FEATURE — “Are we there yet?”
Just like Bart Simpson, that’s what many parents might hear from their children as they drive out to Promontory Summit in Box Elder County just north of the Great Salt Lake to see the spot where the first transcontinental railroad became reality on May 10, 1869.
To many, “the middle of nowhere” seems a perfect description of this remote area. Without the important event that transpired there, that’s all it would be and practically no one would visit.
Instead, it’s an extremely significant spot where hordes of history buffs have descended to witness reenactments or other festivities marking the beginning of the golden age of transportation in the United States.
It is easily at the top of the list of events with major national significance and repercussions that happened in Utah.
And just as modern-day children (and even adults sometimes) say or think that oft-heard impatient refrain, the top brass down to the graders and track layers of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific probably thought the same thing as they built the grand iron rail that linked the nation from sea to sea a century and a half ago:
“Are we there yet?”
The race to Promontory
Railroads began to emerge in the Eastern half of the U.S. in the 1830s, then started to grow exponentially when the realization of their potential power soaked in. With that realization, talk of a rail line that would span the width of the continent began to gain traction.
One of the main motivations for building a transcontinental railroad was the California Gold Rush, Southern Utah University history professor Laura June Davis said.
“The U.S. government wanted to bridge the gap between the rising populations of the West with the more established East,” Davis explained. “The process of planning a transcontinental railroad, selecting a route and actually building it took a long time, especially as politicians could not agree on a route.”
Surprisingly, the Civil War sped up the process of building the railroad, Davis noted, because predominantly northern legislatures could approve a route and pass land grant acts to aid the railroads without facing objections from their southern counterparts. Not surprisingly, that was the reason a southern route through more favorable terrain and weather was not built first.
The prospect of a railroad from coast to coast excited one young engineer in California, Theodore Judah, who took on the task of surveying a likely route through the Sierra Nevadas. He preached the railroad gospel to any who would listen, convincing a group of Sacramento businessmen and shopkeepers to invest in his operation, which led to the incorporation of the Central Pacific Railroad with Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and eventually Charles Crocker as major backers.
Unfortunately, however, Judah butted heads with these men and sought the help of Eastern investors, namely Cornelius Vanderbilt, instead. While traveling to court this financial backing, Judah contracted yellow fever in Panama and died, becoming an oft-forgotten driving force of the first transcontinental railroad.
Government subsidies became a major impetus for the rail line’s construction by means of the Pacific Railroad Act President Abraham Lincoln signed into law in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War. The act would give the two future competing railroad companies land grants (which ended up being larger than the land area of Texas) and an established amount of money per mile of track they laid. For instance, the government provided the companies 30-year loans based on the terrain encountered, including up to $48,000 per mile across high mountains, up to $32,000 per mile across the isolated Great Basin and up to $16,000 per mile across the flat plains.
The quest to gain the most from the government’s generosity started what would become a race across the continent between two newly formed railroad companies, the Central Pacific, starting from Sacramento in January 1863 and the Union Pacific, initiating its line from Omaha, Nebraska, in December of that same year.
The head start was necessary for the Central Pacific since the Union Pacific had the easier job, traversing the great plains and, in general, less mountainous terrain while the Central Pacific fought against the imposing Sierra Nevadas.
Instead of formidable mountains, one of the Union Pacific’s construction challenges was hostile Native Americans. As prominent Latter-day Saint historian Leonard Arrington wrote in an article titled “The Railroad and the West” in the Winter 1969 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly, “men worked near stacks of carbines held in readiness to cope with surprise attacks by Indians who objected to this symbol of permanent trespass upon their hunting ground.”
In contrast, the Central Pacific did not encounter such clashes, as its directors insisted that the indigenous people be allowed to ride.
“We gave the old chiefs a pass each, good on the passenger cars,” Central Pacific director Huntington recalled, as quoted by Arrington, “and we told our men to let the common Indians ride on the freight cars whenever they saw fit.”
Due to these harsh conditions and the difficult work, the Central Pacific started hiring Chinese laborers, who proved integral in fulfilling the massive undertaking. By 1867, the Central Pacific employed approximately 11,000 Chinese laborers.
With the Chinese contingent in the workforce, construction went faster. It was Union Pacific Director Charles Crocker who advocated the idea of employing the Chinese, largely due to his experience with a faithful Chinese servant. Crocker, however, faced resistance, especially from the work superintendent, J. H. Strobridge. Crocker insisted that if the Chinese built the Great Wall of China, they could surely build a railroad.
Strobridge acquiesced after a series of trials demonstrating the Chinese to be more than fit for the job. He later complemented the workers from the Far East, saying, “they learn quickly, do not fight, have no strikes that amount to anything and are very clean in their habits,” as quoted in a story by George Kraus in the Winter 1969 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly. Despite anti-Chinese sentiment of the time, many came forward to compliment the Chinese, including Central Pacific President Leland Stanford and Union Pacific Chief Engineer Grenville Dodge, who were both pleased at their hard work and few complaints.
The three main jobs for workers toiling on the first transcontinental railroad were tunnelers, graders and track layers. Tunnelers set and blasted dynamite to dig tunnels through the mountains, graders shaped the continuous, level, raised bed for the railway and track layers installed the ties and the track.
The Central Pacific tunnelers faced the grueling job of blasting through the Sierra Nevada’s solid granite walls, sometimes only managing 8 inches per day in the worst winter conditions. Some historians later suggested that the Central Pacific could have built the line cheaper and faster if it had ceased construction during the winter. A friend of Crocker’s concluded that had speed not been a factor in building the railroad, the costs of building it could have been reduced by 70%. Many historians agree that if both companies were not racing to collect government subsidies, the quality of construction would have been much better. Even after the meeting of the two rail lines at Promontory, building crews stayed on the payroll to complete repairs on track laid too hastily.
In contrast, their Union Pacific counterparts encountered soft clay rock and sandstone in the mountains and canyons of Wyoming and Utah. In that unstable environment, cave-ins were inevitable, which meant every inch of the tunnel had to be reinforced with timbers as blasting continued.
The track layers made an anvil chorus as they worked industriously putting down ties then iron rails on top of them. To the trained eye, the Central Pacific’s ties were more aesthetically pleasing as the company set up sawmills in the Sierra Nevadas and produced uniformly milled ties. The Central Pacific, in contrast, used rough-hewn ties from mountains along the way as well as from trees felled along riverbanks and wherever else they could find them. The result was irregular-shaped, hand-hewn ties, an interpretive display in Golden Spike National Historic Park’s museum notes.
European-Americans, on average, were paid a dollar a day with room and board included. Chinese workers were paid essentially the same wage but without room and board, equating to about ⅔ less than their white counterparts. Because of the extra danger involved in the work, tunnel workers received three cents more per day than regular workers.
Besides wage discrimination, the Chinese laborers faced a disparity in living conditions as well. Euroamerican workers were housed in a sleeping train that followed workers’ progress, but the Chinese slept in tents alongside it. Nationally, Chinese laborers didn’t receive much credit for their constant toil. For instance, an eight-man crew of Chinese workers placed the last section of rail before the famous “Golden Spike” ceremony at Promontory, but they were removed when it came time for the iconic photograph of the event.
“The erasure of Chinese workers from the Promontory celebration needs to be addressed,” Southern Utah University professor Earl Mulderink said.
“It is surprising to me how quickly this country shifted from welcoming Chinese laborers to help complete the Pacific Coast-to-Utah portion of the railroad to turning against Chinese immigration in the following years,” Ohio University professor Michael Sweeney said. “It seems to be parallel in some ways to what we see today: We welcome immigrants to do some of our dirty work (and many Chinese died in the construction) to losing some of our ardor for their presence once they have done the job that brought them here.”
Despite this, the Chinese moved forward with ardor of their own. Crocker’s New Year’s resolution in 1868 was to lay a mile of track per day, and by the end of the year, he succeeded. On April 28, 1869, a whopping 10 miles of track was laid as the Central Pacific started to see the end in sight, but it took quite a while to figure out where that “end” would be.
It wasn’t until early 1869 that Promontory Summit was settled on as the meeting point of the two competing companies.
“Lacking precise instruction from Congress as to where to meet, and spurred by financial rewards for building grade, both railroad companies prepared railbed past each other for 250 miles,” a historic park interpretive sign remarks. “No parallel track was ever laid.”
Just before 1 p.m. on May 10, 1869 the ceremonial last spikes were “driven” into predrilled holes. After having placed approximately six million iron spikes over the course of six years, two of the railroad barons, responsible for spearheading the 1,776-mile iron line, Stanford and Union Pacific President Thomas Durant, both big on making a show of things, relished the opportunity to “finish” the job with hammers wired to the nearby telegraph line. Speeches and a prayer were offered before the two bosses did their ceremonial duty.
“Governor Stanford stepped up, took the hammer, swung, and missed,” an interpretive sign at the park describing the event recounts. “Then Dr. Durant took his turn … and also missed the spike. With each swing of mauls, the crowd of workingmen broke into spontaneous applause.”
The crew bosses for each line, Central Pacific’s Strobridge and the Union Pacific’s Samuel Reed then took up unwired hammers and “divided the last blows between them, as the air exploded with hurrahs.”
Those four precious metal spikes — two gold, one silver and one gold and silver — were placed into the predrilled holes in a polished laurelwood ceremonial tie but were later removed and replaced with regular ties and iron spikes. None of the ceremonial spikes are at the park itself. One of the original golden spikes resides at Stanford University.
With telegraph lines crisscrossing the country, news of the railroad’s completion spread quickly.
“As the word went out over the wires, the nation went wild,” an interpretive sign at the historic part notes. “In city after city, church bells rang, trains hooted, fire engines howled, gongs clanged and canons thundered … Countless orators hailed this as a ‘great day’ of national destiny.”
In all, the Union Pacific laid 1,086 miles of track and the Central Pacific 690. Four other transcontinentals followed the first. The last one, the Great Northern, which was entirely privately financed, was finished in 1893.
Latter-day Saint settlers and the railroad
Utah’s early settlers, largely members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were filled with both trepidation and jubilation about the imminent coming of the railroad. They knew it would signal the end of their isolation and could bring a caliber of people to which they were not accustomed, the ruffians and riffraff that characterized the West in many places.
In truth, Brigham Young, on behalf of the church itself, was one of the first stockholders of the Union Pacific, which showed his feelings toward the grand undertaking.
LDS settlers both feared and greatly anticipated the economic effects the iron horse would bring. They looked forward to easy passage for future converts immigrating to their state of Deseret as well as the influx of products the railroad would bring from the East. However, that increase in outside goods, they feared, might undercut local industry by bringing in cheaper items that could hurt local producers or put them out of business entirely.
One boon to the local economy the railroad brought before its completion was work that paid much-needed cash. Young negotiated grading contracts with both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, which were complimentary of the LDS men’s industriousness.
“The railroad helped erode the insularity of the ‘Mormon Kingdom’ in the territory by bringing quick and easy access of people and goods to Salt Lake City and Ogden,” Southern Utah University history professor Mark Miller said. “Economically, cheaper goods could be brought to Utah markets, helping consumers who had generally suffered from their isolation, especially the great expense of bringing manufactured goods via wagons from both east and west. It brought in people with diverse views from many cultures; it opened the state to new markets and economic opportunities.”
Miller noted that the railroad also spurred the growth of the mining industry, as it enabled valuable minerals to be transported to mills and markets outside the territory. Additionally, the experience of the LDS workmen grading for the two companies proved integral in building future Utah railroads.
Establishment of Golden Spike National Historic Park
Promontory Summit’s day in the sun was short-lived, as only eight months after the driving of the Golden Spike, the terminus of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific was moved to Ogden.
Its ultimate demise came when the Southern Pacific, heir of the Central Pacific, built the Lucin Cut-off, a 103-mile long track across the middle of the Great Salt Lake. After that, train traffic along its route dwindled until, in 1942, the track was torn out completely, the metal donated to the war effort during World War II.
After the tracks went by the wayside, the one thing at the site that reminded anyone passing by of what happened was an 11-foot-tall concrete obelisk marker with a plaque placed there in 1916 and a short strip of rail.
However, just a few years before the tracks’ removal, Promontory staged a re-enactment of the meeting of the two railroads in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1939 film “Union Pacific,” which put the finishing of the first transcontinental railroad into the national public consciousness again.
“As portrayed on celluloid by DeMille, the trains and scenes of Promontory, or approximations of them … became icons for yet another generation,” Richard Francaviglia wrote in his book, “Over the Range: A History of the Promontory Summit Route of the Pacific Railroad.” “DeMille’s film gave the events on-screen a larger than life quality that would become a hallmark of later Western films.”
DeMille and his crew had to use stand-in locomotives as the Central Pacific’s Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s No. 119 because both companies, lacking the sentimentality of today, scrapped them in the early 20th century.
Despite the lack of a rail line at Promontory, events celebrating the joining of the rails became an institution, first drawing people locally, then nationally, Francaviglia wrote. The first recurring annual celebration started in 1951 with locals dressed in period clothing. Men even donned fake beards, many of which blew off one year in the fierce wind. Ceremonies went on year after year regardless of the weather.
After the celebration in 1958, there was a feeling among the participants that something was missing, since all that was there was the marker and the remaining rail. This initiated a campaign to turn the site into something more — a national monument.
A few locals, including Horace Sorenson and Bernice Gibbs Anderson, contacted members of Congress as well as the National Park Service, telling them that the meeting of the two railroads was one of the ten greatest events in U.S. history and should be memorialized and interpreted by the NPS, which thankfully was becoming more active at preserving and interpreting sites of national historic significance.
Sorenson also made a trip to the District of Columbia to evangelize his idea, and it paid off. When he returned to Utah, he helped get the Union Pacific interested in immortalizing “the age of steam railroading,” prompting the company to install trackage and donate rolling stock and a steam locomotive for the site, Francaviglia wrote. The Southern Pacific followed suit and donated a steam locomotive and a section worker’s handcar. This established a “railroad village” dedicated a year later.
In 1960, the Golden Spike Association of Box Elder County and the Box Elder County Commission staged a pageant on the anniversary day, inviting NPS officials to join them. On July 30, 1965, Promontory Summit was designated Golden Spike National Historic Site instead of a national monument, with plans already underway for a grand centennial celebration.
With the rise for historic preservation and accuracy, any old steam engine to commemorate such a grand event would not do. The public demanded that the site have locomotives that actually looked like the originals of 1869.
So the task of fashioning replicas began in the 1970s. The trouble was, no original plans of the Jupiter and No. 119 existed. Instead, the craftsmen who built the re-creations had to solely rely on photographic evidence and painted them as accurately as possible despite the fact that the colors of the original locomotives were not known for a certainty.
For instance, portions of the Jupiter were originally painted red, as it seemed the most likely original color, until a recently discovered article from an early Sacramento newspaper revealed the color was really blue. With the NPS’s desire for accuracy, the color was quickly changed to royal blue.
The replicas, which look practically identical to the originals, began their service for the 1979 annual celebration and have been a park staple ever since.
In 2018, Golden Spike, with legislation spearheaded by former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, became a national historic park.
“In some cases, a redesignation of a unit of the National Park Service might include a change to the park’s boundary, or acquisition of additional assets or resources,” Park Superintendent Leslie Crossland said. “While we don’t expect any significant changes at Golden Spike in the near future, we are excited about the possibility that having a different name might encourage more visitors to the park itself, but also other locations in Box Elder County and northern Utah in general.”
The railroad legacy
One of the most important legacies of the completion of the transcontinental railroad is that it unified the nation. Before its completion, to reach the West was an arduous ordeal that could last months. With the railroad, it was shortened to just a few days.
“Having one railroad link the east and west coasts completed the transition, begun during the Civil War, from the United States being plural (the United States are a great nation) to singular (the United States IS a great nation),” Sweeney said.
On this vein, the “Salt Lake Telegram” declared the day after the driving of the Golden Spike that, “the inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard and the dwellers of the Pacific slopes are no longer separated as distinct peoples, they are henceforth members of the same great family, united by great principles and general interests.”
Most think that the first transcontinental railroad directly connected the East and the West, but in reality it only extended as far east as Council Bluffs, Iowa, at the time of the driving of the Golden Spike, Davis pointed out. At Council Bluffs, other railroads took riders further East.
“Initially, Council Bluffs, Iowa, did not connect via railroad to Omaha, Nebraska,” Davis explained. “Riders had to cross the Missouri River before a railroad bridge was finally constructed in 1872, three years after the Golden Spike ceremony.”
Sweeney also noted that, with the completion of the railroad, companies such as Sears, Swift, Armour and General Mills could ship their products coast to coast and the railroad also provided access to gold, silver and copper mines, as well as timberlands, in the Northwest. The rail line also created “national agenda for public opinion,” Sweeney said, providing national audiences for magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McClure’s.
