The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad

  • Dennis Drabelle
  • St. Martin’s Press
  • 306 pp.

A richly textured historic account reverberates with lessons about the public fallout of corporate greed and the power of the pen.

Reviewed by James McGrath Morris

Dennis Drabelle’s The Great American Railroad War with its long subtitle, How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad, is a strikingly unusual book for these times, one might even say anachronistic. First, it’s hard to succinctly summarize, in an era when every book is supposed to be reducible to a sound bite. Second, it’s actually four, maybe five tales, each suitable alone for an entire book, when the mantra of publishers is a devotion to the single tale or message. Third, its two main protagonists never meet. Last, and most moving to those of us devoted to writing, it is a paean to the power of words. When done with the book, the reader leaves educated about one of the most significant examples of the power of journalism and the creation of one the more important but forgotten American novels.

The latter is not a surprise. Drabelle is a longtime book critic for The Washington Post “Book World” and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for excellence in reviewing. The Great American Railroad War permits Drabelle to make use of his skills as a critic plus his lesser-known legal abilities as a former attorney for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The book’s initial focus, its villain if you wish, is the notorious Central Pacific Railroad. Created by four of the era’s better-known robber barons, the Central Pacific was sanctioned by Congress, financed with federal construction loans and built by Chinese labor. In 1869, when the “Golden Spike” connected the new line with the East at Promontory, Utah, it became possible to transport people and goods across the nation in days by train rather than months by sea or wagon trains.

The tale of this technological and business success is the subject of the first third of the book. Drabelle’s recounting of the collusion — the government giveaway of land, issuance of favorable loans, inspectors who could find nothing wrong in the shoddy construction techniques and outright bribery — make any recent shady government-business dealings (think Haliburton or Solyndra) seem pure as snow. The resulting steel leviathan wrung immense profits transporting all forms of commerce, from consumer goods to raw materials, and its resulting economic strangulation inspired a cartoonist to represent the railroad as a giant octopus squeezing the life out of business enterprises.

However, this part of the tale, amply covered by other authors, is here only an hors d’oeuvre. Drabelle’s real intent is to tell the story of how two talented 19th-century writers, Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris, came separately to making the Central Pacific the subject of their pens. He succeeds admirably. The Great American Railroad War provides entertaining mini portraits of Bierce and Norris, amply and judiciously quotes from their works, and dissects their work in the manner of a literary professor of the highest order.

The confrontation between the two writers, who never met each other, with the Central Pacific actually came decades after its creation and subjugation of commerce, when the surviving member of the quartet of railroad financiers sought to persuade Congress (a polite euphemism for the corrupt style of 19th-century corporate lobbying) to grant a favorable refinancing of the already give-away-the-store terms of the construction loans.

To the rescue of the republic’s virtue came Ambrose Bierce. Working on the payroll of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Bierce filed more than 60 articles dramatically pulling back the curtain on the secret refinancing plan, calling on what Drabelle described as “his singular talent for verbal assault.” One of the observers, whom Drabelle’s research uncovered, put it better: “Bierce ‘has to write with a specially prepared pencil because pens become red hot and ink boils,’ said an editor of the Washington Star.” In the end, the bill was defeated.

Several years later, Frank Norris picked up the story. With aspirations of becoming America’s Émile Zola, Norris set out to write a trilogy tracing the passage of grain from the field to the table. Not surprisingly, he selected the title The Octopus for his first volume. This became the better remembered of the two volumes Norris would eventually write. And for good reason. It was a masterpiece. “Norris was an artist, not a polemicist,” according to Drabelle,” and to write him off as merely a muckraker with imagination is to do The Octopus an injustice.”

Drabelle’s public rediscovery of The Octopus may be his book’s most significant contribution. “The Octopus,” writes Drabelle, “belongs in the select company of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: novels that have exerted a profound influence on American politics.” I would go even further and suggest that Norris’s book is an industrial epic on the scale and quality of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

At the end of Drabelle’s riveting account of nefarious dealings, mini biographies and literary analysis, he offers a gem that alone is worth the cover price. The unintended legacy of the  muckraking wordsmithing by Bierce and Norris is a longstanding poisoning of the body politic.

More than a century later, contends Drabelle, the legacy of the railroad war, as well as that of other 19th-century monopolists, is a widespread distrust of representative government that today fuels a movement to weaken it.

Note to readers: The ethics of book reviewing frowns on writing about a work by an acquaintance or, even worse, a friend. The author of this book falls in the latter category. I agreed to review it on one condition: If it were not good, I would not write a word.

James McGrath Morris is the author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power.

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