Walter R. Borneman
Imagine reading a play-by-play recount of a sporting event--one of Roger Angell's classic baseball essays, for example. If you're totally uninterested in baseball, then even a really good account isn't going to flutter the cockles of your heart. If you're a fan, that's a different story.
So it is with Iron Horses. There's a brief introduction to the time and the place (the American Southwest, 1850 and after) and to some of the main characters. Then we're off. Here's Cyrus K. Holliday coming up for the plucky underdog Santa Fe ... and he's secured his federal grants! He's setting out for the state line, building track. And here comes the Kansas Pacific, pushing him from the north! Those grants come with a deadline! It's an epic race, folks, and let's not forget "General" Palmer and his Rio Grande system stirring around near Denver--
I liked Iron Horses a lot. It's fast-paced, lively, quite well-written, and does a fairly good job at handling a large cast of both men and railroads. It's got scope. It's got engineering and local color and finance and tycoons and a couple of actual, honest-to-god gunfights. It even has, just barely, enough maps.
But, then, to continue the sporting analogy, I'm already a fan. I have model trains in my basement and train pictures on my walls and a ton of history books upstairs. I'm not convinced that Iron Horses--good though it is!--would translate to the non-fan community. Borneman's writing for readers who have some idea of the geography and railroads of the West, who already know the difference between a 4-4-0 and a 2-8-0.
It's instructive to compare Iron Horses with Cattle Kingdom. They overlap in space and time. They're both nicely readable. They both have a major story arc with various offshoots. They both work well at the macro scale: politics, finance, rich guys, trends, and so forth. Cattle Kingdom does a better job in shifting to the micro scale, though--the scale of individuals working on the ground--and that gives it an extra measure of appeal. Iron Horses has, if anything, more in the way of conflict and competition; and yet, ultimately, its stars are railroads more than people.
There are two good books about the building of the first transcontinental railroad: Nothing Like It in the World (Stephen Ambrose) and Empire Express (David Haward Bain). Ambrose's book is very readable, but has been criticized on accuracy grounds.