Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover
Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover
Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover
Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover
Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover
Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover
Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover
Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover

Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover

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Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle Hard Cover
 
The Great American Railroad War by Dennis Drabelle
Hard Cover
306 pages
Copyright 2012
CONTENTS
Introduction 1
1. Working on the Railroad 9
2. Hell-Bent for Promontory Summit 29
3. How to Be Very, Very Unpopular 63
4. Ambrose Bierce at a Low Point 88
5. Anatomy of the Funding Bill 119
6. Bierce at War Again 134
7. The Beast Emerges from Within Frank Norris     181
8. Norris Picks Up a Rake 208
9. Mussel Slough Under a Microscope 226
10. Endings 252
Acknowledgments 265
Notes 269
Bibliography 289
Index 295
INTRODUCTION:
The Central Pacific Railroad holds a distinction unique in the annals of American business: It riveted the attention of two great writers at the peak of their artistry. It's one thing for workaday journalists to accuse a firm of such faults as monopolization, bribery, cheating its rivals, and indifference to public safety. Plenty of other companies got the same treatment in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, both individually (Standard Oil, for example) and collectively (the insurance industry). But it takes a special kind of ogre to fascinate Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris, each destined to be a canonical writer, his work enshrined in numerous Classics editions, including the Library of America.
Bierce is best known for the acerbic definitions in his Devil's Dictionary, his ghost and suspense stories, and his brutally candid reminiscences of the Civil War (in which he was the only first-rate American writer to have fought). But he made his living in journalism, notably as a columnist for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. Far from suffering fools and knaves gladly, Bierce went after them with gusto. He was lucky to live in a scrappy age when words didn't just ring out-they pinched, gouged, slapped, kicked, and pulled hair. Our Victorian-era forebears may have been quick to censor references to bodily functions, but on just about any other subject a writer could sound off with a recklessness that makes even the most outspoken twenty-first-century pundits sound genteel.
Possessed of a large vocabulary, a wide range of interests, a generous supply of allusions, and an extraordinary gift for insult and invective, Bierce made the most of this permissive atmosphere. For more than two decades, he reigned as the West Coast's chief exposer of greed and corruption, its peerless scold of crooks and fools. Though conservative by nature and admiring of great men, in practice he couldn't stop pounding away at the four principals of the Central Pacific-Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker-for the devious way they had amassed money and power, for the arrogance with which they threw both around, for their willingness to accept subsidies while pretending to be self-made. The overbearing and vulgar Crocker, Bierce grumbled (and he could just as well have said the same of the other three), had become obscenely rich "on an original investment of a suspender button and a postage stamp."
The mask of tragedy fit well on Bierce's face, but Frank Norris was all smiles. Born to wealth, blessed with good looks and a fecund imagination, as a young man he seemed headed for a career as an idler. But behind his inconclusive sampling of courses at the University of California and Harvard lay a clear plan. He intended to mold himself into a certain kind of novelist-an American version of the great French naturalist Emile Zola. To his credit, Norris followed through by writing his first masterpiece, McTeague. Whereupon he outgrew his Zola phase and tackled a project he could make all his own-a trilogy that would depict modern society by concentrating on one of the world's staples: wheat. And although Norris, too, had an affinity with the wealthy and powerful, his urge to tell a dramatic story put him firmly on the side of capitalism's victims.
Despite their east-of-the Mississippi origins, Bierce and Norris were quintessential Westerners. Their best work can be seen as building on an insight voiced by Mark Twain's character Colonel Beriah Sellers in The Gilded Age: "Yes, born East myself, ... know the West-a great country, gentlemen. The place for a young fellow of spirit to pick up a fortune, simply pick it up, it's lying round loose here." The nineteenth-century West, in other words, was a vast storage locker, full of ore, timber, water, and transportation routes, all ready to be made off with by enterprising men. From this point of view, it's only a hop and a skip to an unsettling corollary. In the remote West, rules were few and sporadically enforced, and the way was open for clever operators to grab far more than their share of those fortunes, especially if they had no qualms about using fraud and force. The Darwinian shibboleth of survival of the fittest applied even better to conditions in the West than elsewhere in the country, and many people seemed to find that right and just.
The Central Pacific had merged with another California-based railroad, the Southern Pacific, and over the years Bierce had tossed an occasional brickbat at the amalgamated firm. In the mid-1890s, however, a series of scheduled events served to concentrate his mind (and that of his politically ambitious boss, Hearst). Back in the 1860s, the Central Pacific had accepted loans from the federal government to subsidize construction. Taking the form of thirty-year bonds, the loans had been issued periodically as the work crews finished laying new stretches of track. With interest, the bonds added up to a roughly $75-million obligation on the railroad's part, and starting in 1896 they would be falling due. Stanford had haughtily expected Uncle Sam to forgive the debt outright, in deference to what he viewed as the Central Pacific's stupendous contribution to the common good. But Stanford was dead now, leaving Huntington as the last surviving member of the Big Four, and he was a more realistic bargainer. He could live with federal legislation that would bundle the debts into a single loan, repayable at, say, 2 or 3 percent interest over a period of, oh, how about seventy-five years? At Hearst's behest, Bierce swung into action against such a betrayal of the public trust, traveling to Washington in January of 1896 as the head of a SWAT team of reporters, cartoonists, and secretaries.

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