Saturday, December 24, 2011

Five Books to Read: #1 - Nothing Like It in the World

After completing my own book (GetItHere), I thought it worthwhile to discuss books that shaped my mindset and style, those books that meant enough to me to warrant multiple readings and quiet reflection. One of those five books (all of which will be discussed in this blog but in no particular order) is detailed below...


There are noteworthy decades in our county's history when great things occurred: the 1770s, the 1800s, the 1930s. Few have defined our nation more than the 1860s. The entire world watched as the United States spent four of the bloodiest years in history fighting for its future. It was horrific and fascinating, and the countries of the world watched to see how the globe would be shaped. Warfare blossomed into the modern era as weapons and strategies evolved. Our nation came out of the war stronger and with a solid identity, and the world anxiously waited to see how we would put our mark back on the planet after so much internal strife. Were we a warring nation on the hunt for new enemies? What should they expect?

The answer came in the guise of a road, a special road of gravel and iron. Railroads were nothing new to the world, the system having thought to have been perfected by Europeans decades earlier. The Civil War showed the importance of the rails, though. Where we were once tied to waterways that offered trade and transport, we now were anchored to the Iron Horse.

But, where the Europeans came up short was their vision of the possibilities. In 1863, while the war still raged on, Abraham Lincoln signed the authorization of a railroad to stretch from coast-to-coast, a transcontinental railroad that would connect Sacramento with Omaha and turn a 6-month journey by carriage into a 6-day journey by train.

Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is the compelling story of key participants in the endeavor from both sides, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, as they churn toward each other on the crest of a wave of metal. As he does in all his historical novels, Ambrose opens the door on a fascinating time period in all its grim detail. The keys to the story are the characters, though, and all but the most learned of scholars will be unsure of the fates of those involved. Visionaries key to the construction of the railroad such as Grenville Dodge and Theodore Judah are detailed in a way that allows you to root for them against the blatantly corrupt methods practiced by the businessmen of the era.

For those that are interested in the time period or the construction of the railroad, the book goes into great detail on the people and techniques of the time. Hardships are extreme, successes rare. The poorly treated Chinese in the west fight their way through walls of rock in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the east, hordes of union and confederate soldiers, fresh from the battlegrounds of Virginia, breed hate and discontent as they lay rails and pour grade next to each other along the open ground in the Midwest. The technical achievement is unrivaled, but the biggest takeaway from the book is leadership, the benefits to great and the disasters due to a lack.

The lessons to be gained are countless. Modern students of leadership can learn the evolution of leadership from 150 years ago to now. The aspects that defined the day are markedly different than those currently utilized, for numerous reasons, and each can be a teaching opportunity. Examples of the dangers of naivete rear their heads, most notably in the story of Judah, a brilliant engineer that found himself far out of his element when dealing with the Big Four backers of the Central Pacific Railroad, a group including Leland Stanford of university acclaim.

How do you convey your vision to others?
How do you ensure that your vision holds when others become involved?
How do you persevere when setbacks occur each day, any one of which would be proper justification for abandoning the task?

It's a testament to the men of the day and the spirit of a nation that such a creation was begun during the darkest times of our country, only to be joined by the hardened men of both sides who came together to complete a world wonder. By 1869, the two railroad groups were laying track alongside each other as politicians debated where to lay the connecting spike. One hundred years before the world would sit together and watch Americans land on the moon, they were running to stores for newspapers detailing the joining of two sides of a nation. It was THAT big a deal.

And, Stephen Ambrose does an amazing job of making sure the reader is there for every bit of it.

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