The Central Pacific Railroad, America’s first Transcontinental Railroad, revolutionized the way Americans traveled, communicated and did business. But it was also a hotbed of corruption and greed. A new book tells the story of two American writers who took on the Central Pacific with the power of the pen. Journalist Ambrose Bierce, nicknamed “Bitter Bierce,” exposed the railroad’s corruption using satire and wit. And Frank Norris, a novelist, wrote of the warring relationship between California wheat farmers and the railroad trust. Together, they revealed the dark side of this American powerhouse. Diane talks with the author about this nineteenth century monopoly and two writers who challenged it.


  • Dennis Drabelle Author and contributing editor and mysteries editor for The Washington Post Book World.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “The Great American Railroad War” by Dennis Drabelle. Copyright 2012 by Dennis Drabelle. Reprinted here by permission of St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The Central Pacific Railroad built in the 1860s transformed the American West. But its construction was built on corruption and bribery. A new book tells the story of two American writers, Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris, who exposed the dark side of this American corporation.

  • 11:07:19

    MS. DIANE REHMDennis Drabelle, author of "The Great American Railroad War," joins me in the studio to talk about this 19th century monopoly and the power of journalism. I do look forward to hearing your questions and comments. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, sir, it's good to have you here.

  • 11:07:52

    MR. DENNIS DRABELLEIt's good to be here, Diane.

  • 11:07:54

    REHMThank you. You know, we fairly recently did a program on the construction of the transcontinental railroad, but you have chosen to focus on these two American writers who reported on what was going on. Tell us why.

  • 11:08:20

    DRABELLEWell, I've always been a fan of Ambrose Bierce. Ever since in high school, I read his wonderful story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and I'm not alone in loving it. Stephen Crane said about it, this story has everything, there's no greater story. And I think that's almost still true among American stories.

  • 11:08:39

    DRABELLEAnd I read biographies of Bierce and discovered that he had come to Washington and stayed here for several months to fight the Central Pacific Railroad, which wanted a huge favor from Congress, namely the forgiving of the debt they had incurred in building the railroad back in the 1860s.

  • 11:08:57

    DRABELLEAnd then, I realized that Frank Norris had also taken the railroad to task in a thinly-disguised version that appears in his great epic novel "The Octopus." And I thought, well, here are two great American writers, both represented in the Library of America. Let's do a book about this and show how they took on the railroad.

  • 11:09:16

    REHMTake us back to the 1860s. What was going on then and how did this notion of pushing for this transcontinental railroad come about?

  • 11:09:31

    DRABELLEWell, it actually really begins in the 1850s after California became a state. There, you had the State of California separated from the rest of the union by thousands of miles and later some other states joined it. But there was this huge gap and everybody got the idea that we had to use the latest transportation technology, the railroad, to tie the country together.

  • 11:09:55

    DRABELLEAnd there was kind of a squabble for many years as to whether they should take a southern route, which, of course, the southern states wanted or a northern route and then the Civil War pretty much put an end to the debate. The southern states took themselves out of the debate by leaving the union and then the way was open for the route to have a northern direction and the Union Pacific built west from Omaha, while the Central Pacific built east from Sacramento and the two joined in 1869 in Utah.

  • 11:10:27

    REHMSo talk about the organizers of the Central Pacific, you talk specifically about Theodore Judah.

  • 11:10:38

    DRABELLETheodore Judah was a very bright engineer who had made a name for himself in New York State and came out west and decided that he would be the one to make this happen, make this route occur. The big difficulty was the Sierra Nevada is a huge barrier to building a railroad cross-country.

  • 11:10:58

    DRABELLEAnd especially because it, most places you might want to cross, there are two ridges to cross. You go up over one and you have to go down and go up over another one.

  • 11:11:08

    DRABELLEJudah kind of did some detective work and talked to the local people and they gave him a route that would actually go only once over the Sierra. And armed with that, he really had a practical way to get this railroad built. The big four, as they became known, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford, all of whom by the way are so influential that I think you can probably see their names almost anywhere out west.

  • 11:11:35

    DRABELLEStanford was the founder of Stanford University. Crocker, there are Crocker banks all over the west. Huntington wasn't really the one who donated the money, but the Huntington Gardens and Library in San Marino, California, have his name on them. It was through his nephew and heir that that actually happened.

  • 11:11:53

    DRABELLEAnd Hopkins, there's the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco on Nob Hill where he used to live.

  • 11:11:58


  • 11:11:59

    DRABELLESo they all came out west for the gold rush, but they quickly realized that the best way to get rich, the safest way to get rich, wasn't by prospecting, it was by selling goods to the prospectors. They all went into business in Sacramento, became friends, became stalwarts of the Republican Party. And when they heard a presentation by Judah, they thought, this is the way to go. We can get rich by doing this and also do a service for the country.

  • 11:12:24

    REHMBut doing a service for the country certainly required a fair amount of money. How was it paid for?

  • 11:12:34

    DRABELLEBasically, it was paid for by the taxpayer. The Congress was so interested in getting this done that they agreed to subsidize the building of the railroad through two means. One was land, which was pretty traditional, you would give land to the railroads wherever they were so they could basically seed the ground with farms and people that would use the railroads and make them profitable.

  • 11:12:55

    DRABELLEThe other was a little unusual. It was money, but it took the form of bonds and basically the railroad got to sell these bonds as its own, but the United States stood behind them in case anything happened.

  • 11:13:07

    REHMI see.

  • 11:13:07

    DRABELLEAnd that comes into play a little bit later. We'll come back to that, I think. It was a little difficult to understand then and it is now still.

  • 11:13:15

    REHMAnd how did they go about hiring people to lay the tracks?

  • 11:13:22

    DRABELLEThey had some trouble with that. It was very hard work and they didn't want to pay a whole lot and plus they kept hiring people who would drift away from the railroad to go to the Comstock Lode in Nevada, which was a big silver rush where they wanted to play prospector themselves and make a fortune.

  • 11:13:39

    DRABELLESo the workers would work on the railroad for a while, get a little grubstake and just leave and go prospect. Finally, they hit upon the solution which was resisted at first by some of the big four, of hiring Chinese laborers and they really were excellent laborers and had even better hygiene than the American workers and really made the railroad work.

  • 11:14:01

    REHMWhere had they been based originally, the Chinese who they hired?

  • 11:14:07

    DRABELLESome in San Francisco, but many of them actually came from China. The big four took out ads in Chinese papers and recruited them there and had them come on over.

  • 11:14:17

    REHMSo they hired them at extraordinarily low wages?

  • 11:14:23

    DRABELLERight, right. They would work for less than American workers would work for and that caused some friction, but they were such good workers that finally it just all worked out.

  • 11:14:32

    REHMThen you begin to talk about the rampant corruption that took place. What kind of corruption are you talking about?

  • 11:14:42

    DRABELLEWell, there are really two forms, one was the corruption in the actual building of the railroad and the main thing there was -- and this became a fairly common ploy in the building of the West. The big four set up a construction company and channeled all of their construction business to that company.

  • 11:15:00

    DRABELLEBut it was actually them. They were the main stockholders of that company and they could just give themselves big, fat dividends while padding costs and that was how they got rich. They made fortunes of up to $20 million apiece, which was a staggering amount of money then.

  • 11:15:17

    REHMAnd the second form?

  • 11:15:18

    DRABELLEThe second form was once they got the railroad built and had a monopoly in California and elsewhere in the West, they just kept bribing state legislatures. They would do the same with regulatory bodies created to police them and they became notorious for doing that.

  • 11:15:34

    REHMDo you find yourself or did you find yourself wondering, as you were writing this book, whether there was any analogy to anything going on today?

  • 11:15:50

    DRABELLEWell, I suppose the big analogy would be the way they use big money to put a stranglehold on the state, as I mentioned, and how they really corrupted the body politic, I think. And I think a lot of people today, and I'm of them, think that big money has the ability to do the same in our elections today.

  • 11:16:10

    DRABELLEIt isn't quite maybe as blatant as the bribery, but simply the costliness of running for election, of putting on campaigns for initiatives, that sort of thing is somewhat similar to what happened back in California in the 1860s and the years afterwards.

  • 11:16:26

    REHMDennis Drabelle, his new book is titled "The Great American Railroad War." If you'd like to join us, call 800-433-8850. It's the story of how Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris took on the notorious Central Pacific Railroad. Send us your email to Join us on Facebook or Twitter.

  • 11:17:01

    REHMTalk about Ambrose Bierce and who he was. I know he was born in Ohio. He moved to Indiana. He grew up on a farm, one of 13 children.

  • 11:17:17

    DRABELLERight, and it was a humble background. But the one saving grace, as far as he was concerned, was that his father had an excellent library which he was given the run of. And later, an uncle similarly had an even larger library. So he became a bookish, very well-read child and grew up to be a very well-read man.

  • 11:17:38

    DRABELLEHe went to a military academy and just about the time he finished up with that, the Civil War broke out and he enlisted right away with the Indiana Volunteers. He had a pretty distinguished Civil War. He became a cartographer and was very good at that, became an aide to a general. But he expected -- you know, he was wounded badly at the Battle of -- I think it was Chickamauga and he described his head as being broken open like a walnut.

  • 11:18:05

    DRABELLEHe recovered, but not really enough to have much of a war after that and the war was almost over anyway. He expected to be commissioned a regular officer after the war ended, but was not. They were really cutting back on the army. So he fetched up in San Francisco and began to write.

  • 11:18:22

    REHMAnd the book we're talking about, "The Great American Railroad War," Dennis Drabelle is the writer and author. Do join us after a short break.

  • 11:20:04

    REHMAnd if you just joined us, Dennis Drabelle is with me. He's an author, mysteries editor for the Washington Post Book World. His new book is titled, "The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took On The Notorious Central Pacific Railroad." You were, just before the break, outlining Ambrose Bierce's early life, his service in the Civil War, which clearly made a huge difference in his life. What about Frank Norris? Where did he come from?

  • 11:20:51

    DRABELLEHe came from the Midwest and from completely different background. His father had made a small fortune in real estate and Frank was born almost with a silver spoon in his mouth. He went to school with the Armors in Chicago and the Palmers, the department store people. But everybody who knew him and his biographers, too, agree that he just seems to be one of the nicest guys that's ever lived.

  • 11:21:15

    DRABELLEHe just seemed to kind of radiate a nice sense of joy and the joy of living and made everybody feel good around him. So he probably was a fun person to write about for that reason. But he became a writer, basically in his own bootstraps. His father didn't want that to happen at all. He wanted him to go into business like himself. Frank rebelled. He went to college in two places -- University of California Berkeley and Harvard.

  • 11:21:42

    DRABELLEHe didn't get his degree in either one because he was so single-minded about writing. He simply jumped around, taking courses he thought would help him do that. And first became a reporter, then became an editor in McClure's magazine and kind of had a checkered career but began to publish novels.

  • 11:21:59

    REHMHow did he and Ambrose Bierce first begin to focus on the railroad?

  • 11:22:07

    DRABELLEWell, Bierce had taken pot shots at the railroad all through the '80s.

  • 11:22:11


  • 11:22:12

    DRABELLEBecause it was pretty open and vulgar about its corruption of public official. It really didn't even try to hide them. There wasn't much in the way of public relations back in that era and the railroad simply swaggered around and didn't try to hide its tracks. And although Bierce was a very conservative man who had a natural sympathy with businessmen, he hated the dishonesty and bullying of the railroad.

  • 11:22:38

    DRABELLESo he began to take pot shots in his column for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. And finally in 1896, and now we go back to these bonds, as I was talking about, they had to be paid back 30 years after they were given to the railroad with interest. This, by 1896, when the bonds were starting to fall due, amounted to $75 million. The railroad, especially Stanford, thought that they should just forgiving this because they have performed such a service for the United States.

  • 11:23:07

    DRABELLEBut that was the deal, that was the deal they signed up for. Plus, as I mentioned, they'd enriched themselves to a fare-thee-well. So, Hearst -- and then I should point out, I think I mentioned earlier, the big four were Republicans, Hearst was a Democrat. So that's, you know, he certainly has interest here in tearing them down, if you will. He came to Bierce in 1896 when the railroad actually gotten the bill introduced to forgive that debt in Washington and said, how would you like to go to Washington and fight the railroad...

  • 11:23:36

    REHMWord war.

  • 11:23:36

    DRABELLEAnd Bierce basically said, boss, I'm on the way.

  • 11:23:39

    REHMYeah. And how did he go about doing that when he got to Washington?

  • 11:23:47

    DRABELLEWell, Hearst gave him a small, I call it a SWAT team of a couple of other reporters, probably an accountant and a secretary. Plus, he loaned a couple of cartoonists from his other paper, which was the New York Journal American. And Bierce took up headquarters in a hotel in downtown Washington near the White House. But he arrived at kind of a disadvantage because the railroad had something like 25 lobbyists. They knew these issues inside and out.

  • 11:24:14

    DRABELLEBierce had to hurry up and kind of get going. But he got a lucky break. The railroad got the Washington Post. And here I have to say, this is the Washington Post of 125 years ago and about four degrees of separation in the ownership. But he got them to publish a telegram from 25 or 30 bigwigs in California saying we're all in favor of the railroad bill, please enact it. And...

  • 11:24:40

    REHMForgiving the debt.

  • 11:24:41

    DRABELLEForgiving the debt, exactly. Well, Bierce and the rest of the Examiner people began to snoop around and found out that three or four of the signers had not only not signed the telegram, they had never heard of it and their views were quite the contrary.

  • 11:24:55

    REHMSo were they actual forgeries?

  • 11:24:59

    DRABELLEIt wasn't so much a forgery as I guess they just assumed these people wouldn't, you know, being business types or mucky mucks will do it. So, at that point, in effect, the big four or Huntington really was the only one left alive. The other three had died by '96.

  • 11:25:16

    REHMI see.

  • 11:25:16

    DRABELLEHuntington, really, just gave Bierce a great early victory. He kept harping on this disparity, on this fraud, and for days. And in the meantime, he was able to kind of get up to speed on what the issues were and how to attack them.

  • 11:25:31

    REHMAnd how does Frank Norris get into the picture?

  • 11:25:35

    DRABELLEFrank Norris comes along a little bit later, although he was living in San Francisco at the time, 1896. And he undoubtedly read Bierce's articles as they appeared. I forgot to mention, not only were the articles appearing in the Examiner and the Journal American in New York, Hearst funded a special edition of the paper, of the Examiner in Washington. A limited printing that was spread all over Capitol Hill so they would know what was going on and could read for themselves, because that was one of the big problems, too.

  • 11:26:06

    DRABELLEThis issue was 3,000 miles away and 30 years in the past. And it was hard to get Congress to focus on it unless you could make it fun and irresistible to read about, which is what Bierce did with his incredible talent for wit and invective.

  • 11:26:20

    REHMBut how did he earn the nickname Bitter Bierce?

  • 11:26:26

    DRABELLEHe simply didn't hold back when it was time to go after somebody. He used words that we would find almost shocking today, even in the age when, you know, we're not shocked by much at all. I think today we would pretty much want the columns Bierce wrote to be labeled analysis or commentary or something like that rather than just presented as news stories, which is how they were. Shall I read you a little...

  • 11:26:51

    REHMPlease do.

  • 11:26:51

    DRABELLE...excerpt from the sort of thing Bierce did? This comes after -- about midway through the crisis which was about a five-month long period after Huntington has testified before the Senate Pacific Railroad Committee. "The spectacle of this old man standing on the brink of eternity, its pockets loaded with the dishonest gold which he knows neither how to enjoy nor to whom to bequeath. Swearing in is the fruit of wholesome labor and homely thrift and beseeching an opportunity the multiply the store was one of the most pitiable it has been luck to observe."

  • 11:27:31

    DRABELLE"He knows himself an out-mate of every penal institution in the world. He deserves to hang from every branch of every tree, of every state and territory penetrated by his railroads with the sole exception of Nevada, which has no trees. Yet this notorious old man stood there before a committee of the highest legislative body of his country and made oath that he was an honest man and unselfish citizen."

  • 11:27:58

    REHMWow. I mean, how could you not read that and be drawn in? What were the reactions of people on Capitol Hill to that kind of writing?

  • 11:28:11

    DRABELLEThey began to take notice. They began to listen to Bierce. He would come around and try to talk to them and they would talk back whereas before they probably weren't willing to give them the time of day. And they begin to be a little bit troubled by it. And he just kept at it and every time a new development would occur, Bierce would pounce on. It was just kind relentless that he wrote 60 articles. I mean, long pieces during this five-month period and just was very dogged about it.

  • 11:28:41

    REHMNow, how did his style differ from that of Frank Norris? Were they sort of picking on the same issues? Were they writing coming at this in totally different ways?

  • 11:28:58

    DRABELLEFairly different ways. Norris, of course, was a novelist. So he wasn't bound by the literal facts of history. And in fact, he decided to make the climax of his novel -- and by the way the novel was part of a trilogy that he planned to write about wheat. He was very influenced by the French Emil Zola who had this kind of epic scope and who treated people as almost little pawns in the jaws of fate.

  • 11:29:24

    DRABELLEBut Norris didn't live to write all three volumes. He wrote "The Octopus," which is by far the best of the two. There was a second volume -- and "The Octopus" was the one in which we just grown and put into the stream of commerce in California. The second novel, which he did write and finish, was called "The Pit" and that takes place in Chicago where the wheat goes to be traded.

  • 11:29:44

    DRABELLEThe third volume was to the called "The Wolf." And that take place in Europe where a famine is occurring and American wheat comes to save everyone. But Norris unfortunately died before he could write that. But to get back to your question, he was much more loose about things and he made the climax of "The Octopus" a shoot out on railroad land, which took place in 1880, which was, you know, 15 or 16 years before Bierce's concern. So he went back in history to reap some historical material.

  • 11:30:17

    REHMDid the two ever meet?

  • 11:30:21

    DRABELLEThey did not, at least as far as we know. But because we know that Norris read the articles that Bierce wrote the first time and went back to the library in the -- I think it was about 1898 when he began to work on "The Octopus" to refresh himself, there certainly is a connection between the two that really won. I almost want to call them a tag team.

  • 11:30:41

    REHMYeah, yeah. But writing in extraordinarily different ways.

  • 11:30:47


  • 11:30:48

    REHMAll right, we're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Dumbarton, NH. Good morning, Margaret, you're on the air.

  • 11:31:01

    MARGARETHi. I'm glad finally to be able to get you.

  • 11:31:04

    REHMI'm so glad to have you.

  • 11:31:07

    MARGARETI'm calling because my grandfather, I believe, referred to his Uncle Cyrus who I believe was Collis P. Huntington's private secretary. My grandfather was born in 1876. So Uncle Cyrus would have been another gen -- his mother's cousin or brother. And I never knew much about it except I knew that Collis P. Huntington came from the Norwich area because Samuel Huntington is there.

  • 11:31:37

    MARGARETAnd may have needed someone he trusted who came from the same neighborhood or maybe they knew each other. I didn't know anything about Collis P. Huntington until I grew older. And they never spoke much about him, but now I realize that he would have been privy to everything, including the adoption of his housekeeper's daughter, who I guess later started gardens in the Carolinas and was sort of a much lighter hearted person.

  • 11:32:03

    MARGARETBut it's that family connection that made my ears perk up. And when I'm up at Storyland here in New Hampshire, they have a little put-put train anyone can ride on and one of them says CP Huntington. So that's why I'm calling. Thanks.

  • 11:32:19

    REHMI'm glad you did, Margaret.

  • 11:32:22

    DRABELLEWell, I don't know about this Cyrus, but I do know -- of course Huntington and the other three of the big four all came from New York and Connecticut. So I think that was one of the reasons they trusted each other. They all had come to California from the same neck of the woods, plus being Republicans. But I don't know about any Cyrus. I'm sorry.

  • 11:32:39

    REHMAll right, thanks for calling, Margaret. Let's go to Kevin here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:32:48

    KEVINHey, thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:32:50


  • 11:32:50

    KEVINThere's a battle going on in Hawaii between a former governor who's running for mayor to stop a railroad to nowhere. And he's up against the big developers and property holders in west of Oahu, Disney, Campbell family, Jeff Stone and the developer's group is called Pacific Resource Partnership and it's led by the former office manager of Mazie Hirono. And she was the lieutenant governor to the governor who's running for mayor now.

  • 11:33:28

    KEVINAnd a spark transportation like bus rapid transit platform. So they're telling lies on the air nonstop and he still was the frontrunner in a three-way race for the mayorship.

  • 11:33:45

    REHMDo you know anything about that?

  • 11:33:48

    DRABELLEI do not know anything about that. But I think they need Ambrose Bierce to come back from beyond.

  • 11:33:52

    REHMYeah, I think so.

  • 11:33:54

    DRABELLE...and, you know, talk about this.

  • 11:33:55

    REHMAnd the book we're talking about is titled, "The Great American Railroad War." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Why do you call it a war, Dennis?

  • 11:34:11

    DRABELLEWell, you know, one of the funny things about books is that...

  • 11:34:14

    REHMYou don't always title them.

  • 11:34:15's not actually, not my...

  • 11:34:16


  • 11:34:16

    DRABELLEIt's not my title.

  • 11:34:17

    REHMI know that very well.

  • 11:34:18

    DRABELLEMy title was going to be "Taming the Octopus." But the -- my editor thought that wasn't well known enough image. But, you know, I think it was kind of a war in a sense. And after it was over, it -- the victory that Bierce achieved and Hearst and Norris' kind of adding on to that with his novel really emboldened and energized the progressive movement.

  • 11:34:41

    REHMWhat was the novel actually about?

  • 11:34:44

    DRABELLEThe novel is about a fight between the growers of the Central Valley, a certain part of the Central Valley and the railroad and the essential issue is that the growers, the farmers say they were given brochures when they settle this land that said, go ahead and settle on it, eventually we'll settle up with you on how much it should cost. Make all the improvements you want and we're not going to charge you very much for them.

  • 11:35:11

    DRABELLEAnd I think a figure of something like $2.50 per acre is named. And this was some of the land that had come to the railroad as subsidies when it was originally built. Well, over the years there are a couple of complicated issues. Some people settle on a land that maybe wasn't the railroad's, some settle on land and went ahead and made improvements far beyond what anybody had thought they would.

  • 11:35:35

    DRABELLEAnd at least in Norris's novel, the railroad reneges on the deal and wants to charge them much more than they anticipated and than these contracts called for. So the buyers and the railroad are at loggerheads. The railroad decides, well, if you're not going to pay for this land, get off of it. The growers refused. This leads to this terrible shoot-out, somewhat based on history, loosely based on history in which seven people are killed, most of them settlers.

  • 11:36:03

    REHMWow. And what kind of an impact did that novel have?

  • 11:36:09

    DRABELLEWell, it certainly added to the railroad's troubles. It really made it look a beast and Norris, too, was a very skilled rhetorician. I could read a quick passage from that, too, if you'd like. This is at the end of the first chapter when the railroads just mowed down a herd of sheep and killed many of them, slaughtered the sheep. "Presley," who's basically the protagonist, "saw again in his imagination the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from her eyes into the horizon."

  • 11:36:45

    DRABELLE"But saw it now as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path, the Leviathan with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil. The soulless force, the iron-hearted power, the monster, the colossus, the octopus."

