Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Review of "Westward to Promontory: Building the Union Pacific Across the Plains and Mountains, A Pictorial Documentary," with text by Barry B. Combs

Review of
Westward to Promontory: Building the Union Pacific Across the Plains and Mountains, A Pictorial Documentary, with text by Barry B. Combs

Five out of five stars
 Once the gold rush of 1949 populated California in a hurry and made it a state and the quality farmland of the west coast led to a dramatic increase in the population of the rest, the need for a railroad crossing the nation was clear. Yet, there were many that said it was impossible, getting across the flat prairie was easy, but the mountains, other rugged terrain and the lack of resources for hundreds of miles made many people believe that it simply could not be done with the technology available.
 In the early years, there were titanic political battles over the route, specifically the eastern starting point. Like so many other things, it was a north/south split, with southern (eventually Confederate) politicians wanting the route to be across the southern regions, while northern (eventually Union) politicians wanted it to be across the northern region. As happened with slavery, the American Civil war settled the issue and the northern route was selected.
 This book is a collection of wet-plate images made by A. J. Russell as he accompanied the laying of the track in the westward direction. The quality of the prints is excellent, it is possible to identify the presence of people in the shots, even from a distance. Some of the images demonstrate the incredible challenges the engineers faced. Bridges had to be constructed across gorges that occasionally filled with rapidly flowing water. One such example is the bridge at Devil’s Gate. The first try was washed out and one of the images is of three locomotives with associated cars on the new bridge to test its structural integrity.
 This is an excellent history of one of the greatest achievements of the American westward expansion. Without a way to move people and freight quickly from one side of the country to the other, there would have been a permanent psychological east/west divide in the United States. One of the most astounding historical facts is that a trip from New York to California took six months before the railroad and seven days after. Few technical advancements can come close to achieving such a dramatic improvement.

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