Steeling Time

On April 28, 1869, the Central Pacific railroad crews laid 10 miles of track in one day.

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Early in the morning, crews faced a days work, and then some. Before them stretched a smoothly graded path in the Utah desert, the final product of a sizable army of Chinese graders that shoveled, chiseled, blasted, and bored their way nearly 700 miles from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada mountains, then across the desert toward a mountainous peninsula on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.

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The graded path stretched beyond their range of vision. If the crews could deliver on the boast of the railroad’s promoters to lay ten miles of rail in a single day, they would claim an unbeatable record.

At 7 a.m., the lead supply train blasted its whistle, and the machine of men swung into action. Chinese laborers unloaded the first train of kegs, spikes and bolts, bundles of fish-plate fasteners, and rails. “In eight minutes, sixteen cars were cleared, with a nose like the bombardment of an army,” wrote one correspondent.

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At the end of the track stood eight men with tongs to grab the rails. A wood-framed device that ensured 4 feet 8 1/2 inches separated each new rail pair, was moved ahead by two additional men. Two men were at the head and tail of each rail. As the forward pair seized each 30-foot rail, the rear pair helped guide it over the rollers and onto the cross tie. As soon as the rail was in place, one gang started the spikes, eight to each rail, and bolted fishplates at each rail joint; another gang finished the spiking and tightened the bolts.

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As end of track moved onward, ten yards at a clip, track levelers followed in its wake, lifting ties and shoveling dirt under them as needed. At the rear of the column, which eventually stretched out some two miles, were 400 tampers, with shovels and iron bars to give the road bed a firm set. Whenever a workman tired or faltered, a fresh replacement took his place. Horses tired easily on the steep grade and were changed every two hours.

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Progress that day was phenomenal. At a pace that one might average on a day’s walk, the Iron Horse was galloping across the desert. “I never saw such organization,” marveled an Army officer. “It was like an army marching over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.”

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After an hour’s lunch break, the crews returned to action. For almost an hour the most important task, conducted with hammer, wood blocks, and eyesight, was bending rails for the upcoming curve. As the shadows lengthened, the last supply car was unloaded. By seven in the evening, the ten miles of new track, plus 56 extra feet, was complete. The effort had consumed 25,800 ties, 28,160 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and 3,524 rails. In 40 minutes, the superintendent ran an engine over the new ten-mile track to prove its soundness.

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Michael Corbin Ray and I spent months on research for our debut novel, The Long Way. Although the story is fantasy, the locations and historical background are very much real. We took pains to be as true to the people and reality of the times as possible. This involved a great deal of research across a wide variety of subjects, often from first-hand accounts, including the timelines and methods of construction of North America’s first transcontinental railroad.

Creature features: Monsters of the imagination

I was once told that in order to be a good writer one has to be a good observer. Nothing flicks my twisted switch faster than a creature feature and I’ve observed them all. I was raised on a healthy diet of schlocky horror and martial arts movies from the 1930s to 1970s. These genre busting films were broadcast and welcomed into wholesome homes across America via local US television stations during the 1960s and ’70s. This was my candy store. Part sci-fi, part fantasy and a whole lotta scary. The stories I love most feature space aliens, large-scale mutants, and giant nuclear monsters terrorizing planet Earth.

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“Golly. I’m a whole lotta scared.”

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Starring Leslie Nielsen, my favorite Naked Gun.

These films are welcome to wreak havoc on my imagination. The Raven (1963) and The Terror (1963) are smart representations of the creature feature genre. Roger Corman’s B movies are delicious and extraordinary.

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Jack Nicholson (Lt. Andre Duval) pursues a mystery woman to an old baron’s castle.

All of those Japanese monster movies produced by Toho Studios and Daiei Motion Picture Company, known for Godzilla (1954) and Gamera (1966), created more monsters than you can shake a chopstick at.

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“Three heads are better than one.”

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Tail-biting fun.

The Universal Horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s like Frankenstein (1931) and other old RKO Pictures films like King Kong (1933) keeps the schlock menu timeless.

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“I’m king of the world!”

The television stations also broadcast all the great British horror films by Hammer Film Productions like The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939).

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Half-man, half-wolf and a whole lotta hair.

Thanks to a handful of creative and determined directors, this larger-than-life genre will not be eradicated anytime soon.

Director Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 unleashed Kaiju on mankind in Pacific Rim. Giant robots called Jaegers, controlled from within by two pilots, fight giant monsters in a showdown with sea monsters to save humanity. “Engage.”

Featuring all creatures great and small, Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a fun gorefest mash-up. Part slasher and part creature feature. This flick is sassy, sexy and fiendishly funny. Monsters spring up scary surprises at every turn as their appetite increases for pretty young things.

In 2006, Joon-ho Bong made a mutant water dragon emerge from the Han River in Gwoemul (The Host). An idiosyncratic combination of creature feature and thriller with a twist of slapstick and side of dysfunctional family. The world suffers at man’s hand due to environmental carelessness like so many of its predecessors. This creature is aquatic and acrobatic. I’m in love.

What to watch next?

I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Lester last weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. He’s a director and producer of high-action films and I was thrilled to learn that he recently finished directing a creature feature.

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“I eat bikinis for breakfast.”

A small secluded island off the coast of Belize suddenly finds itself terrorized by a deadly predator from Earth’s distant past when deep-sea divers accidentally awaken an ancient evil in Poseidon Rex.

Filmed on location, Lester’s latest opens in theaters and iTunes on April 18th. Listen to his radio interview on America’s Most Haunted.

Sometimes I convince my co-author Michael Corbin Ray to watch B movies with me. Our debut novel The Long Way features a creature. A dragon to be precise. If our genre mash-up story (east meets west) reads like a film we’ll blame it on cinema and the art of observation.