Podcast Episodes

A Race to a Tie

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.

A Chinese work camp on the railroad

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.

Replicas of the Jupiter and the 119, used in reenactments at the Golden Spike Historical Site today.

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’s “Champagne” photo

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.


Useful Links

Transcontinental Railroad – The History Channel

The Last Spike – National Parks Traveler

Golden Spike National Historical Site – National Park Service


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Music

Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Switchbacks

Before dawn on what would become a perfect October day in Utah, I set out to attempt a solo hike. It wasn’t the type of hike that would have been a big deal to an avid hiker, but for me, it was bound to be.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, host Jason Epperson’s ordinary journey up the side of a cliff at Zion National Park.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

Zion National Park — National Park Service Website
Trails at 50 T-Shirt — American Backcountry

Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Delicate Arch, and the Strange 1950s Schemes to Reinforce…

There’s one natural rock arch that’s known better than all others in the US, in fact, it’s on the state of Utah’s license plate. It had its own postage stamp, and the 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay passed through it. On this episode of America’s National Parks, Delicate Arch, and the strange history of attempts to protect it at Arches National Park.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Arches National Park – National Park Service Website

The Stabilization of Delicate Arch – Ranger Jim Stiles’ article on his findings

The Natural Arch and Bridge Society


Transcript

Rock arches are one of my favorite wonders of the natural world. The idea that they were organically formed seems almost impossible, but of course, they are. The technical definition of a natural arch is a “rock exposure that has a hole completely through it formed by the natural, selective removal of rock, leaving a relatively intact frame.”

There are about 2000 significant natural arches in the US. A “significant” natural arch has two orthogonal opening dimensions with a product of 10 square meters or more. Of course, there are many more smaller arches. This stuff gets intense.

There’s actually an entire society of arch-lovers, called the Natural Arch and Bridge Society, whose $16 membership fee gets you four issues annually of “Span” magazine. You can find more info than you ever thought you could find about rock arches on their website. From the different classifications, measurement techniques, how they’re formed, how they get named… it’s a fascinating rabbit hole to go down if you have some time to kill.

There’s one arch that’s known better than all others in the US, in fact, it’s on the state of Utah’s license plate. It had its own postage stamp, and the 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay passed through it. On this episode of America’s National Parks, Delicate Arch, and the strange history of attempts to protect it at Arches National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue:

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Arches National Park is home to over 2,000 natural arches that have been carved from tall, fin-like sandstone formations over the course of millennia.

Sandstone is made of grains of sand cemented together by minerals, but not all sandstone is the same. Entrada Sandstone was once a massive desert of fine-grained shifting dunes. The nearly spherical grains, when compressed together, formed a rock that is highly porous.

The Carmel layer, just beneath the Entrada, iss composed of a mix of sand and clay. Clay particles fill in gaps between the sand grains, making the rock denser and less permeable.

Deep below the surface rests a thick layer of salts. Compressed by the tons of rock above it, the salt projected upward, creating domes. The rock layers covering the domes cracked into a series of parallel fins.

Drops of rainwater soaked into the porous Entrada sandstone dissolving the bonds between the sand. The water then puddled just above the Carmel layer, eroding a cavity. The two layers expand when frozen, prying the rock apart, forming an opening. Wind then takes over, like a sandblaster, enlarging the opening and wearing away the exterior of the arch.

The most famous of these arches is the 60-foot tall rock structure that was called by local cowboys “the Chaps” or “the Schoolmarm’s Bloomers.” Today we know it as Delicate Arch, and it attracts nearly 1.5 million visitors per year. The opening is 46 feet high and 32 feet wide, making it the largest free-standing arch in the park.

Delicate Arch wasn’t within the boundaries of the original Arches National Monument in 1929; it was added when the monument was enlarged in 1938. Still, even then, it was the most recognizable feature of the park.

As its name suggests, Delicate Arch is fragile, and the National Park Service goes to great lengths to ensure that visitors don’t degrade it. But despite their best efforts, the same forces that shaped Delicate Arch will one day destroy it, just like the nearby Wall Arch, which collapsed in 2008.

During his first winter at Arches, ranger Jim Stiles spent his days ransacking file cabinets and soaking up every bit of information he could find. One day he came across a folder labeled “Delicate Arch Stabilization Project.” Inside he found a decade of letters and reports discussing the state of the Delicate Arch, and whether or not it should be saved from eventual collapse by the Park Service.

