Located in Promontory Point, Utah, Golden Spike National Historic Site celebrates a great event in United States History. It is in Promontory Point that the transcontinental railroad met, joining east with west. Visitors to this remote section of Utah, about an hour drive northwest of Ogden, can step back into history when the west was still wild and untamed and anything seemed possible to the men trying to tame it.
This same area was made famous to the masses by the 1999 summer blockbuster movie Wild Wild West. On May 10, 1869 the Central Pacific Railroad, building east from Sacramento, California, and the Union Pacific Railroad building west from Omaha, Nebraska met in a symbolic ceremony of engineering achievement. The country was now united with high-speed rail access from the east coast to the west coast. It was the dawn of a new era in the American west, and the beginning of the end for the Native American tribes. However the story isn't that simple.
The idea to build a transcontinental railroad was originally hatched by the Sacramento Valley Railroad Company in the early 1860'ies. Until that time stagecoach and horseback were the only ways to make the long dangerous journey out to the eastern United States via land route. Or you could take an equally long, dangerous and uncomfortable trip on a sailing ship around South America. The route was envisioned as a way to move mail, supplies, and immigrants into the growing American west.
The biggest challenge to the completion of this railroad was the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 1862, Theodore Judah of Sacramento had formed a plan. The young engineer had scouted out a route through the high Sierras over to the Rocky Mountains. He persuaded a cartel of wealthy Sacramento merchants to create the Central Pacific Railroad.
That same year the United States Congress authorized the Central Pacific Railroad to start building east from Sacramento. At the same time the Union Pacific Railroad of New York was authorized to start building west. Because the United States was in the throws of the civil war and there was no southern state Congressional input, a safer more central route was chosen and the rail was laid close to what was the Mormon Trail with the effort starting in Omaha, Nebraska.
In January of 1863, the Central Pacific Railroad started construction east out of Sacramento, while in December of that same year, the Union Pacific started west. Very little was actually completed during the first two years. The resources and attention of the country was focused on the Civil War. There was more profit to be made from the war effort than from creating a transcontinental railroad.
At wars end in 1865 progress on the railroad exploded. Despite a rush of money, men and materials both companies had unique problems in their history efforts.
The Central Pacific Railroad had to rely on every piece of equipment, every spike, even every engine making a 15,000-mile journey by ship from the east coast around Cape Horn. They also immediately hit the Sierra Nevada Mountains requiring great trestles and tunnels to be built, the longest of these being over 1,600 feet where the solid granite was blasted out with nitroglycerin.
Native Americans who saw the railroad as a great threat and encroachment on their land constantly harassed the Union Pacific Railroad heading west. Torrential rains and floods would wash out trestles built over lazy Midwestern rivers. Logistics of bringing supplies up the line was also a major problem.
The sweat of the common man and immigrant laborers built the transcontinental railroad earning a dollar a day wages. From the east vast numbers of the unemployed, Union and Confederate veterans, Irish immigrants and ex-slaves toiled laying on average two to five miles of track a day. It was an explosive combination, and fights, lawlessness, lynching and drunken bloodshed was commonplace. It was this rabble heading west that created the expression, "Hell on wheels."
The Central Pacific Railroad in Sacramento had a different problem. There was a major labor shortage on the west coast. Most people in California headed out west in search of gold. The Central Pacific Railroad relied on Chinese immigrants, over 10,000 of them, to lay the tracks east.
By the summer of 1868 the Central Pacific crews had made their way through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. In five years they had gone only 200 miles. The Union Pacific, heading west had a much easier time laying over 700 miles of track across the relatively flat plains. The race was on to grab as much track as possible.
Both railroad companies were given government subsidies based on how much land they covered. So teams of graders, who level the land and create a flat bed for the track raced ahead of the track laying effort. By the end of 1868 they had passed each other by over 200 miles, and tension was growing between the two companies. Congress decided that the meeting place for the two railroads would be Promontory Summit, in Utah.
On May 10, 1869 the entire country held it's breath and waited. A telegraph station had been set up and everyone was waiting for the word that the final spike had been driven and east had met west. An army detachment was sent in to help clear the crowd that had formed to see this event. There was even concern that the track wouldn't be completed and on May 8th laborers from both companies laid ten miles of track in a single day.
Leland Stanford, the governor of California, was given the honor of driving the last spike (President Grant was not even in attendance). It was a symbolic golden spike made from the hills of California. Engraved on the spike was the words, "May God continue the unity of out Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world."
Because gold is so soft, the hole for the spike had been pre-made, and the actual spike to finish the rail would be steel. The telegraph operator sent the message, "All ready now. The spike will soon be driven. The signal will be three dots for the commencement of the blows."
Governor Stanford swung the hammer to drive the spike, the crowd was electrified with excitement, and he missed. Dr. Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific Railroad then tried to drive the spike and also missed. The telegraph operator tapped out the three dots anyway and the country celebrated. One of the railroad engineers (there is some historical debate) then drove the golden spike in. In the end it seemed appropriate that a common man completed the project built by the labor of so many.
The railroad engine from the Central Pacific Railroad, the Jupiter, pulled forward to meet Engine 119 from the Union Pacific. As the two great engines gently touched, the engineers broke bottles of champagne on them. East had met west and the continent would never be the same. What use to take months by sailing ship would now only take four days. The great American west was open and the flood of settlers would never be stopped.
When visiting Golden Spike National Historic Site you can see recreations of the Jupiter and Engine 119 on outside display during the summer months. They sit on a single track facing each other in an endless acknowledgement of the great event that happened over a century ago. Volunteers work to keep both of these great engines running and historical recreations of the driving of the last spike are done on the weekends. The ceremony is not to be missed and history and railroad enthusiasts alike will find this an amazing experience. During the summer months the engines are run each day and young and old alike delight in their operation.
Golden Spike National Historic Site also has a museum and interpretive center. The original Union Pacific grade, all that is left of the original transcontinental railroad, can still be seen. Heading west into the park it is almost impossible to miss the remnants of the Union Pacific trestle site jutting out of the rocky desert terrain that surrounds the area. Most of the parks roadway actually sits on the Central Pacific Railroad Grade and the long abandoned Union Pacific Grade makes for excellent and easy hiking.
Ironically it was another war that brought an end to the tracks of the original transcontinental railroad. In 1942 the rails were removed to support the United States efforts in fighting World War II. That old helmet your grandfather has sitting in his attic may just be an even larger part of United States history.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Golden Spike National Historic Site
Location: Northeastern Utah, near Salt Lake City and Ogden
Nearest Major Air Service: Salt Lake City, Utah
Fees & Permits: Varies depending on season. $7 per car or $3.50 per person in the summer, $4 per car or $2.50 per person in the winter.
Why Visit: Important piece of American history. One of the best historical parks that the whole family can enjoy.
When To Visit: Year round, best from April to October
Essential Gear: Depends on activity, sunscreen, camera and water (other equipment strongly recommended)
You Should Know: Located in a very remote section of Utah. Don't expect a lot of gas stations or other services. Desert environment. Best to call ahead to find out when recreations are happening and what other activities are going on. Be prepared for desert hiking if you plan to hike on the old railroad grade.
More Information: Golden Spike National Historic Site, Box 897, Brigham City, Utah 84302, (801) 471-2209