Golden Spike National Historic Site – The Place Where the Union Became United
"A Nation previously divided by savages and wild beasts, deserts of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust was now united"
News excerpt of the day
The meeting of the railroad crews of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad and the consequent driving of the final spike stands alone as the most nationally significant event in the history of the State of Utah. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to discuss it in some detail and provide some useful information for those who may want to attend the annual re-enactment that takes place every May 10th or simply visit the site at their leisure.
Even before the Civil War, Congress had sent several surveying expeditions to the west in search of a practical route for the transcontinental railroad. The Beckwith expedition of 1854 that passed through Tooele County was one of these. The companies that were to build the railroad were the Central Pacific Railroad Company who started from California in the west and the Union Pacific Railroad Company who started from the east somewhere in Iowa.
After the Civil War, Congress got serious about completing the project by issuing the competitive companies 30-year government bonds at 6% interest. The bonds were issued per mile and the amount of the bond depended on the roughness of the terrain. Flat land got the companies $ 16,000 per mile, foothills bought $ 32,000 per mile, and mountainous terrain bought $ 48,000 per mile. Due to the money offered in bonds and the land granted to the railroads by the government, the companies competed fiercely to construct the greater portion of the road so that they could get more bonds and land grants. It is important to note that while these were large sums of money, it was still not enough to finance the construction of the railroads and if private enterprise would not have stepped up to the plate, the railroad would never have been finished.
What was the construction like? Well consider the following obstacles that the Central Pacific Railroad faced when it ran into the Sierra Nevada. Trestles and bridges had to be built, cuts and fills were made, snaking grades, and 15 tunnels were blasted through solid granite. One tunnel at the summit was 1700 feet long and it took a year to blast! Most of the Central Pacific Workers were Chinese and they were paid about a dollar per day for their backbreaking labor. Many Chinese were killed during the construction either in explosions, being crushed, or by being buried alive by snow in the Sierra Nevada. 40 miles of snow sheds were also built in these mountains. It was truly an incredible feat of engineering to build a railroad across that mountain wilderness.
Meanwhile, the Union Pacific crews were plodding along west across Nebraska at a rate of about a mile per day. This was a Mammoth effort and literal tent cities would spring up at terminus points which attracted desperados, criminals, gamblers, thieves, women of ill repute, and camp followers. 18,000 men were working on the Union Pacific crew and they were making $ 4.00 per day so money was abundant. This so called "Traveling Hell" of a tent city made many a scheming opportunist rich.
Finally both crews entered Utah and because no meeting place had been determined, it was assumed that the grading crews of each company would eventually meet and link their roads together. This was not the case however. Due to the intense competition between the two railroads, their grading crews simply passed each other and the result was 200 miles worth of parallel grade from Echo Canyon, Utah to Wells, Nevada with each company expecting to be compensated in bonds and land for the work it had completed along this redundant stretch. Newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant told the companies that they had better settle on a meeting place or the government would do it for them. Finally, the railroad companies agreed to join the rails at Promontory, Utah and the competition to get there really heated up.
First the Union Pacific laid 3 miles of track in one day. Then the Central Pacific laid 4.5 miles of track in one day on the floor of the Nevada desert. Not to be done, the Union Pacific crew laid 7.5 miles of track in one 15 hour work day. UP Vice President Thomas Durrant was so confident that this record could not be broken that he bet Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific group $ 10,000 that it could not be beat.
Then on April 28th, 1869, the Central Pacific railroad did the unthinkable. Eight Irish rail handlers and thousands of Chinese labors laid 10 miles of track in one day ending up only 3 miles west of Promontory summit. 3,000 workers, 100 horses, and numerous mule teams moved 2 million pounds of iron rails, 21,000 ties, and drove 84,500 spikes. All of this was completed in a 12 hour work day. This record still stands today as it has never broken, not even by the advanced technology and equipment now available. It is estimated that they laid track at an astonishing 240 feet per minute while accomplishing this historic feat.
While the Central Pacific crews labored up the western side of Promontory summit, the Union Pacific crews ran into their toughest obstacle along their own route route which was the eastern approach to Promontory summit. It is here that they encountered the second steepest grade on the entire Trans-Continental railroad. The Central Pacific grading crew was also working at this point and this is where two of the largest projects on the entire route were built side by side out of stubborn competition.
The UP built their "Big Trestle" which was a timber bridge that was 400 feet long and over 80 feet high. 150 feet to the west, parallel to the big Trestle, the Central Pacific built the "Big Fill" which consist of over 10,000 cubic yards of fill material. Interestingly enough, much of the labor on the Big Fill was done by Mormon laborers. These intense feats of engineering were completed side by side because of the stubborn refusal of the companies to agree on a place to join the rails. Finally a joint resolution of Congress confirmed the selection of Promontory as the place where the "Wedding of the Rails" would take place.
Keeping pace with the construction of the railroad was the Transcontinental Telegraph. Supply trains would bring the poles which were carried along the road bed in wagons. Holes were dug, holes placed and the wires were connected as the operations continued along. Finally, it was time to organize a ceremony to befitting the monumental accomplishment of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Each railroad sent a special train to take part in the ceremony.
The Central Pacific Railroad selected the "Antelope" to take part. This engine was wrecked in the Sierra Nevada by falling logs enroute to the ceremony and was replaced by the "Jupiter" at the last minute. Similarly, the Union Pacific selected the "Durrant Flyer" to represent the UP. Due to recent flood damage to a bridge in Echo canyon making it un-fit for a locomotive as heavy as the Durrant Flyer to cross it, an obscure engine, # 119 that was in Ogden at the time, was rushed to Promontory to participate.
How about the legend of the golden spike? Well, the golden spike was created at the request of David Hewes, a close friend of Leland Stanford who was president of the Central Pacific Railroad. Hewes hired the Garrett foundry to create a golden spike that was 5 5/8 inches long, 14.03 ounces, and of 17.6 carat gold. One side was associated with the words "May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world". One top of the spike the words "The Last Spike" were inscribed. The spike was never driven into the railroad tie as it was too valuable. The real story of what happened is quite entertaining and can be learned if you visit Golden Spike National Historic Site. The actual Golden Spike now resides at the Stanford University Museum along with the solid Silver Spike that was created by Nevada.
What was the significance of this event? I quote the National Park Services historical study "The joining of the rails at Promontory signified the end of the colossal effort to build the first trans-continental railroad in only 6 years years. Representing one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century, completion of this continuous rail line accelerated the settlement and economic development of the American West, spelling the ultimate doom of the American Indians way of life. , economically, and politically. "
As the final iron spike was put into place, it was wired to the telegraph so that the nation could hear the blows as the spike was driven. Telegrapher WN Schilling sent the long awaited message "DONE" 12:47 PM, Monday, May 10, 1869. What an incredible significant event! And to think it happened right here in Utah. You can visit Golden Spike National Historic Site by taking exit 365 at Brigham City and then following Utah State Highway 83 for 32 miles west to Promontory. There are brown signs to guide you to the site along this route. The center is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Many of the famous sites can be seen in one visit. You can actually walk on the "Big Fill" by following the foot trail of the same name. You can take the auto tours and actually drive for miles along the old railroad grades.
You can visit the spot where the Central Pacific laid 10 miles of track in one day. The main attraction has to be the visitor's center where there are interpretive movies, a fine bookstore, and the crown jewels of the site – the beautiful full scale working replicas of the locomotives "Jupiter" and "119". Every year from May 1st through Labor Day, these engines come out of their shed and give a demonstration. It is certainly well worth a visit. A full scale re-enactment of the joining of the rails also occurs every year on May 10th.