Old Iron Road an epic of rails, roads, and the urge to go west by David Bain
Old Iron Road an epic of rails, roads, and the urge to go west by David Bain
Old Iron Road an epic of rails, roads, and the urge to go west by David Bain
Old Iron Road an epic of rails, roads, and the urge to go west by David Bain

Old Iron Road an epic of rails, roads, and the urge to go west by David Bain

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Old Iron Road an epic of rails, roads, and the urge to go west by David Bain
The Old Iron Road an epic of rails, roads, and the urge to go west
By David Haward Bain author of Empire Express
Softbound 434 pages
Copyright 2004
Anyone who loves history and appreciates the writing of William Least Heat-Moon, Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin and John McPhee will want to add The Old Iron Road to their collection.

David Haward Bain is the author of four previous works of nonfiction, including Empire Express and Sitting in Darkness, which received a Robert E Kennedy Memorial Book Award honorable mention. His articles and essays have appeared in Smithsonian, American Heritage, The Kenyon Review, and Prairie Schooner, and he reviews regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and Newsday. He copro-duced the documentary, "Transcontinental Railroad" for the PBS American Experience series and has appeared widely in venues as varied as Bill Moyers's "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience" and C-SPAN's Booknotes with Brian Lamb. A teacher at Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Bain lives in Orwell, Vermont. Visit the author on his Web site at wwwdavidhbain.com.

1. The Odyssey Begins3
2. Jumping Off15
3. Rails and the River27
4. The Lincoln Highway43
5. The Road from Red Cloud64
6. Hell on Wheels89
7. The View from the Bluffs117
8. Magic City133
9. Road Tested on the Red Plains154
10. Crossing the Divide186
11. Green River to the Rim211
12. Through the Canyons to Paradise 231
13. Following the Humboldt
14. Silver State
15. Over the Sierra
16. From Sacramento to the Sea
17. Golden Gate

The Odyssey Begins
We had been driving north on the old Leavenworth to Fort Laramie military road, now designated Kansas Highway 7/73, concrete and strips of softening tar winding through attractive wooded hills, wild trumpet vines and daylilies sprouting at roadside, willows and poplars alternating with pastures, hayfields, and stands of corn. Hawks rode warm air currents far overhead. Wood thrushes darted in and out of the shade trees. I pulled our car over to the roadside and shut off the engine. It ticked in the early summer breeze. "This is as good a place as any," I said to my wife and children.
Somewhere on this road between Atchison and Leavenworth in eastern Kansas my grandmother Rose Donahue Haward had been born in a covered wagon in the year 1889.
We were on the first leg of a summer exploring expedition, eight days out from our home in the Champlain Valley in Vermont, following half-forgotten footsteps, barely discernible wheel ruts, and vanished iron rails across the width of our continent for two months. Here, on the Kansas side of the Missouri River, seemed a fitting spiritual start to our odyssey-with my grandmother's humble beginning in that canvas-covered wagon.
We might have gotten to the Missouri River, to Kansas City, and to Leavenworth by car, but we had really been conveyed by a train called Empire Express, my book about the building of the first Pacific railroad.
On July 4, 1999, I signed my name to the preface of Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad and closed an era in my life that had begun more than fourteen years before. When I started work on the book in ate spring of 1985, I was living with my wife in a five-room ground-floor apartment, with a tiny garden, in Brooklyn, New York. Mary and I had been together for five years and our household consisted of us and two cats, Fred and Ginger. By the time the research and writing was done, we had moved twice-first, to Shoreham, Vermont, where we fixed up a dilapidated, 140-year-old farmhouse and tended sheep, and then down Route 22A to Orwell, where we bought an equally old house that had once been the village's Methodist parsonage, a solid Greek Revival-style house with a lovely wraparound porch with trumpet vines. By then we were raising our two children, Mimi and David.
Despite our bucolic surroundings, I will admit that those intervening years were hard. During that time I went around the country for research, depended on the kindness of many strangers, wore out the interlibrary loan staff at the Middlebury College library, filled up a four-drawer filing cabinet with photocopied handwritten documents and official reports and a floor-to-ceiling bookcase with books, and wrote a 1,100-page manuscript, which translated to 800 book pages. A publisher's advance in 1985 stretched out pretty thin over thirteen years, on top of which was my wife's small salary and mine as a part-time writing instructor at Middlebury College. There were no grants, and as part-time faculty I was not eligible for paid leaves. Fortunately we had access to health insurance, for we did have periods of serious illnesses.
What sustained us through most of these hard times was the warm, bright light our children brought into our lives, and also the fact that pursuing such a project as Empire Express was the greatest gift I could be given as a writer and historian. The research covered three decades of tumultuous, absolutely pivotal American history; the greatest single construction project our nation ever faced; and an extraordinary cast of characters. No previous chronicler, in my opinion, had done this historical narrative justice. There were myths to be shattered, new information to be unearthed, new characters to finally be given their due, and-perhaps most important of all-connecting lines to be drawn between the central drama of the railroad and the larger, enveloping national context, between long-accepted isolated events that were actually integrally part of a whole. It may have been a challenge for our family to get to the end of each succeeding month over fourteen years, but I seldom sat down at my desk in the morning without a rising sense of excitement and curiosity about the people and their stories, and how they all fit together, and how the narrative was going to be built.
Back in November 1997, Mary was recovering from her last session of chemotherapy after a mastectomy, and I was at the college on a teaching day. An English Department colleague, Cates Baldridge, came up to me in the faculty lunchroom. "David," he told me, "I've got terrible news for you." Terrible news? I thought bleakly of the past six months. What could be more terrible? He continued: "I was watching the Charlie Rose show," he said, "and Charlie was interviewing Stephen Ambrose, and Charlie asked Stephen what was his next book, and Ambrose said, 'I'm going to do a book on the first transcontinental railroad.' "
Well, yes, that was terrible news, but not as bad as a cancer diagnosis.
Standing there in the faculty lunchroom, I had the most eerie cinematic moment. My surroundings melted away, and I was out somewhere on the Forty-Mile Desert in Nevada, pumping away on a railroad handcar, sweating like an animal, making slow progress but definitely making progress. Then there was a rumbling vibration I could feel through the pump handle of my handcar, and I looked around to see a great, gleaming, gold-plated leviathan, belching black smoke and white steam, thundering down the tracks and gaining on me every moment-the Ambrose Limited. I could even see his face on the front of the locomotive, like Thomas the Tank Engine only his was emphatically not a warm, happy face: it was cold, expressionless, predatory. The vision faded away and I was back in the lunchroom. I staggered back to my office and made some calls, thinking that thirteen years of work were about to be blown away.
Well, again, our luck held. Three of my most faithful book friends in the world, my agent, editor, and publisher, all of whom I've been close to for more than twenty-five years, concocted a formula, to which my college superiors instantly acquiesced. Viking bought me out of my teaching contract for thirteen months, and Middlebury College promised that my untenured job would resume when I finished. All of my book research was already done. More than a decade of following leads like a detective had filled a filing cabinet. Chronologically I was in the spring of 1867-two years to go in the narrative before the Golden Spike, and then the epilogue with all its railroad scandal. All I needed was a year to finish the narrative, a matter of connecting the dots. For the next thirteen months, I wrote seven days a week, all of it in my memory a glorious blur. Usually it's very enjoyable to live with one foot in the past and one in the present, but for expediency's sake I just mentally stepped back into the 1860s and stayed there, twenty-four hours a day. I drove the Golden Spike in early December 1998. I finished the epilogue on January 5, 1999, a beautiful, white winter Vermont day. After the long editorial period of winter and spring, I was freed to finish the preface on July 4, with the sound of snare and bass drums booming down on Main Street and the town green.
Empire Express was released with a ten-month lead on its indefatigably popular competitor, and on my own and my publisher's terms it did extremely well. As to my vision of being out on Nevada's Forty-Mile Desert, the leviathan may have caught up with me, but he didn't knock me off the tracks, at least not entirely, and I pumped myself a pretty good distance, or, as railroat-ers would say, made the grade.
After some of the excitement abated, I began to ask myself, "How can I repay my spouse for fourteen years of belief and support in this project? How can I reward my good children for not getting complexes because their dad always had a faraway look in his eyes, and was always tired, their entire lives?

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