From the River to the Sea

The Untold Story of the Railroad War that Made the West

Left: William Barstow Strong of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe
Right: General William J. Palmer of the Denver and Rio Grande

From the book jacket:

It is difficult to imagine now, but for all its cloud-topped peaks and gorgeous coastline, the American West might have been barren tundra as far as most Americans knew well into the nineteenth century. While gauzy advertising promotions of the West as a paradise on earth intrigued citizens in the East and Midwest, many believed the journey too hazardous to be worthwhile—until 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad changed the face of travel and transportation.

Railroad companies soon became the rulers of western expansion, choosing routes, creating brand-new railroad towns, and building up remote settlements like Santa Fe, Albuquerque, San Diego, and El Paso into proper cities. But thinning federal grants left the routes incomplete, an opportunity that two brash new railroad men, armed with private investments and determination to build an empire across the Southwest clear to the Pacific, soon seized, leading to the greatest railroad war in American history.

In From the River to the Sea, bestselling author John Sedgwick recounts, in vivid and thrilling detail, the decade-long fight between General William J. Palmer, the Civil War hero leading the “little family” of his Rio Grande, coming down from Denver, hoping to showcase the majesty of the Rockies, and William Barstow Strong, the hard-nosed manager of the corporate-minded Santa Fe, venturing west from Kansas. What begins as an accidental rivalry when the two lines cross in Colorado soon evolves into an all-out battle as each man tries to outdo the other—claiming exclusive routes through mountains, narrow passes, and the richest silver mines in the world; enlisting private armies to protect their land and lawyers to find loopholes; dispatching spies to gain information; and even using the power of the press and incurring the wrath of the God-like Robber Baron Jay Gould—to emerge victorious. By the end of the century, one man will fade into anonymity and disgrace. The other will achieve unparalleled success—and in the process, transform a sleepy backwater of thirty thousand called “Los Angeles” into a booming metropolis that will forever change the United States.

Filled with colorful characters and high drama, and told at the speed of a locomotive, From the River to the Sea is an unforgettable piece of American history—and one of the last great untold tales of the Wild West.

History Book Club Main Selection 

Military Book Club Alternate Selection 

Library of Science Book Club Alternate Selection 

See my article on the Santa Fe railroad in Smithsonian Magazine, July/August issue 

“A book perfectly suited, in its manageable length and rich incidental detail, for the return of mass air and rail travel . . . [It] has so many outlandish characters—tycoons who fall in love with women named Queenie and Baby Doe; murder among the Wall Street predators—that it seems to demand a big-screen treatment complete with a Robert Morley cameo as Oscar Wilde.”

“Blessed with a set of characters whose duplicity linked the Old West to the Gilded Age, John Sedgwick tells an engrossing story of the railroad battles of a pair of rivals who had talent enough to overcome a challenging landscape, but not enough to match their ambitions. Their failures make the story that culminates in the creation of modern Los Angeles even more intriguing.”
RICHARD WHITE, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

So this is how the west was really won—a visionary Medal of Honor winning Civil War general wages the battles of the great railroad wars, crosses the great American desert with narrow gauge tracks, defeats his ruthless rival and a posse led by Bat Masterson, creates Colorado Springs, marries the woman of his dreams (of course named Queen)--only to see his corporate rival, the Santa Fe, pull into Southern California to create a boom and the rise of the City of Los Angeles. John Sedgwick has written a breathless adventure story, an amazing rip-roaring tale, that glides like a train speeding westward.
SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL, bestselling author of All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln

“In From the River to the Sea, John Sedgwick brings his great gifts as an historian and writer to that most American of stories, the creation of the West, through a wildly colorful railroad war involving a host of characters from Oscar Wilde to a vixen named Baby Doe. Readers will be fascinated and enthralled by the level and depth of the greed, chicanery and violence, but also moved by the immense human yearning.”
EVAN THOMAS, bestselling author of First: Sandra Day O’Connor

“John Sedgwick’s account of the no-holds-barred race to build a railroad from the Mississippi to the Pacific is a propulsive, panoramic tale filled with enough miners, moguls, shysters, hucksters, sharpshooters, and saloon girls to cast a dozen memorable Westerns. The nonstop action will keep readers riveted, but along the way they’ll learn a good deal about capitalism and the American character, a symbiotic mix of ambition, creativity, and greed that, as Sedgwick observes, we now see playing out on the frontiers of Big Tech.”
GEORGE HOWE COLT, bestselling author of The Game and The Big House

From the River to the Sea

Published by Simon & Schuster
Available June 1, 2021

Purchase Online from

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“From the River to the Sea is a wild, rollicking, larger-than-life true story from the golden age of American railroad empiring.  Here are fortunes won and lost overnight, moguls and gunmen, rascals and visionaries, and the likes of Bat Masterson, Jay Gould, Porfirio Diaz, the Harvey Girls, a woman named Queen, and Oscar Wilde, lowered to the bottom of a silver mine in a bucket. Read it and wonder.
KEVIN BAKER, bestselling author of America the Ingenious and Paradise Alley

“From the River to the Sea takes us back 150 years to dramatically and delightfully present an epic struggle between two railroad icons that helped shape the American West. John Sedgwick casts light on the not-terribly-different power struggles of the California and Seattle companies that have replaced rails with websites to shape the future.”
STEVEN LEVY, author of Facebook: The Inside Story

Queen Mellon Palmer at eighteen, when she met the General aboard a train through Ohio. He proposed three weeks later.

Colorado Springs, which Palmer designed for his wife as the Fountain Colony, a kind of members-only club, as Queen first saw it, dishearteningly, in 1872.

The Royal Gorge, which led to the richest silver mine in the west, at Leadville, two miles up—with room only for a single set of tracks.

The Los Angeles train station in the early 1900s, after one of the two railroads succeeded in reaching it, turning a sleepy backwater into the modern LA.

Photography credits:
William Barstow Strong: Kansas State Historical Society; William Jackson Palmer: Carl Mathews Collection, Pikes Peak Library District, 005-375; Queen Palmer: Photograph by William Bell, Margaretta M. Boas Photograph Collection, Pikes Peak Library District, 001-6025; The Royal Gorge, Grand Canyon of the Arkansas: William Henry Jackson, The Royal Gorge, Grand Cañon of the Arkansas, c1880, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program;