IRON RAILS, IRON MEN, AND THE RACE TO LINK THE NATION
The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad
Written by Martin W. Sandler
(Candlewick Press; $22.99, Ages 10 and up)
In the early nineteenth century it took six months to travel coast to coast by horse and wagon. Rugged terrain and violent weather made the journey difficult and dangerous. The alternative, sailing around Cape Horn, took at least six months and was equally dangerous.
Dreams of a transcontinental railroad had great promise: quicker travel time, new communities, and improved opportunities for trade and commerce. It took years to advocate and raise money for this massive project. When President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, two companies, the Central Pacific, laying tracks eastward, and the Union Pacific, laying tracks westwards, raced to complete the job.
The work required staggering feats of engineering, which award-winning historian MartinW. Sandler effectively demonstrates using period photos and weaving mind-blowing facts into the narrative. Workers had to blast through mountains to build tunnels and erected some of the highest bridges known. Supplies had to be hauled over mountains on horseback or cart to the workers. Conditions were grueling: prairie fires, cattle stampedes, severe weather, and Native American attacks. Each job had its physical challenges: imagine graders who hauled tons of dirt away or track layers who lifted and placed rails that weighed 500 to 700 pounds!
Sandler critically examines more controversial issues such as corruption, discrimination against the highly efficient Chinese workers, and the severe impact on the life and culture of the Plains Indians.
When the two rails finally met, tens of thousands of workers had laid over 18,000 miles of track and joined the two coasts of a rugged continent. Travel time, coast to coast, was reduced to one week.
The author has made dramatic use of archival photographs to enhance the engaging and informative text, all accompanied by easy to follow maps. A fascinating final chapter discusses what happened to the main personalities. Educators and parents should check out the publisher’s great teacher’s guide and audio excerpt. Highly recommended for teachers and librarians serving grades 5 and up and a great resource for 19th century United States history and train enthusiasts.
– Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
* A Junior Library Guild Selection
Before I read this fascinating nonfiction picture book about the history of the first Ferris Wheel, I had no idea of the backstory; the competition to find and build a structure for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that would be taller than the Eiffel Tower, the lack of financial support for its construction, the grueling work on the foundation in the dead of winter, the tight timeline in which to complete it, and the lack of faith professionals and the public had in the project. I’m thankful to Kathryn Gibbs Davis for opening my eyes to innovator, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.
“George had an idea, an idea for a structure that would dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower.”
What wonderful feats of engineering and willpower enabled Ferris to prove all the naysayers wrong! Over 1.5 million naysayers to be precise, the amount of people who rode on the wheel at 50 cents apiece in the “nineteen weeks” that it was in operation. And they said it couldn’t be done. Not only did Ferris change the public’s mind, but he changed history by building out of steel, what is now a staple of amusement park rides.
“George knew something the chief did not. His invention would be delicate-looking and strong. It would be both stronger and lighter than the Eiffel Tower because it would be built with an amazing new metal — steel.”
On almost every spread, Davis has managed to weave in assorted facts about the wheel’s invention in a way that will keep youngsters as engaged and enthralled as I was. The story itself flows easily and the artwork is simply lovely to look at. Ford‘s fabulous jewel-toned illustrations of 19th century Chicago took me back in time to an era in the industrial age when even electricity in homes was not yet commonplace. But as the sun set each evening, Ferris’s wheel, with is 3,000 electric light bulbs, lit up the night sky and was visible “as far away as forty miles.” I was happy to learn that after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, in 1894 “the next Ferris wheel appeared in California on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.”
How sad I was to discover in the back matter (where sources are quoted, and a bibliography along with helpful websites are provided) that a New York Times obituary says Ferris passed away on November 23, 1896 while still in his thirties. I can just imagine all the other innovative contributions he could have made to society had he lived longer. As it is, the enduring popularity of his ride is a testament to Ferris’s genius, and Davis has done a terrific job conveying that in a most readable, enjoyable way.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here for a link to a reading guide.
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Windy Days Not Required …
To Enjoy This Story Based On Actual Historical Events
Did you know that April is National Kite Month (officially March 29 – May 4, 2014)? I didn’t until author Alexis O’Neill told me. So what better time than now to review her latest picture book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations (Calkins Creek, $16.95, Ages 8-11) written by Alexis O’Neill with illustrations by Terry Widener? Just like us on Facebook and/or Twitter and let us know you did for an entry into the giveaway. Scroll down to the comment form to enter and please give us your mailing address in the comment section. Giveaway ends midnight PST on Tuesday, June 3rd. A winner will be chosen by Random.org and notified via email on Weds. June 4, 2014. Good luck!!
The Kite That Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge by Alexis O’Neill with illustrations by Terry Widener, Calkins Creek, 2013.
As a former New Yorker and a fan of Niagara Falls, I was eager to read O’Neill’s book to find out more about The Kite That Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge. Perhaps, I wondered, I once even crossed its replacement, The Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, when I visited Niagara Falls long ago. I first heard O’Neill read from this fantastic true tale at an SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference and marveled at her meticulous research and attention to detail. The free verse she chose to use in the picture book, along with having an older Walsh as narrator looking back on this historic event from his childhood, made it very accessible. I think that’s a big part of what makes this nonfiction story come alive for readers.
Homan Walsh is a 16-year-old who gets the “itch to fly a kite” when he feels the wind blowing just right. In fact, his love of kite flying as well as his uncanny ability to read the wind, has made him one of the best kite fliers around. Widener draws us into the locale of the story with illustrations of Walsh so close to the edge of cliffs along the Niagara that we just have to read on first and foremost to make sure he doesn’t fall. Plus, put on some wool socks because Widener’s frosty, snow covered Niagara scenes will pull you into the pages, bundled up right beside Homan as he braves the cold winter clime to fly his kite. When a handbill announcing a kite-flying contest catches his eye, he’s determined to win the …
$10 PRIZE TO THE FIRST BOY WHOSE KITE STRING SPANS FROM AMERICA TO CANADA
Young Walsh builds his own kite which he names Union with “a thousand feet of string to reach across the gorge.” And though I knew the story had a happy ending, I still found myself rooting for Walsh. In the end pages O’Neill notes she could not substantiate Homan Walsh’s tense relationship with his father as depicted in the book, however her research did indicate he lived apart from his family. So when his second kite-flying attempt to span the gorge proves successful, Walsh wins not only the contest, but the admiration and approval of this father. He’s also laid the groundwork upon which engineer Charles Ellet, Jr. could string his cable to build a suspension bridge between the two countries.
As if the story alone were not good enough which it most certainly is, O’Neill seems to have read my mind and in the back matter of the picture book she answers the many questions I would have asked her in person. Included are an informative Author’s Note, a Timeline and Selected Sources and online links. Thanks to Alexis O’Neill for taking this seemingly little known story of Homan Walsh out of the archives and into our lives.
I encourage you to also check out this terrific interview with author O’Neill to get her personal account of how The Kite That Bridged Two Nations came to be written.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel