Two legendary American writers set out to sever the ties between an arrogant railroad and a corrupt Congress.
THE GREAT AMERICAN RAILROAD WAR: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took On the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad By Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 St. Martin’s Press, 2012, $26.99.
By Steven Conn | If you’ve ever been stuck on a slow-moving, late-arriving Amtrak train, or conversely if you’ve ever zipped through Europe on dependably punctual high-speed trains and sighed at the comparison, it might be hard to remember that railroads were once a central fact of American life.
Between the Civil War and the first World War we were truly a railroad nation. By 1916, the American railroad network stretched for more than quarter of a million miles and it reached into virtually every corner of the continent. The construction of that network stimulated all sorts of related economic growth—coal, steel, and timber, for example—while at the same time making it possible to have a truly integrated national marketplace from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
As a consequence, railroads wielded extraordinary political influence and were despised by many Americans for it. The railroad was depicted in dozens of editorial cartoons as an octopus, with its tentacles reaching everywhere to squeeze farmers, manufacturers, and politicians.
Political intrigue, rather than economics, is the story that interests Washington Post writer and editor (and frequent Gazette contributor) Dennis Drabelle in The Great American Railroad War, a ripping tale of what happened in 1896 when the Central Pacific Railroad came to Washington looking for an enormous hand-out—to which it thought it was entitled and which it fully expected to get.
The quick outline of the story is this: the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific had been chartered by Congress to build the nation’s first transcontinental railroad system. The Union Pacific built its tracks moving westward and met the Central Pacific’s coming from the west in 1869. Drabelle spends his first three chapters recounting how the railroad got built, a feat that involved equal parts heroic engineering, slip-shod construction, and antagonistic labor relations.
It turns out that the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific didn’t build the railroad themselves. The federal government provided enormous subsidies—in the form of land-grants and generous loans—to finance the construction. Even more galling, much of that public money from government subsidies was diverted onto sidings that led directly into the private pockets of the railroad’s executives.
Those loans came due in 1896, some three decades after the completion of the project, and as that reckoning approached, Collis Huntington, the only surviving member of the group of four who founded the Central Pacific, went to Washington, with Congressmen already in his pay, to lobby for an extension of the debt or, even better, to have it eliminated altogether.
By that time, the Central Pacific and its leaders—through their exquisite combination of arrogance and corruption—had made lots of enemies, but none more powerful than newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. And Hearst was determined to act. He hired one of the great journalists of the age, Ambrose Bierce, and sent him to Washington right behind Huntington. Thus began one of the great journalistic crusades of American history.
Bierce was not only a tireless and talented reporter; he possessed one of the most withering wits in the history of American letters. He could be as funny as Mark Twain but was often meaner, and to be on the receiving end of one of Bierce’s assaults was not an experience from which many recovered quickly.
As Huntington deployed his lobbyists and his bribes, Bierce laid siege to him. His attacks were so thorough and so relentless that Congressmen began to seek him out for more information during the debate over the loan bill. Huntington came to Washington on what he thought would be a perfunctory trip to buy a piece of legislation; after Bierce was finished with him, he went back to California empty-handed.
The series of articles that Bierce wrote about the railroad were the highpoint of his career. He also attempted to write fiction, without much success. This story of the Central Pacific did, however, inspire one great piece of fiction, and in The Great American Railroad War Drabelle pairs Bierce with the novelist Frank Norris, author of The Octopus.
Norris, who had already established himself as a writer, plotted that The Octopus would be the first in a sweeping trilogy about railroads, farmers, and wheat. He aspired to be the American Zola, shining a cold light on the gritty realities of American life. He finished the second volume—The Pit—but did not live long enough to complete the third.
In the end The Great American Railroad War is a story about two storytellers, though Bierce is clearly at the heart of this book and Drabelle draws him more vividly. Frank Norris’s reputation isn’t what it once was, and his sprawling novels don’t grip readers the way they used to, while the definitions in Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary are still bitingly funny: “corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”
Drabelle believes that Bierce’s crusade against Huntington belongs alongside Woodward’s and Bernstein’s pursuit of the Watergate story as a high-water mark in the annals of American journalism. Indeed, The Great American Railroad War is infused with the sadness of a journalist feeling dispirited about the current state of his profession.
Likewise, Drabelle wants to draw a parallel between the Central Pacific’s shenanigans and the recent corporate malfeasance and “recrudescence of Social Darwinism,” and he wonders why today our response— to weaken the power of government to regulate corporations still further and tax the wealthiest even less—is exactly the opposite of what it was at the turn of the 20th century.
The Great American Railroad War is a terrific story, well-told and filled with outsized characters, but it also serves as a cautionary tale. Halfway through, Drabelle quotes the philosopher Hannah Arendt: “Americans knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business.” That is the moral of the story Drabelle tells, but he offers it to us wondering if it is still true.
Steven Conn Gr’94 is professor of history at Ohio State University and the editor of To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government.