"Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America," historian Richard White's account of the development of America's transcontinental railroads, is a story rife with messiness and failure, "the triumph of the unfit." Nonetheless, the routes mapped out in the 19th century are the ones we still use today.

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‘Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America’

by Richard White

W.W. Norton, 515 pp., $35

The story of the transcontinental railroads has been told as triumph and as exploitation. Both are versions of powerful success. In “Railroaded,” historian Richard White presents it as a story of messiness and failure.

White is a professor of history. Formerly at the University of Washington, White now teaches at Stanford, a university founded by one of the rail tycoons he writes about in this book. In White’s telling, Leland Stanford, co-owner of California’s Central Pacific, was a man unable to run the railroad and a train wreck as a business partner.

Much of White’s book is taken from the correspondence of the rail tycoons, particularly Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific and the dyspeptic Charles Francis Adams of the Union Pacific. The correspondence does not flatter them or their subjects. “If the goal is to have great villains or powerful heroes, don’t read the mail of the men who ran the transcontinentals,” writes White. Referring to “The Octopus,” Frank Norris’ 1901 novel about a corrupt California railroad, White writes that in their letters, the actual men appear less like Norris’ virile villains and more like “a group of fat men in Octopus suits.”

Instead of the survival of the fittest, he writes, the railroads were a case of “the triumph of the unfit.”

The problem with this interpretation of history is that it fails to explain human progress. And White knows this. He writes: “How, when powerful people can on close examination seem so ignorant and inept; how, when so much work is done stupidly, shoddily, haphazardly, and selfishly; how, then does the modern world function at all? It is no wonder that religious people see the hand of God and economists invent the invisible hand.”

Having asked the question, White does not answer it. His story is not the full story. It is, however, part of it, and is connected to a crucial economic truth: “The basic problem of the transcontinentals,” he writes, “was that they were built ahead of demand,” meaning economic demand. They were built partly on political demand, and partly on entrepreneurs’ dreams.

The result, White writes, was repeated failure. The first transcontinental was built with money from the government, which led to all sorts of corruption. The later roads were built with money from investors in the East and in Europe, many of whom lost their shirts. The Northern Pacific — the road that went to Tacoma — fell into receivership three times in 30 years.

And yet the railroads were built. People hated their imperiousness and the seeming irrationality of their rates — that the Spokane-to-Chicago rate was higher than the Seattle-to-Chicago rate — and yet the freight moved, and each decade the tonnage increased and the rates fell. And more than a century later, the rail corridors staked out by “the unfit” are the ones we use today.

White’s book is a not a story of building the transcontinentals, but of deal making, politicking and backbiting behind them. He has done much digging, most of it on original sources. It is a sprawling book, and at 515 pages is a reminder of how messy and imperfect our great stories can appear when viewed through a critical lens.