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

Michael Hiltzik

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

In 1869, when the final spike was driven into the Transcontinental Railroad, few were prepared for its seismic aftershocks. Once a hodgepodge of short, squabbling lines, America’s railways soon exploded into a titanic industry helmed by a pageant of speculators, crooks, and visionaries. The vicious competition between empire builders such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, and E. H. Harriman sparked stock market frenzies, panics, and crashes; provoked strikes that upended the relationship between management and labor; transformed the nation’s geography; and culminated in a ferocious two-man battle that shook the nation’s financial markets to their foundations and produced dramatic, lasting changes in the interplay of business and government.
Spanning four decades and featuring some of the most iconic figures of the Gilded Age, Iron Empires reveals how the robber barons drove the country into the twentieth century—and almost sent it off the rails.

“Unbridled ambition, greed, corruption, ‘creative destruction,’ and a bit of conscience – Michael Hiltzik’s vivid account of the railroad barons in the Gilded Age shows us the workings of unbridled capitalism at its zenith (or nadir, as the case may be). The names Morgan, Harriman, Pullman, Hill, Villard, Rockefeller will forever be associated with creating America’s first great infrastructure and making America ‘modern.’”
Gordon H. Chang, author of Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad    

"Were the railroad barons of the 19th century great entrepreneurs in the American spirit who built a remarkable network of railroads? Or were they robbers who fleeced local people and passengers alike? In this superb and comprehensive book, Hiltzik lets you decide, with the help of a few hints."
Christian Wolmar, author of The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America 

“This prodigiously researched book tells the fascinating stories of the railroad barons who did so much to build America, not only through their vision and genius, but also through their cunning and ruthlessness. Hiltzik’s brilliant narrative – of power and plutocrats – often bears uncanny parallels to what’s happening in America today.”
Steven Greenhouse, author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor