Prologue PROLOGUE A Tale of Two Cities
L.A. THE ONLY CITY IN the world that goes just by its initials, like the self-assured global celebrity it is. Unlike Miami with its beaches, New York with its skyline, or Houston with its oil, Los Angeles is a fantasy of a city whose identity somehow floats free of mundane physical characteristics. All, that is, except for the sunshine radiating down from impossibly blue skies and the palm trees that rise up in greeting.
Unlike virtually everywhere else in America, to say nothing of America itself, L.A. has no founding myth to define it. No pilgrims, no explorers, no pioneers. While most people have the vague idea that the city dates back to Spanish times, the details are lost in the glitter, replaced by the gauzy notion that it somehow created itself as a product of its movie business.
It’s hard to account for it otherwise. Although L.A. lies by the sea, it did not begin life as a port. Nor was it birthed by the river that runs through it from the San Gabriel Mountains or a natural resource like the gold that brought prospectors surging into San Francisco. (Oil wasn’t found until L.A. was well established, which is why a pumpjack might be cranking away in a McDonald’s parking lot.)
No, the city in fact owes its origin to something so foreign to its self-conception that it represents a violation of its existential code. It was started by a railroad. Los Angeles is a railroad town. Startling as that might sound, on reflection it should not be quite so surprising, since railroads gave rise to countless cities in the West (and plenty in the East, too). While San Francisco, up the coast, was not built by a railroad, it was certainly built up by one when the first transcontinental arrived there in 1869. Numerous other western cities were created almost entirely by railroads—Denver, Reno, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Tacoma, to name just a few.
Curiously, Los Angeles was not the result of the first railroad that came to town nearly so much as the second. Its arrival set off a furious competition between the two in the spring of 1887 that dropped the price of a $125 ticket from Chicago to just one single solitary dollar. The news set off a stampede into Los Angeles. Just in the first three years of the frenzy, it went from a sun-splashed Spanish pueblo of thirty thousand to a bustling city of a hundred and fifty thousand, a fivefold expansion that marks the most explosive growth of any city in the history of the United States. That growth curve has rarely flattened since.
Over a thousand miles to the east, Colorado Springs lies just south of Denver on the edge of the Rockies, a mile up in the crystalline mountain air. A rather sedate, if not sleepy, college town in the shadow of Pikes Peak, a jagged-topped “fourteener” that looms over everything, Colorado Springs was also created by a railroad. Founded in 1871, it was intended to be a mountain retreat in the Alpine manner, a place of healthy air and cultural refinement for high-end refugees brought in by train from the smoggy East. Small, out-of-the-way, closed-in, Colorado Springs seems to exist in a separate universe or on a separate plane of meaning from L.A. But there is a connection between them all the same.
The train that made the modern Los Angeles started in Colorado Springs. Not literally—the town never had an L.A. Express—but figuratively, riding the tracks of history, which often run by puzzling, circuitous routes from the past into the present. While the course of progress is often thought to be the result of economic, social, technological, and environmental forces beyond anyone’s control, that was not at all true of the development of the railroads. In the robust industrial age, they were all run by powerful, strong-minded men who bent their industry, and a good deal of the country, to their will. They set the course, chose the route, and built up the cities and towns their tracks reached. In this, Colorado Springs and Los Angeles were no exception.
The fates of these two distant cities, one as big as the other is small, were linked because the railroad men behind them were linked. More than linked, in fact. Bound like a pair of conjoined twins, two bodies somehow sharing a single mind, burning as one with the identical, all-consuming determination to go west. It was freakish, but undeniable: these two wildly different men became almost indistinguishable once they focused on the same objective and did so in the full realization that only one of them could attain it. It made quite a ball of fire, this frenzied competition, a blind, stupid, and utterly destructive jealous rage. A sun all of their own making that drew all eyes to it—even as the real one rose up overhead, day after day, and silently crossed the sky to the far horizon, as if to remind these two railroad men what they were fighting for: the chance to develop and define the modern West as no one else could.