In this exciting railroad novel, Samuel Merwin tells of a crew of engineers building a railway in West Texas. It is the 1870s, and the principle obstacle to the operation is not the Apaches, as you’d expect, but a rival railroad magnate, Commodore Durfee.
Plot. The engineers in the field are led by Paul Carhart, who has been charged with throwing down a road across over 100 miles of desert. When completed it will connect eastern Texas with a frontier town called Red Hills in the west. With the help of a thousand or two laborers, Carhart and his engineers have an ambitious job, including at mile 109 the construction of a long trestle across a river.
Meanwhile, Durfee wants his own road across the same part of Texas. It’s a bare-knuckle competition, and before long Carhart and his engineers find that their efforts are being sabotaged. Materials and—more important—water are slow in arriving at the work site.
|Charlie and Carhart
The final crisis presents itself when word arrives that Flagg and his men have stopped construction on the trestle over the river. They have set up camp where the bridge is to come ashore on the opposite bank, shooting and gravely wounding the engineer in charge.
Character. Merwin uses this story to explore the kinds of character that produce leaders. Carhart is admirable in the way he handles everyone from his engineers and the cook down to the most unskilled workman. He inspires confidence and gets men to work without complaint by never losing his patience.
He trusts that men will do what’s expected of them if they are given proper respect. He trusts that reason will prevail if given a chance. He may be troubled and apprehensive when crises loom, but he never reveals his concern. He can also think out of the box and act with audacious daring when the situation demands.
|Mule train in search of water
Romance. Merwin once said in an essay that romance does not make the best kind of novel because it puts plot before character. In The Road-Builders there’s plot aplenty, but Merwin also wants us to see these engineers as men with distinct personalities. He’s interested in how they organize themselves to get work done and how the way a man does his job depends on his values, his attitudes, and the kind of risks he’s willing to take.
|Engineers Tiffany and Carhart
Getting even briefer mention are the “ladies” in the upper rooms of the hotel where Carhart’s workmen celebrate the completion of the railroad. There we find Charlie the camp cook taking pleasure in feminine company after being long deprived of it. Beyond those references, the novel gives us a males-only world.
Labor. Merwin doesn’t exactly overflow with egalitarian spirit. Class-conscious Gus, the younger Vandervelt, sees the workers as “children with whiskey throats added.” He seems unconcerned that there are actual children on the work site. The mule drivers are boys, as young as twelve.
When the likeable young instrument man is shot dead by Flagg’s men and the workmen gather for the burial, Gus looks at their “lustful, weak, wicked faces.” He wonders uncertainly whether there’s anything in them of worth and meaning beyond work, eating, drinking, and dying.