As a rule, I try to avoid using the term "coffee table book" when describing a book I am reviewing. To me, this is a pejorative term denoting a common place appendage to the living room that lies mostly unnoticed and almost always unread. "Railroad 1869," by Eugene Arundel Miller has the look and feel of a coffee table book, but that's where the similarities end. Open the covers of this delightful book and you'll find yourself spending hours poring over fascinating anecdotes and historical photographs. I guarantee it!
Those of us who stayed awake during history classes probably remember that it was not until the transcontinental railroad was built that America's western expansion truly got under way. Miller's book describes in detail the Union Pacific railroad's contribution to this monumental task. The first spike was driven by Union Pacific in Omaha, Nebraska on December 2, 1863. Five-and-a-half years and 1094 miles later, its tracks were secured to those built by the Central Pacific railroad with a golden spike at Promontory, Utah.
The laying of Union Pacific tracks was a monumental accomplishment involving the efforts of thousands of surveyors, graders, and track layers, plus those who transported railroad ties and other supplies to the crews. During their work, the track workers faced dangers from all sides. There were Indian raids; sudden and violent storms; snakes and other poisonous creatures; industrial accidents; floods; and some of the most forbidding terrain imaginable for such an undertaking.
While the stories of the track workers are interesting in themselves, there is another cast of characters who provide color and richness to the book. These are the hangers-on who followed the workers throughout their journey hoping to profit from the workers vices and excesses; especially during the winter months when they were unable to work. They were a seedy and lawless lot, that included gamblers, card sharks, swindlers, thieves, murderers and of course, the ubiquitous derringer packing women of pleasure, euphemistically call "soiled doves."
Miller writes his prose with the careful eye of a historian, relying at times on diary entries written by those that worked on the crews. That's what makes the book so readable. But if his text is the cake, the icing is the photographs; usually at least one per page. Many were taken by his maternal grandfather, Arundel C. Hull as well as by notable western photographer William H Jackson and Civil War photographer Andrew J. Russell. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words; and the sight of "Big Ned," "Con" Wagner, and "Ace" Moore dangling lifelessly from a pole speaks volumes about the attitude of the good citizens of Laramie toward some of the more undesirable residents of their fair city!
"Railroad 1869" by Eugene Arundel Miller is a great read, especially for those who love history and are fascinated by trains; and it is suitable reading for both young and old. I'm pretty sure that if you pick it up and start reading it, it will be a long time before you put it back on the coffee table; if ever!