In 1869, when the final spike was driven into the Transcontinental Railroad, few were prepared for its seismic aftershocks. Once a hodgepodge of short, squabbling lines, America’s railways soon exploded into a titanic industry helmed by a pageant of speculators, crooks, and visionaries.
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.