In addition to its major domestic economic impacts, the completion of the railroad also allowed the U.S. “to look beyond its borders for travel and trade in Asia, because easterners could finally reach the West, and Europe, because westerners could finally reach the East,” said Michael Green, professor of history at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Additionally, the railroad was the first truly large public-private partnership, with the federal government expanding its activities to ensure it prospered. The railroad can also be considered America’s first “big business.”
“It was not simply a group of buccaneering businessmen taking a leap on their own,” Green noted.
One lasting legacy of the railroad that still affects Americans every day is time zones.
“Before railroads moved people quickly from east to west, every little town had its own time zone, with noon being the moment the sun was at its apex,” Sweeney explained. “(Travelers) would have no way of knowing what the local time was when (their) train pulled into a new station, and it would be hard to plan to catch the next train. Because of the transcontinental railroad and the lines that followed it, you are probably reading this in Mountain Daylight Time. Yes, we got time zones from the railroads.”
The railroad was also a catalyst for technological innovation and a symbol of American progress.
“It’s completion is analogous to the first human landing on the moon a century later,” Mulderink noted.
One of its negative legacies, however, is accelerating the removal of Native Americans off their ancestral lands.
“Westward expansion may have played a positive role in the lives of white Americans, but it was deeply negative for Native Americans,” said Dixie State University history professor Jeremy Young. “It contributed to the final defeat of Native Americans in the American west, as it cemented the government’s claim to their land and helped inaugurate an increased drive in the 1880s to exterminate Native American tribes and cultures.”
The sesquicentennial celebration
While annual re-enactments of the first Golden Spike Ceremony have gone on since 1951, as previously mentioned, the one this year is a huge deal.
To mark the 150th anniversary, the state of Utah wanted to celebrate in a big way. To coincide with this landmark year, many events are going on, from concerts to a wagon train.
“Events for the 150th have been happening all over the state, thanks to our partner, the Spike 150 Foundation,” said Julie Blanchard, Golden Spike’s special events coordinator. “Here at Golden Spike National Historical Park there will be a full three-day celebration at the site. We will have a television broadcast, a children’s choir, a large festival area with variety of activities, food vendors and entertainment.”
“If you’ve ever been to Golden Spike’s annual May 10 celebration, there will definitely be a feeling reminiscent of years past, including the operation of the replica steam locomotives 119 and Jupiter and the historic reenactment by local volunteers,” Crossland said. “With events happening throughout the state, combined with everything on-site at Golden Spike, Utah will have a fitting tribute to the incredible feat that was the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.”
Even though it is a bit of a drive out to the park from the Wasatch Front, Blanchard said the festivities of the weekend will be like nothing that has happened at the park before.
“The park itself is a great site to see, the landscape for the most part looks exactly as it did in 1869,” Blanchard said. “To be able to walk or drive on the original grade that was built for the railroad in 1869 is something you can’t experience anywhere else.”
“We don’t get many visitors these days that didn’t know what they were coming out to see thanks to all the information that is on the internet,” Blanchard said. “We do see a lot of history and railroad buffs at the park who already know the story, but we hope that everyone else will leave with an understanding of the significance of the site.”
Visiting Golden Spike National Historic Park
Golden Spike National Historic Park is an approximate five and a half to six hour drive from the St. George area. Simply head north on I-15 and take Exit 365 just north of Brigham City and make a left onto westbound State Route 83 for approximately 28 miles.
The park features a visitor center with interpretive displays that show tools and equipment used to build the transcontinental railroad. Visitors can also see a film that provides a brief overview of the history of the railroad’s construction and, of course, stand where the first Golden Spike Ceremony took place, complete with a replica of the original polished laurelwood tie.
The main attractions, however, especially for younger visitors, are the replicas of the two trains that took part in the original ceremony, which are on display most days during the summer. Reenactments happen most summer Saturdays. Check the park’s website for an updated schedule of these events.
Southern Utahns don’t have to drive to the tip of northern Utah to see museum displays interpreting the building of the transcontinental railroad. The Silver Reef Museum is hosting a traveling display called “Tunnels, Trestles, Track” focusing on the lives of the first transcontinental railroad’s Chinese Laborers. It will be on display at the museum’s Cosmopolitan restaurant until June 15.
For a virtual tour of the terrain and the history of the building of the first transcontinental railroad, visit the online resource developed by the Spike 150 Foundation and Utah Division of State History.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people, places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series
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