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All the knowledge and adventure of the world is available to those who will read.

As much as I enjoy a good documentary or movie, nothing provides the depth of learning and experience as a good book. So I thought it would be useful to share what I have been reading lately.

Nothing Like it in the World

Stephen E. Ambrose

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This is the story of the men who built the transcontinental railroad connecting the east coast and the west coast of the United States from 1863-1869.

This is a fascinating book in the sense that these men accomplished something that had never been done and created an impact that can only be rivaled by the advent of intercontinental air travel. Previous to the construction of the intercontinental railroad travel from one coast to the other was an expensive and highly risky deal. Most of the risk was taken out and what took 6 months was reduced to 1 week. There were downsides though. The great buffalo herds were unwilling to cross the rails and as a result the herd was divided. It was the beginning of the end for the buffalo and the rails also made access to those killing buffalo for their hides easier.

The greatest impact was the expansion of trade from one coast to the next and also trade with Asia. The ability to ship products drove down the cost of resources which increased productivity and created new markets and products.

The Government, in order to facilitate this project created a system that rewarded not the construction of a quality railroad, but one that encouraged lower quality for faster construction. The rail was being built from both east and west by competing companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific.

Summit Tunnel - Central Pacific Railroad
The 1,659′ Summit Tunnel was built through solid granite over a 15 month period. The engineering was so good that the four faces, when finally meeting, were within inches of being perfectly matched up.

What I found most amazing was the engineering and construction efficiencies developed by those who build the rail. By the time of completion, with only manual labor, the CP set a record of 10 miles of rail construction in a single day.

The most disappointing part was the waste and fraud created by the intervention of the government and the incentives system it put in place that encouraged it. It turned out to be one of the first major instances of crony capitalism compared to the free market capitalism that created the Great Northern Railroad. A story for another day, the Great Northern Railroad operated free of government subsidies and facilitated the creation of new companies such as Weyerhauser. They opened new markets to Asia for coal, copper, lumber and grain. The Great Northern had a pay as you go philosophy and worked directly with individuals and Indian tribes to purchase land for right-of-way at market prices.

The greed and fraud that infested the Union Pacific and Central Pacific created massive wealth for a few men at the expense of taxpayers and workers, not unlike the government’s current green energy stimulus agenda of today. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.