This episode was written by Lindsey Taylor, whose blog “The Curiosity Chronicles” follows her adventures around the world.
On May 10th, 1869, in Promontory Summit, Utah, two sets of ordinary railroad tracks met under extraordinary circumstances. Together the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies, building from Sacramento, California, and Omaha, Nebraska, joined to revolutionize travel. Before that day, a single person would pay $1000 to travel from east to west in the United States. On a steam engine train, it only cost $150. More than 1700 miles of track were laid in just seven years, across deserts, over plains, and through mountains. Its completion was one of the most defining moments in our nation’s history.
On today’s episode of America’s National Parks, the Golden Spike National Historical Park, and the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, celebrating its 150th anniversary this May.
Listen below, or continue reading.
Asa Whitney, an entrepreneur from New York, was the first person to suggest a federally-funded railroad stretching to the Pacific. At that time, around 9,000 miles of trail existed east of the Missouri River. He presented the idea to Congress in 1845, but the plan hit many roadblocks and lacked support. Fifteen years later, Theodore Judah, an engineer, found the perfect place for a railroad to cut through the formidable Sierra Nevada mountains: Donner Pass. After gaining support from investors in Sacramento, Judah traveled to Washington to convince the president and congressional leaders.
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, he created the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad Companies. The Central Pacific was based in Sacramento and the Union Pacific would start from Omaha, Nebraska, with plans for both companies to join their tracks somewhere in the middle. For each mile of track, the companies would get 6,400 acres of land and $48,000 in government bonds. The acreage was later doubled to 12,800. These rewards turned the plan into an intense competition.
Union Pacific started its journey west in May 1866. One of the biggest challenges for the company was losing employees in bloody battles with Native American tribes, including the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne, who were likely feeling vulnerable as the industrial train tracks and white man’s “iron horse” cut through their land.
On the other side of the country, Central Pacific was facing its own challenges. Building tracks across the Sierra Nevada mountains proved to be more time consuming and dangerous than the plains of Nebraska. On top of dangerous conditions, many employees of the railroad company were leaving their jobs to search for gold and silver on the west coast.
Charles Crocker, the Chief Railroad contractor for the Central Pacific believed hiring Chinese workers would solve their problem. Discrimination and pervasive racism towards the Chinese led many people to believe they wouldn’t be able to handle the 10-12 hours shifts 6 days a week.
More than 11,000 workers were hired to lay tracks heading east. Chinese workers were excellent and were eventually able to lay 10 miles of track in one day, a record which still stands. They were exceptional builders and highly dependable but their superiors and other laborers treated them poorly, even though their work continues to hold up after 150 years. They were paid less than their European counterparts, too. As the Chinese proved their worth over time, wages increased to $30 per month (around $900 today). It was nearly equal to white workers, with a catch: While other workers’ daily needs were provided, Chinese laborers were still required to fund their own food, housing, and clothes out of pocket.
As the Central Pacific pushed east, employees continued to face harsh work conditions and environments. Canvas tents along the rail line were not ideal and were eventually upgraded to wooden bunkhouses, especially for mountain regions with less forgiving weather. High winds, frigid temperatures, blistering heat, and varied precipitation tested the will of everyone. While building through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a single avalanche took the lives of at least 100 Central Pacific workers, many of them Chinese. Injuries and deaths were not recorded as employees were viewed as a replaceable resource by supervisors.
Some elements of Chinese camp culture led to an even higher level of efficiency. Chinese work gangs each had a cook that prepared meals of dried vegetables, seafood, and different kinds of meat, which was a much healthier diet than the other camps. Frequent bathing and laundry proved to prevent disease. Their tradition of drinking tea throughout the day meant that cooks would boil all the water, killing any germs present.
By 1867, Union Pacific had already traveled four times as far as the Central Pacific. But once Central Pacific blasted through the last of the Sierra Nevada mountains, they began gaining speed towards Salt Lake City. When the two companies were building just miles apart in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant held back federal funds until a meeting location was established. A point was chosen 690 track-miles from Sacramento and 1,086 from Omaha, just north of the Great Salt Lake: Promontory Summit.
Schenectady Locomotive Works of New York built four locomotives for Central Pacific: Storm, Leviathan, Whirlwind, and Jupiter. The company dismantled them and shipped them to San Francisco by traveling south. Far South. All the way around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. They were then reassembled at the Central Pacific headquarters in Sacramento after being shipped upriver by a barge. All four were put into service in March 1869. Jupiter was then chosen to pull the train to Promontory.
In the week leading up to May 10th, 1869, canvas tents began popping up at Promontory Summit. Railroad agents, telegraph crews, construction camps, saloons, and restaurants all opened in preparation for the ceremony and the travelers that came to watch the tracks meet. Other towns along the railroad, like Reno, and Cheyenne, also started out this way. All that was left to do was wait for the two steam engines to arrive.
The Chief Engineers of Central and Union Pacific, Samuel S. Montague and Grenville M. Dodge, were present for the ceremony, as well as Union Pacific President Stanford and Central Pacific Vice President Thomas Durant. Andrew J. Russell, a special duty photographer sent by the U.S. Military Railroad Construction Corps, took the most famous photo of the event, often known as “The Champagne Photo.” In it, workers and engineers are celebrating with the Union Pacific engine No. 119 and Central Pacific’s Jupiter in the background, so close on the tracks they are almost touching. Champagne bottles were broken on each locomotive, and Montague and Dodge can be seen shaking hands in the center.
Russell remembered the moment as a historic one: “Last Monday as I witnessed the driving of the last spike in this great work, I felt a pride in being in a certain sense a representative of the people… Standing amid ‘The Antres vast and Desert wild’ surrounded with the representative men of the nation, an epoch in the march of civilization was recorded, and a new era in human progress was ushered in.”
David Hewes, a contractor from San Francisco, used $400 of his own gold to cast a golden railroad spike, after failing to find anyone else to finance a commemorative item for the railroad’s completion. A small amount of gold was reserved for a small sprue that was attached to the top. Engravings covered all sides of the spike, including its top, which read “The Last Spike.” One side reads, “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world. Presented David Hewes, San Francisco.”
Though the Golden Spike is the most famous, four separate spikes were present the day the railroad was completed: A silver spike from Nevada, a gold and silver spike from the Arizona territory, and a second gold spike from San Francisco.
Because the Golden Spike was made of 17.6-carat gold, the spike was not driven into the tie–it wouldn’t have survived. All four spikes were instead “gently tapped” into a polished laurelwood tie that was the last laid as part of the railroad.
After the ceremony, the spikes and tie were removed and replaced with a pine tie and ordinary spikes, but the ceremony wasn’t over yet. Union Pacific President Stanford took the first swing to drive in a spike and struck the pine tie instead of any spikes. Central Pacific VP Thomas Durant took a turn and missed both the spike and the tie. A railroad worker was brought forward to swiftly finish driving all four spikes. Engineers wired a telegraph line to the fourth iron spike, which was struck with an iron hammer so that the nation could listen to the final spike being placed.
The Golden Spike was personally owned by and given back to David Hewes and is now on display at the museum at Leland Stanford Junior University in Palo Alto, California. The sprue of gold that was attached to the spike was made into four small rings and seven small watch fobs. The rings were given to Leland Stanford, Union Pacific president Oakes Ames, President Ulysses S. Grant, and Secretary of State William H Seward.
A full 96 years after the completion of the railroad, Golden Spike National Historical Park was established on July 30th, 1965. Bernice Gibbs Anderson was the champion of the campaign to preserve the site, who spent 38 years of her life arguing for its protection. The legacy of the Chinese workers continues to live on through the historic park visitor center. When constructing facilities, administrators chose a stone that only exists in a local quarry and China to honor the Chinese workers: a light green Cuprous Quartzite.
The park is located about 80 miles from Salt Lake City on a paved road that has a fairly steep climb — it closes every now and then due to winter weather. Gas and other services are not available within 27 miles, and cell coverage is limited. Make sure to plan ahead.
The site where the last spike was driven is located within a hundred yards of the Visitor Center and is commemorated by a polished wooden tie with a plaque resting inches from where the 1869 ceremony was held.
Transcontinental Railroad – The History Channel
The Last Spike – National Parks Traveler
Golden Spike National Historical Site – National Park Service
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Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.