The maneuvers and countermaneuvers of the railroad titans can be dizzying. It takes Hiltzik four chapters to cover the 1901 effort by Harriman to take control of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which ended only when Morgan set up a trust that assumed control over both that line and the competing Great Northern Railway (an arrangement the Supreme Court soon declared illegal). An able narrator, with an eye for telling detail, Hiltzik makes what otherwise might seem arcane financial details engrossing ... Hiltzik belongs to a long line of journalists, critics and historians who have viewed the financial and corporate leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries, no matter their faults, as makers of history and shapers of the nation. He takes the creation of the national railroad network as a self-evident good. Not everyone has agreed.
Hiltzik pokes among the ghostly bones of tycoons past but doesn’t generally offer a new interpretation. Mr. Hiltzik presents a colorful cast in conventional terms ... Mr. Hiltzik’s narrative, unhappily, is overloaded with portentous framing ... Mr. Hiltzik often assumes a forward knowingness, but rarely seems to be fully in the present moment ... His characters are a rich, interesting lot. But his reflexive foreshadowing robs Iron Empires of the drama it might have had.
Does Hiltzik overstate the importance of these titans? The railroads were vital, but do the powermonger capitalists really deserve the lion’s share of the credit or blame compared to the role played by hundreds of thousands of workmen, engineers, investors, taxpayers, and customers? It’s easy and enjoyable to be drawn to these classic financial celebrities — and, yes, it makes for a good read — but do they merit the attention? Hiltzik himself wrestles with this question and takes a decided point of view ... a grand story well told. The basic lesson? The railroads weren’t an impersonal force of nature, but rather something built, funded, directed, and abused by human beings, with all their virtues and faults, for purposes good, evil, and pedestrian. It’s a lesson we can apply today to our own modern titans of the internet and other groundbreaking contemporary inventions.
... colorful, wide-ranging ... Through judicious use of primary and secondary sources, Hiltzik chronicles the industry’s profound impacts on labor relations, monopoly law, and the stock market in post–Civil War America. The complex history is made accessible through the stories of surveyors, engineers, and laborers, as well as 'the business leaders whose individual personalities, ambitions, determination, and morals commanded the others’ fates' ... Through judicious use of primary and secondary sources, Hiltzik chronicles the industry’s profound impacts on labor relations, monopoly law, and the stock market in post–Civil War America. The complex history is made accessible through the stories of surveyors, engineers, and laborers, as well as “the business leaders whose individual personalities, ambitions, determination, and morals commanded the others’ fates.”
... vigourously told ... The story will be well known to readers versed in late-19th-century American history, but the rest will benefit from Hiltzik’s clear exposition of key episodes and players ... tudents of the Gilded Age and its unraveling will value this survey.