The Golden Spike Ceremony, where the western railroad met the eastern line. No Chinese workers were allowed in the commemorative photo.
It's impossible to underestimate the way railroads changed the world. For thousands of years people had traveled the same way--by foot, on an animal, in a cart pulled by an animal and on the water. Transportation in 1800 A.D. was little different than transportation in 800 B.C. But when railroads and trains began to cross the lands of the world, everything changed--people and goods could be transported more quickly and in larger quantities than they had before. Routes that had been considered too long or impractical were now viable. People could get to each other more quickly, communication sped up with mail trains, and new material became available. Countries where cities were separated by vast swaths of empty land were now connected. As trains became more common, prices dropped, and people who had never been able to afford to travel before, even for day long holidays, suddenly could. Trains changed time; before them, if you were traveling to visit someone you would only be able to estimate how long it would take you to get there, with your speed depending on your horses, the weather, the condition of the roads during that season. Trains, though, ran on schedules. They left at specific times and arrived at exact times. Just as factories were getting people used to working by the clock rather than the sun, trains were speeding up lives and businesses. It was now possible to plan in a way like never before.
All of the above has been written many times before, and written much better than I have. But I never stop marvelling when I think about it. Imagine what it would have been like to have been born in the early 1800s and live into the 1880s or '90s. The world at the end of your life would have been barely recognizable from the one of your childhood. I like to think about these kinds of things.
This is a lengthy introduction to a very short book (and this will be an extremely short write up. Really. I swear this time). Richard Rayner's The Associates is not about the inventors of the locomotive, or the people who built the transcontinental railroad, or the people who rode it. It is about the group of four California businessmen who made the deals to have it built, making themselves millionaires in the process. With the exception of Leland Stanford (as in founder of the university), these men--Mark Hopkins, Charlie Crocker, and Collis Huntington--are rarely spoken of today, but you could make an argument for their being amongst the most important figures in 19th century American history (and surely some clever person would be able to argue that they are not). At the very least, you can say that Huntington has been sadly underrated as one of the supreme Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.