Tong L.'s Reviews > Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69

Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen E. Ambrose
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Mar 28, 12


The book was very thorough about the building of the railroad. However, Ambrose's continual use of Chinaman, instead of Chinese, grated on me every time I heard it. Since the Chinese did most of the work building the railroad from California, he used the word repeatedly. The book was written in 2001; he should have known that Chinaman is a very disliked word. Ambrose described the day that the Chinese laid 10 miles a track, a record which stands to this day. It filled me with pride hearing how the Chinese laid track so much faster than the Union Pacific workers that they had time for a leisurely 2 hour lunch that day. At the same time, the Central Pacific listed the names of the eight white workers on the job, and casually mentioned the 1,200 Chinese workers who also happened to be working that day. That made me ashamed of my country.

Ambrose was very adept at framing the importance and place of the railroad and telegraph (which ran alongside the railroad). He mentions that the speed of conveyance had not improved since the time of Alexander the Great. People walked, used horses or livestock. The railroad was the first improvement on those methods in several thousand years. Before the railroad, going from New York to San Francisco took months, instead of the five days it took following the completion of the railroad. Similarly, with communication. The methods that Julius Ceasar used to convey messages were the same as used by Jefferson. With the telegraph, a message could be sent from New York to San Francisco almost instantly. In our age of global communication it's hard to remember how recent that change was. Ambrose does a good job framing the difference the railroad made.

In summary, I liked the history part of the book. It's probably the best book on the building of the transcontinental railroad. I wish Ambrose had shown more sensitivity in his language choices.
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