Stiles found that, in 1947, a park custodian wrote to the regional director about the eroded condition of the east leg of Delicate Arch, suggesting that measures be taken to stabilize it.

For the next few years, Park Service officials would discuss the idea, but it was never taken very seriously, except by those who were concerned it could fall on a group of tourists.

But the idea gained traction when Southwest Regional Assistant Director Hugh Miller visited the arch. Miller backed a plan to apply a plaster jacket over the weak point, and then painting it to match the red rock of the arch. The National Park Service’s citizen advisory board opposed stabilization of any formations, but Davis was adamant that Delicate Arch should be an exception for its unique qualities, comparing it to a museum exhibit, according to one of the letters Stiles found.

The decision had been made by park service brass. The arch would be stabilized. But the question of how was still up for debate. A plater cast likely wouldn’t last long in the elements. Representatives from the Engineering Division and the Landscape Architectural Division met to discuss. Ridiculous ideas were floated, such as spraying it with a fixative, perhaps Elmer’s Glue or Lady Clairol Spray-Net. More serious options were a concrete collar, like the plaster jacket, or, most promising, a silicone epoxy spray.

But Park Superintendent Bates Wilson wasn’t sold. He, and others saw that messing with the arch could backfire. Not only would any attempt to stabilize it most certainly cause lasting damage, but the whole thing could also collapse during the effort. Besides, the real danger to the arch wasn’t its imminent collapse, which a band-aid would barely delay. It was graffiti. “The increasing desire of fools to carve their names in public places has reached the highest level possible in Arches at Delicate Arch,” he wrote.

But the regional office ordered the park to test the silicone epoxy, and dozens of samples were ordered from manufacturers. Instead of arguing with the bosses, Bates took a different approach. The slow roll. In fact, the many memos and letters that Stiles found were curiously void of Bates’ name, and the entire staff of Arches remained fairly quiet on the matter.

Memos kept coming in from the regional office asking for updates. Arches did not reply. The regional office asked if more money was needed. Arches did not reply. Finally, the General Superintendent sent Bates a memo saying “Will you please make a special report on this project at your very earliest convenience?” The park staff finally responded, saying they mixed the solution back in February and it was supposed to be applied within 90 days. Now, with winter closing they’d need to order a new mixture. A fine excuse.

Arches successfully fended off the General Superintendent. His memos ceased, but then, a few years later a concerned citizen wrote the National Park Service Director suggesting that a clear, erosion-resistant material be sprayed on the arch. Everyone remembered again.

Bates fended it off again, convincing his senior officials that exposure to the weather had caused the tested coatings to turn white, or scale off, and that much more experimentation would be needed.

And that’s where the idea died, as Bates Wilson outlasted his superiors.

One day, Delicate Arch will fall, as all free-standing arches do. It could be tomorrow, it could be a thousand years from now, but it will now fall as a part of its natural life cycle.

______

Arches National Park hosts over 2,000 natural stone arches, along with hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks, set under the blue skies of southeast Utah.

It’s part of the Colorado Plateau, a “high desert” region that experiences temperature fluctuations over 40 degrees in a single day. The most popular seasons are spring and fall, when daytime highs average from 60 to 80 degrees. Summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, making hiking difficult under the unshielded sun. Winters bring snow and cold, offering the chance for photos with the arches draped in a blanket of white.

For the quick visit, there’s a scenic drive and short trails to viewpoints. But a longer visit is much more rewarding, because some of the best formations take a bit longer of a hike. Arriver early in the morning or late in the afternoon, as parking at most trailheads is full for most of the day. You can even check the park’s webcams to see the current line at the entrance station.

At Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint, you can see Delicate Arch at about one mile’s distance. The nearby Upper Viewpoint, a half-mile walk with stairs, offers a slightly less obstructed view.

The trail to see Delicate Arch up close is 3 miles roundtrip and climbs 480 feet in elevation. On busy days, there is additional parking at the Delicate Arch Viewpoint parking lot. You’ll have to hike an additional mile along the road to the trailhead. The trail can be very busy, with hundreds of people at Delicate Arch for sunset.

Make sure to carry plenty of water and a proper hat and clothing for the hot summer sun or cold winter air.

Devils Garden Campground, 18 miles from the park entrance, is open for reservations March 1 – October 31. All sites are usually reserved months in advance. Between November 1 and February 28, sites are first-come, first-served. Facilities include drinking water, picnic tables, grills, and both pit-style and flush toilets.

There are many commercial campgrounds in the Moab area, and backcountry camping is permitted in a select few locations within the park.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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