  • 11:37:08

    REHMWow. And of course, that was Dennis Drabelle reading from Frank Norris' novel, "The Octopus." We're going to take just a short break here. We'll take more of your calls, your comments when we return. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd we have lots of callers. We'll get to you as quickly as possible. Here's an email from Ron at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. He says, "To avoid confusion you should tell your listeners the Central Pacific was controlled by the Southern Pacific a few years after completion and merged into it in 1885. The two are one and the same. The corruption was so bad that senators from California were called the senators from the SP. This is largely why the direct election of senators came about."

  • 11:40:59

    DRABELLEThat's all quite correct. And I'm -- it was simply because it gets too complicated to be using two railroads names that I call it the Central Pacific.

  • 11:41:07

    REHMI understand.

  • 11:41:08

    DRABELLEHe's absolutely right.

  • 11:41:09

    REHMAnd then there's another from Frank asking, "How realistic is the show "Hell on Wheels" as far as history is concerned and how it depicts the railroad business then?"

  • 11:41:24

    DRABELLEI'm afraid I don't know that show. Is that a TV show or we don't really know. But I will tell you this. There's a great story about hell on wheels. That's where the phrase came from. It was at Union Pacific which was building across the plains on -- mostly on flat ground. And there was this, kind of, big cluster of, you know, booze salesmen, prostitutes, gamblers that would follow along and service the workers when they were off duty.

  • 11:41:48

    DRABELLEAnd then, whenever the railroad got a little bit too far ahead of them they would pick up and move around to the front of the railroad and they were called hell on wheels because that's, you know.

  • 11:41:58

    REHMInteresting. Let's go to Tina who's in Southern Utah. Good morning to you.

  • 11:42:04

    TINAGood morning and thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:42:07


  • 11:42:08

    TINAI'm honored to have a chance.

  • 11:42:09

    REHMOh, glad to have you with us.

  • 11:42:11

    TINAI'd like to ask the author if he sees the comparison that the modern day octopus is the oil industry, which still has primarily backing or a larger part of backing from the Republican Party. And that the service industry to oil development are the big profiteers here -- how they're being a type of example of that. Secondly, I wanted to say also that, as a child who's spent my entire life in the western states, that period of history and railroad development and the culture it spun off is still what predominates here in the West.

  • 11:42:54

    DRABELLEThat's a good point. As to the first question, I'm -- I guess there's some analogy, but I don't think that any company, even the oil companies, has quite the control of any state or even a region that the Central Pacific did back in its heyday. So I wouldn't push it too far.

  • 11:43:12

    REHMTina is calling from Southern Utah. We have an email from Bob asking whether Brigham Young had any influence or impact on the construction of the railroad.

  • 11:43:26

    TINAYes, he did. He negotiated with, I think it was Stanford and supplied workers. And I think that actually Stanford put one over on him. I think Brigham Young expected the railroad to go a lot closer to Mormon territory than it actually did. But he did have that influence of supplying workers.

  • 11:43:46

    REHMTell me how those workers were treated, how Ambrose Bierce wrote about those workers.

  • 11:43:54

    DRABELLEI think he probably felt they were treated fairly well. In fact, probably nobody worried too much about how the Chinese were treated. But basically Huntington and the big four -- however much you want to criticize them for some things were not bad employers. And in fact they were abolitionists. They weren't -- their racial enlightenment was one of the really good things about them. And I do want to make that point.

  • 11:44:20

    REHMTheir racial enlightenment, but how were they treated as they laid those tracks along the way? What kind of shelter did they have? Were they all single men? Did they have tents? What kind of housing did they have?

  • 11:44:39

    DRABELLEThat's a good question. I'm not sure. I think they probably did have tents. And they were almost all single men. There's one story that I debunked. And there's a website about it. There was a story that was put into the first biography of -- or the first book about the building of the railroad that claims that the Chinese were lowered on ropes to plant dynamite into the sides of cliffs that had to be blasted away which sounds unbelievably dangerous. And it seems like it might be a myth. I couldn't find any verification of it.

  • 11:45:09

    REHMYou couldn't.

  • 11:45:10

    DRABELLESo I left it out of the book.

  • 11:45:11

    REHMInteresting. All right, let's go to Indianapolis, good morning, Kevin.

  • 11:45:17

    KEVINHey, good morning, Diane, love your show.

  • 11:45:20

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:45:21

    KEVINHey, I was just listening and I just wanted to -- is it wrong for America to make apologies for past business behavior here or outside of the country? I'd like to take my answer off...

  • 11:45:38

    REHMAll right, thanks for calling.

  • 11:45:40

    DRABELLEWell, I guess it could be possible for the Southern Pacific to apologize today. But in a way it's so old by now. It's over a century gone by. Maybe it's a little bit too late to do it.

  • 11:45:52

    REHMAnd to El Paso, Texas. Hi, there Miles.

