Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The Age of Gold

I recently got through the audio book version of The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, and while it started out a little slow, it picked up partway through and there were a couple things I really enjoyed about it.

The book is a history of the California gold rush, starting with John Marshall's initial discovery in 1848, through the goldrush itself, and through to the construction of the railways connecting east and west coasts. The book presents the history by following several individual's stories, some of whom came overland, some of whom came by ship, crossing at the Panamanian isthmus. It ends by telling what became of all those individuals, ranging from cases where they ended up destitute to cases where they went on found lasting legacies (e.g. Leland Stanford went from mining supply sales to railroad tycoon to founder of Stanford University)

The stories the book tells have numerous humorous anecdotes and interesting factoids. For example, when mining companies started using nitro glycerin to blast through rock, the used Wells Fargo to ship it to them - only they didn't tell them WHAT was in the boxes they were shipping. After a few sudden disappearances of post offices, they decided it might be a good idea to disclose the contents.

What I liked best about it was that it connected various other pieces of American history that I've read about elsewhere. From some of the 49-ers following the Oregon trail, to the part California played in funding part of Lincoln's efforts in the civil war, to role the gold rush would have in America's support for the gold standard, for me this book was like that piece of the jigsaw puzzle that lets you connect two large patches you've been working on in isolation.

Finally, the author makes the argument in the end, somewhat convincingly, that the gold rush was a major contributor in forging the entrepreneurial spirit that would see America become the world's leading economy in the following fifty years.

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

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