Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Business reporter Hiltzik (Big Science) examines the rise and fall of the American railroad industry in this colorful, wide-ranging account. Through judicious use of primary and secondary sources, Hiltzik chronicles the industry's profound impacts on labor relations, monopoly law, and the stock market in post--Civil War America. The complex history is made accessible through the stories of surveyors, engineers, and laborers, as well as "the business leaders whose individual personalities, ambitions, determination, and morals commanded the others' fates." Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Edward Harriman, and J. Pierpoint Morgan come into sharp focus as Hiltzik documents their efforts to transform isolated, short routes to random locations into an integrated transportation network for both passengers and freight. The narrative also features labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, a railway painter and fireman charged with conspiracy for his role in the 1894 Pullman strike, and Grover Cleveland's attorney general, Richard Olney, who was on a railroad's payroll even as he headed the Department of Justice. Hiltzik writes with verve, providing meaningful insights into the shocking inequalities of the Gilded Age. Business history buffs will be enthralled by this character-driven account. Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. (May)
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Review by Library Journal Review
Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times journalist Hiltzik chronicles the men who controlled the colossal railroad organizations that transformed the United States during the 19th century. He describes them variously as visionaries, speculators, bankers, and manipulators. Besides their personalities, Hiltzik focuses on the themes of railroad finance and labor strife. He opens with the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who, despite a brush with death in an 1833 train wreck, brought his business acumen and obstinate nature to making railroads into lucrative enterprises. The author explains financier J.P. Morgan's later efforts to transform unprofitable competitive lines into a cooperative and thriving industry. Hiltzik includes Jay Cooke's financial collapse; George Pullman's miserliness to his workers; and the transgressions of Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and Jim Fisk. He recounts the dynamic E.H. Harriman's empire building and his war over the Northern Pacific with Morgan and James J. Hill, which both caused the financial panic of 1901 and ushered in government scrutiny and regulation under President Theodore Roosevelt. VERDICT Lively storytelling and accessible writing makes Hiltzik's work suitable for all types of readers interested in railroad history.--Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA
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Review by Kirkus Book Review
A vigorously told history of the transcontinental railroad barons and the commercial and transportation empires they forged. Los Angeles Times columnist and reporter Hiltzik opens with a westward-bound Scotsman named Robert Louis Stevenson, not yet famous for his adventure tales, who took careful note of the emigrants aboard an early Union Pacific line and the contempt with which the railroad workers treated them. The great empire-builders among the railroad entrepreneurs--Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and J. Pierpont Morgan among them--"formed a continuum that for more than four decades…transformed America's railroads from a patchwork of short lines waging constant self-destructive war with one another into a titanic enterprise that could justly be considered America's first big business." They also helped transform the U.S. into a continent-spanning, and then international, power. Few were models of ethical capitalism; as Hiltzik notes, Gould in particular was "a master of financial chicanery," but at least he was an unostentatious and retiring sort, whereas others were flagrant in buying judges and politicians. The worse the capitalists became, the greater the strength of labor activism arrayed against them. However, as the author observes, "the desire to counter the policies of the tycoons was hamstrung by the absence of instruments to do so"--until the crusading labor leader Eugene V. Debs came along. No matter, for the very White House was in the railroad owners' pockets--the attorney general in Grover Cleveland's Cabinet, who spent years as an executive with different railroad corporations, was paid more on the side by them than in salary by the federal treasury--until Theodore Roosevelt began his vigorous work on antitrust reforms. The story will be well known to readers versed in late-19th-century American history, but the rest will benefit from Hiltzik's clear exposition of key episodes and players. Students of the Gilded Age and its unraveling will value this survey. (27 b/w photos; 6 maps) Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.