Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads, and the Making of Modern America

Houghton Harcourt. Aug. 2020. 448p. ISBN 9780544770317. $30. HIST
Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times journalist Hiltzik chronicles the men who controlled the colossal railroad organizations that transformed the United States during the 19th century. He describes them variously as visionaries, speculators, bankers, and manipulators. Besides their personalities, Hiltzik focuses on the themes of railroad finance and labor strife. He opens with the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who, despite a brush with death in an 1833 train wreck, brought his business acumen and obstinate nature to making railroads into lucrative enterprises. The author explains financier J.P. Morgan’s later efforts to transform unprofitable competitive lines into a cooperative and thriving industry. Hiltzik includes Jay Cooke’s financial collapse; George Pullman’s miserliness to his workers; and the transgressions of Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and Jim Fisk. He recounts the dynamic E.H. Harriman’s empire building and his war over the Northern Pacific with Morgan and James J. Hill, which both caused the financial panic of 1901 and ushered in government scrutiny and regulation under President Theodore Roosevelt.
VERDICT Lively storytelling and accessible writing makes Hiltzik’s work suitable for all types of readers interested in railroad history.

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