Abraham Lincoln, who had worked as a riverboat pilot before turning to politics, knew a thing or two about the problems
of transporting goods and people from place to place. He was also convinced that the United States would flourish only
if its far-flung regions were linked, replacing sectional loyalties with an overarching sense of national destiny.
Building a transcontinental railroad, writes the prolific historian Stephen Ambrose, was second only to the abolition
of slavery on Lincoln's presidential agenda. Through an ambitious program of land grants and low-interest government
loans, he encouraged entrepreneurs such as California's "Big Four"--Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins,
and Leland Stanford--to take on the task of stringing steel rails from ocean to ocean. The real work of doing so, of
course, was on the shoulders of immigrant men and women, mostly Chinese and Irish. These often-overlooked actors and
what a contemporary called their "dreadful vitality" figure prominently in Ambrose's narrative, alongside the great
financiers and surveyors who populate the standard textbooks.
In the end, Ambrose writes, Lincoln's dream transformed the nation, marking "the first great triumph over time and
space" and inaugurating what has come to be known as the American Century. David Haward Bain's Empire Express, which
covers the same ground, is more substantial, but Ambrose provides an eminently readable study of a complex episode in
American history. --Gregory McNamee