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Rival Railways Race Across The Continent

On May 10, 1869, railroad tycoon Leland Stanford drove in the famous golden spike linking up the two halves of the country's first transcontinental railroad.

Only, the railroad wasn't quite complete. There were several gaps, including one across the Missouri River at Omaha, Neb., where passengers had to step off the train and board a boat for the river crossing. "It's really not until about 18, 20 months later that a bridge is completed there," historian Walter Borneman tells NPR's Guy Raz. In the meantime, Borneman adds, a rival railroad managed to complete the first truly uninterrupted line across the country.

Borneman's new book, Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad, follows the complex and occasionally vicious battles between railroad companies competing to control precious routes to the Pacific.

Shaped By War

Borneman says the Civil War played a huge role in determining what the country's rail map would look like. At first, people thought only one line across the country would be necessary -- and the snow-free southern route looked promising. But once the war began, the Union government wanted nothing more to do with the southern route and chose instead a route west from Omaha to Oakland, Calif.

Reconstruction proved to be a boom time for American railroads. Congress offered major subsidies to railroads in the form of loans and land grants.

"Some of these initial railroads, in order to get them built, the government says, 'We're going to give you what basically amounts to, for every mile of track you lay ... 6,400 acres of land.' For free," Borneman says. "And admittedly, there's nothing there in much of the country at that point, because there are no settlers out there. The railroad is really going to be the conduit of civilization that really pulls settlers in record numbers westward."

Competition Abounds

Without a map, it's almost impossible to keep all the various railroad companies straight. The Southern Pacific, Texas Pacific, Kansas Pacific, Denver and Rio Grande, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and countless others all fought over the best routes. Many of them never laid a mile of track; they were just paper companies chartered to scare off an opponent or claim a strategic tract of land.

"Part of that shows how chaotic this time was," says Borneman, "with people and investors staking roads, building railroads to almost every little mining town in the west."

All the competition led to the occasional pitched battle on the ground, as railway engineers raced to get their surveying stakes into the ground, claiming territory sometimes minutes ahead of rival teams.

One line outfought, outplanned and outlasted its rivals, says Borneman: the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, which started as a little regional railroad between two Kansas towns, but swiftly developed transcontinental ambitions.

"There was a lot less flash, if you will, and a lot more substance, to the men who were involved in that," he says. The ATSF survived the economic crashes of 1873 and 1893, and eventually became the dominant rail system in the American southwest. It's still around today, in a slightly different form, having merged with the Burlington Northern in 1995.

The Future Of Rail

The newly formed Burlington Northern Santa Fe made the news recently when billionaire investor Warren Buffett decided to buy the company outright.  Buffett said at the time that "our country's future prosperity depends on its having an efficient and well-maintained rail system."

Borneman agrees that rail can have a bright future in the United States. But he says we need to do some work to bring our high-speed passenger trains up to the standards enjoyed in other countries.

"There's so much congestion, and sometimes traveling 3- or 400 miles by air takes longer than if you could just hop on a train and be able to have a leisurely ride at 2- or 300 miles an hour. That would be pretty fascinating."

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