'The Great Railroad War': a rollicking tale of the writers who shamed the Central Pacific

The pen is mightier than the railroad

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As President Barack Obama discovered this campaign, you need to be careful how you say this, but America has a long tradition of "self-made men'' who made it through great piles of government money.

The building of the transcontinental railroad has provided enough drama for more than one book, but "The Great American Railroad War'' by Dennis Drabelle speeds through the events leading to the driving of the Golden Spike in just two chapters. The real drama comes in his explication of his subtitle, one of the longer ones in recent memory: "How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took On the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad."

By Dennis Drabelle.
St. Martin's Press ($26.99).

Bierce, the Civil War veteran best remembered for death-obsessed short stories and his hilariously iconoclastic "Devil's Dictionary,'' never could suffer fools. His definition of "corporation'' as "an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility'' showed he'd been preparing for this railroad battle for years.

In the 1860s, the federal government provided the capital for the private railroads, not only issuing bonds for every mile of track but donating 6,400 acres of land per mile for development. The inducements worked; America was linked ocean to ocean, new settlers used the line for commerce and travel, and the railroad barons became enormously rich.

Then, 30 years later when the bonds came due, the Central Pacific didn't want to pay its debt. But just when the robber barons figured they'd bought enough lawmakers and newspapers to make that promise disappear, they ran into an equally rich enemy: William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper owner who sicced Bierce, cartoonist Homer Davenport and a squad of investigative journalists on the case.

Bierce was no lefty, but he couldn't abide deceit and hypocrisy. Even more than a century later, it's great fun reading how Bierce, with nothing but facts and memorable sarcasm, humbled Central Pacific magnate Collis P. Huntington.

Mr. Drabelle argues convincingly that Bierce's epic five-month journalistic assault on a robber baron's venality represents "the masterpiece he was otherwise unable to write.'' Then the book switches tracks to the great novel that sprang from these same events, Norris' "The Octopus.'' That could be "the most artful rabble-rousing novel ever written,'' says Mr. Drabelle, a longtime book reviewer for The Washington Post. The reason its industrialist is no mere mustache-twirling dime-store villain is because Norris interviewed Huntington at length before creating the tycoon's character.

Sure, it's an old story. Men capable of great accomplishments can also be crooks, and they often camouflage those crimes by shifting our focus back to their accomplishments. But Mr. Drabelle also notes that reformist backlash against the corruption of this era spawned California's referendum and initiative laws.

These direct-democracy vehicles are often envied by citizens in other states -- such as Pennsylvania -- that lack them. But Mr. Drabelle (whose previous book, "Mile-High Fever," examined silver mining in the late-19th-century American West) says the irony of these reforms is that "these tasks have become so costly that large corporations enjoy a decided advantage whenever an initiative touches upon their prerogatives. Big money, in other words, still has California over a barrel, just as did in the Gilded Age.''

Bierce and Norris aren't widely read today, but this book may get readers hunting down their Library of America collections.


Brian O'Neill is a Post-Gazette columnist (boneill@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1947).


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