  • 11:45:57

    MILESGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:46:00

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:46:01

    MILESI'd like to ask if your guest there knows anything about the Concordia Cemetery, El Paso's claim to fame there. I guess John Wesley Hardin is claimed to have been buried there. But in the middle of the cemetery, there's this huge area that they claim to be a mass grave for Chinese rail workers. And I've always thought what a travesty. What a sad, sad story because it is so unspoken. It's just -- it's not even realized there in El Paso. And I was just wondering if you had any information about that.

  • 11:46:33

    DRABELLENo, unfortunately I don't. I think that must have been a different railroad. But the workers, as I say, were treated reasonably well. In fact, many of the Chinese workers went back to China afterwards because the cost of living was so low there. If they made a few hundred dollars they could take it back and live fairly well and rejoin their families.

  • 11:46:52

    REHMInteresting. Thanks for calling, Miles. Here's an email from Brian who says, "I read the compiled works of Ambrose Bierce. What an imagination, though critics do not place him among the highest in true writing ability -- master of intense short story vividness and experiential placement of the reader."

  • 11:47:22

    DRABELLEI agree with that all except I would say that I have here in my hand the Bierce volume in the Library of America. It was a long time coming, but -- and the editor is S. T. Joshi who was very helpful to me in writing this book. But I think this does kind of complete the rehabilitation or the entry of Bierce into the canon. I think from now on we can say he is a major American writer.

  • 11:47:44

    REHMBut here is Kay in Dowagiac, Mich. Good morning to you.

  • 11:47:50

    KAYGood morning.

  • 11:47:52

    REHMGo right ahead please.

  • 11:47:53

    KAYI read "Octopus" years and years ago. And I loved it. And it stirred my interest to read more about railroads all over the country. But now I want a copy of it and did you have a hard time finding it? I've Googled it many times and cannot find -- I didn't know Frank Norris was the author. That might have helped.

  • 11:48:12

    KAYYou shouldn't have any trouble. I think it's available in a couple of classic editions. I'm pretty sure Signet and I think Penguin. So go to Amazon and see what you can find.

  • 11:48:22

    KAYI did go to Amazon. Perhaps it's just the "Octopus." There is no other subtitle or anything?

  • 11:48:28

    DRABELLEThat's the only title.

  • 11:48:30

    KAYAnd Frank Norris is the author.

  • 11:48:31


  • 11:48:32

    KAYThank you.

  • 11:48:33

    DRABELLEYou're welcome.

  • 11:48:33

    REHMThank you. And here's an email. "Could your guest talk about Ambrose Bierce's odd death? There was a discussion about this on a program on the History Channel which was pretty intriguing."

  • 11:48:52

    DRABELLEYes, it's -- and not only was it an odd death, it was a very ironic death because one of the things that's interesting about Bierce is that he was fascinated by death. In the last few minutes before death, being under sentence of death, the whole process -- one of his stories is a Civil War story in which somebody is caught in wreckage of a building that's fallen down around him. And he's pinned in such a way that his own gun is facing him and, you know, loaded. And the least little movement by him is going result in his death. And story after story -- and I think it's because he was wounded and almost killed in battle.

  • 11:49:27

    DRABELLEWell, so here's this, you know, poet of death, if you will, whose death is a mystery. In his late -- no mid 70's, I guess, he went off to -- on a long tour west. He had quit his job by then. He revisited his Civil War battlefields.

  • 11:49:43

    REHMWhat year would this be?

  • 11:49:45

    DRABELLENineteen thirteen.

  • 11:49:45


  • 11:49:46

    DRABELLEAnd then he went out -- he decided he would go to Mexico. And he wanted to see the Mexican Civil War, which was going on. And that's pretty much the last we've heard of him. We think he got credentials to be an observer to Pancho Villa's army. And then nobody knows. And I think the best guess is that he might have been killed in crossfire in a battle and buried in a common grave. But his life simply ends with kind of a question mark after the year 1913.

  • 11:50:12

    REHMWas he ever married?

  • 11:50:15

    DRABELLEHe was married. He -- it was not a very happy marriage. He was kind of a prickly character. But they had three children, two boys -- both of whom ended, unfortunately one died in kind of a love triangle shootout. And another basically drank himself to death. The daughter, though, lived a normal life and took care of Ambrose to some extent in his later years.

  • 11:50:37

    REHMAnd what about his legacy of works how much do we think about his writing now?

  • 11:50:47

    DRABELLEI think we should think a lot about his writing. He really was the only major American writer to have fought in the Civil War and written about it. So he had this firsthand experience in doing so. And I think his "Devil's Dictionary" is really an American classic, all these wonderful sarcastic definitions that he wrote. I'll just give you one example. Peace, in international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting. And he did that again and again throughout the alphabet.

  • 11:51:18

    REHMHere is an email -- let's see from James who says, "There's great commonality with today's efforts to deregulation to return to those glorious days of yesteryear of the 1870s and the robber barons as exemplified by today's discussion on 'The Diane Rehm Show.' We have clear proof that too much money is in the hands of too few hands -- too much money in the hands of too few hands leads to disaster in the economy."

