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The Great Iron Trail
The Story of the First Trans-Continental Railroad
Robert West Howard

The Author and the Book

Robert West Howard (1908-1988) was a journalist who wrote well over a dozen books on American pioneer history, the American West, and similar topics. His book The Great Iron Trail, presented here, was published in 1962, the centennial year of the first Pacific Railway Act that formally set in motion the project to span the continent by rail.

The book is a popular history; we won't find precise statements carefully sourced and footnoted, but a tale told like a novel, complete with the occasional imagined scene or conversation: a device that hasn't had a place in the writing of history for a thousand years, and that doesn't improve this account either. Plus reader beware! we will be subjected to some of the worst writing to be found on my site: the prose ranges from uninspiring to really nasty, the author very often straining for the most garish effect — and getting it — with attention-grabbing, sometimes barely grammatical quirks of style, stubbornly repeated, that make one want to set the whole thing aside in favor of something more soberly and agreeably told.

Now that we've got that out of the way, this is otherwise a fairly good book. It tells its story well, and has two particular merits shared with few of the many other books on the transcontinental railroad: the author constantly, firmly, sets this narrow topic in the context of the history of its time, relating it to the much wider themes of American history; and he isn't afraid to write about many things which are glossed over or altogether ignored in those other books, yet do form part of the story: thus, he details not only the financial misdeeds of the principals, but also the social problems along the tracks — for example the ugly spectres of racial prejudice and venereal disease; the possible Mormon involvement in the kidnapping of railroad officials; the relationship of the railroad to the labor problems of the late 19c and to the Myth of the American West. This wider view of his subject also lets the author present us a detailed and admiring view of the Chinese participation in our great American saga, and an almost equally sympathetic acknowledgment of the Mormon contribution; an appealing openness that helps us forgive his faults of taste.


The work is inscribed,


those Valiant Dreamers and Doers who, by linking the Union with its Pacific sisters, achieved more than Northwest Passage.

Section ONE: The Far Pacific Shore

Predestination, 1836


The Higher Irons


The Desert Dreamers


The Headlights Point West


The Treasure Roads


Section TWO: The Challengers

Chicago's Reach


El Paso or Salt Lake?


"Crazy" Judah


Gift of the West


Section THREE: The Promoters

The Commissioners


Huntington Rule


Manhattan Transfer


The Rig


Red Block


Section FOUR: All the Livelong Day

The Relays


Hell on Wheels


Patent Blasting Oil


Not a Chinaman's Chance!


In Darkest Nebraska


This Sacred Land


Section FIVE: The Race

The Sky Lines




The Sons of Deseret








Chronology of the Pacific Railway


Acknowledgments and Bibliography


Table of Illustrations

[decorative delimiter]

Technical Details

Edition Used

This transcription follows the original edition, G. P. Putnam's Sons 1962. It is in the public domain because copyright was not renewed in the appropriate year, which would have been 1989 or 1990: details here on the copyright law involved. (This is about as recent a publication as may be put online without infringing copyright.)


The printed edition includes 22 black-and‑white photographs collected in a single high-quality glossy signature. I've moved each of them to an appropriate place in the text; the original order of the image in the photo signature is indicated in the sourcecode as well as by the URL of the image.

In addition, the identical endpapers are a map of the Transcontinental Railroad, extending across the spine and thus near impossible to scan and reproduce properly; the back endpaper being further disfigured by a library card pocket. Fortunately, a much more detailed map of the route is available on the orientation page to one of this site's other books on the Transcontinental Railroad.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if successful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

This transcription has been minutely proofread. In the table of contents above, the sections are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the text of them to be completely errorfree. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.

The edition I followed had its share of identifiable typographical errors, and there may be some in the dates and numbers. I marked my corrections, when important, with a bullet like this;º and when trivial, with a dotted underscore like this: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the bullet or the underscored words to read the variant. Similarly, bullets before measurements provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles.

A number of odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, etc. have been marked <!‑‑ sic ‑‑> in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked.

Any other mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have a copy of the printed book in front of you.

Pagination and Local Links

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is shown in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this linep57); these are also local anchors. Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.

My icon for the book is from one of the book's photographs, showing a train halted on a bridge in Weber Canyon; for the full photograph, see Chapter 25. The train, track, and trestle are colorized to the same shade of orange that I use on maps throughout this site to represent railroads.

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Site updated: 23 Feb 10