Friday, May 10, 2013


May 10! It was on May 10 in 1869, 144 years ago today, that the first transcontinental railroad was completed. A trip from the East Coast to California, a trip that a few years earlier might have taken up to six dangerous months to make, now took a week. I crib from the author’s note from Locomotive (coming in September):

Imagine the change! At the beginning of the nineteenth century, you could move over land only as quickly as you could walk, or as quickly as an animal could carry or pull you—that fast, and no faster. That had been true for a hundred years, for a thousand years, for as far back as you could imagine.

Then came the steam locomotive. “Time & space,” said Asa Whitney, an early prophet of the transcontinental railroad, “are annihilated by steam.” 

The first steam locomotive in the United States, the Stourbridge Lion, arrived from England in 1829. America’s first regular passenger service came in 1831. By the 1840s serious discussion of a transcontinental line was underway. A road reaching from the growing network of rail in the East all the way to the Pacific would bind California to the rest of the nation, aid in settling the Great Plains, and provide a lucrative route for trade between Europe and Asia. In the wake of the Civil War, the Pacific railway became “the great work of the age.” When the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad Companies completed the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869, the news flashed via telegraph from one side of the the country to the other: “Done!” From across the nation came the response: cheers, speeches, fireworks, parades, cannon blasts, prayer. Other transcontinental lines followed; by 1893 five crossed the country. 

Locomotive is much more about a trip on the line than the line’s construction, but the endpapers and author’s note try to lay the foundation for that ride by introducing how and why the line was built. The drawing above will appear on the front endpapers; it’s a take on the famous A. J. Russell photo (here) of the Union Pacific’s Grenville Dodge and the Central Pacific’s Samuel Montague shaking hands after the driving of the symbolic golden spike. As a general rule I try not to have a drawing be based too closely on a familiar image, but with this picture I hoped that something (maybe) recognizable at the book’s beginning would serve as a point of connection for readers, something to help tie the book’s story to what they have and will see elsewhere about the subject. And, you know, also I really like the picture.

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