  • 11:52:00

    DRABELLEWell, you know, I think probably Bierce, if we're going to bring him into this, might not agree because he was such a conservative. He simply thought you would fight dishonesty wherever you saw it. He didn't ever step back and kind of look at the big picture and think about how you might -- I guess because he wasn't a politician, wasn't a political thinker. So you won't find much of that broad approach in his work.

  • 11:52:21

    REHMInteresting. To York, Pa, good morning, Matthew.

  • 11:52:25

    MATTHEWGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:52:28


  • 11:52:29

    MATTHEWOn a comment that you said earlier about the Chinese working and hanging down the cliffs and doing work on the railroad reminded me very much of the transcontinental railroad. I know out west it was very prominent that the Chinese were used, I believe it was the new creation of nitroglycerin to help blow up some of the areas of the mountains to actually tunnel through to finish the railroads. I don't know if that was in the same correlation of what you were talking about. They were used in the same light.

  • 11:52:58

    DRABELLEI think it was dynamite that supposedly the Chinese were sticking into the fissures and the cliffs. But, as I say, I think that story has been debunked. But they did use nitroglycerin. Although the first time they used it they hadn't quite perfected it. And Strobridge who was the construction boss got an eye blown out in doing so. And the Chinese laborers ever afterwards called him one-eye bossy man.

  • 11:53:19

    REHMWell, thanks for calling, Matthew. And to Ogden, Utah and to remind you you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Good morning, Brian, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:36

    BRIANHello, Diane.

  • 11:53:37

    REHMHi, there.

  • 11:53:38

    BRIANThank you for putting me on the air today.

  • 11:53:39


  • 11:53:40

    BRIANYes, I wanted to respond to an earlier caller who asked about Brigham Young's contribution. Another important piece of history is the joining of the railroads outside of the Golden Spike and the creation of Ogden's Union Station which Brigham Young purchased the land for and donated. And he saw the value of being the junction city of the United States. And for close to a hundred years Ogden, Utah was an amazing city of travelers and prohibition era jazz music and all kinds of incredible history here. And I wanted to contribute that to the discussion.

  • 11:54:31

    REHMAll right, I'm glad you did, Brian. Thanks for calling. And here is an email from Christian in Perrysburg, Ohio. "I'm wondering considering the corruption in many other facets of building the railroad whether there are examples of compromising the actual infrastructural safety of the tracks."

  • 11:55:01

    DRABELLEWell I think the Union Pacific was much worse about that than the Central Pacific. They really did do shoddy construction and were called on the carpet by Congress to do that. The Central Pacific, I think, did a reasonably good job, although there is one great story. They kept fooling the inspector who would ride with them to see how they were doing.

  • 11:55:20

    REHMHow would they fool him?

  • 11:55:22

    DRABELLEWell, Crocker talked this guy into agreeing that if they put a glass filled with water on the floor of the train as it went over the track and it didn't spill that would mean they were safe. Well, that's not a very -- you can find a level part of the track where nothing will happen.

  • 11:55:36


  • 11:55:36

    DRABELLEThis guy was fooled.

  • 11:55:37

    REHMSure. And that kind of thing -- let's talk about Frank Norris's death.

  • 11:55:44

    DRABELLEYes, I wanted to do that. We talked about Bierce's death. We know a lot about Norris's death. It was very sad. And here's a guy who was just the bright light of American fiction. He's about 32 years old. He and his wife to celebrate the success of "The Pit," his second novel, decide to take a cruise around the world. About a week before they're to take off she comes down with appendicitis. Has to have it taken off.

  • 11:56:06

    DRABELLEA few days later after a successful operation on her he feels a pain in his side. And I think he must have thought well, appendicitis can't be catching and he just ignored it and ignored it. And by the time they rushed him to the hospital his appendix had burst. It was too late to help him and he died, you know, at the peak of his...

  • 11:56:26


  • 11:56:26

    DRABELLE...Yeah, exactly.

  • 11:56:27

    REHMOh, my gosh.

  • 11:56:28

    DRABELLEVery sad loss to American literature, I think.

  • 11:56:31

    REHMAnd something that he probably thought, my God, this can't be happening to me...

  • 11:56:37

    DRABELLEExactly, exactly.

  • 11:56:38

    REHM...As well.

  • 11:56:39


  • 11:56:40

    REHMWell, it's a fascinating story. Thank you so much, Dennis Drabelle, for being here. The book is titled, "The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on The Notorious Central Pacific Railroad." Thank you.

  • 11:57:01

    DRABELLEThank you, Diane.

  • 11:57:02

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:57:05

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Megan Merritt, Lisa Dunn and Rebecca Kaufman. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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