the radio voice of Superman and later a television game show host, who was apparently moonlighting that summer as a lifeguard. The instruction, Ambrose recalled, was simple: Collyer threw the young boy in the water.) After the war, the family moved to Whitewater, Wis., where, later, Ambrose had summer jobs working on a farm. "That was hard physical labor," he said. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he had been a starter both ways on the Badgers football team, playing left guard on offense and linebacker on defense. Later, he taught for many years at the University of New Orleans. The wide commercial success of his histories and biographies enabled Ambrose to retire from teaching five years ago and devote himself full-time to writing. And, now 64, he doesn't labor alone. In the acknowledgments for "Nothing Like It in the World," he describes how various members of his family worked with him on the book as research assistants, as they have for many of his previous ones. Yet, as much as Ambrose enjoys his work, he also recognizes that he and millions of other desk-bound American laborers have lost something that the builders of the transcontinental railroad had. "Today," Ambrose said, "we work in a different kind of a way. That's called progress, I guess. One of the things we lose unless you're an athlete, who the hell's in that kind of shape anymore? That physical ability to do things, we don't have that anymore." This is something, he said, that young people, and some not so young, try to recapture with such demanding and often dangerous activities as downhill skiing, bungee jumping and mountain climbing. But everyday work for most people doesn't give that same physical pleasure, that same satisfaction, that the transcontinental railroad workers had. "It's not there anymore," Ambrose said, "that ability to say: 'I drove in today 935 spikes,' that feeling of 'There's nothing I can't do.' "

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