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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

From the River to the Sea: The Railroad War of the 1870s that Made the West

00:00 01:08:03
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It is remarkable now to imagine, but during the 1870s, the American West, for all its cloud-topped peaks and endless coastline, might have been barren tundra as far as most Americans knew. In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad had made history by linking East and West, but, relying heavily on federal grants, it left an opening for two brash new railroad men, the Civil War hero behind the Rio Grande and the corporate chieftain of the Santa Fe, to build the first transcontinental to make money by creating a railroad empire across the Southwest to the sea. Today’s guest, John Sedwick, author of FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA: The Untold Story of the Railroad War that Made the West, is here to tell that story in detail.

The railroad companies were governments on wheels: they set the course, chose the route, and built up cities and towns along their tracks. Their choices brought life to such out-of-the-way places as San Diego, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Denver, and to Los Angeles most of all: The Santa Fe turned a sleepy backwater of 30,000 into a booming metropolis of 150,000 in three years—the most explosive growth of any city in the history of the United States.

By then, the two men behind the Rio Grande and the Santa Fe had fought all across the west to lay claim to the routes that would secure the most profitable territory and the richest silver mines. But they often led through narrow mountain passes or up treacherous canyons with room for only a single set of tracks. To win them, each side turned hundreds of their train workers into private armies backed by local militia and paid mercenaries like Dodge City’s Bat Masterson. The war left one of the two lines reeling in a death spiral and sent the other on to a greatness unequaled by any other railroad in the world.
May 04, 2021
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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