Home City Life Myth and History: Driving the Golden Spike

Myth and History: Driving the Golden Spike

Myth and History: Driving the Golden Spike

Golden spikehe big moment had finally arrived. It was an auspiciously sunny day. The two locomotives—United Pacific’s No. 119 facing west and Central Pacific’s Jupiter facing east—were in place where miles of track met at Promontory Summit in the middle of Utah’s West desert. In other words, the middle of nowhere. All the dignitaries were gathered as well as a crowd of, oh, anywhere from 500 to 3,000, depending on who was reporting. The telegraph was set up. The specially crafted laurel-wood tie, the silver maul and the famous Golden Spike were in place. The world was waiting. Central Pacific president Leland Stanford and United Pacific vice-president Thomas Durant tapped the Gold Spike, then stepped up to the real iron spike. Stanford took a swing…and missed the spike entirely, hitting only the tie. Durant, who had cancelled his scheduled speech because of a headache—likely caused by too much pre-ceremony partying—missed the spike and the tie. Others, including Harriet Strobridge, wife of UP construction James H. Strobridge and defacto camp nurse, also took a swing. A railroad worker, probably Chinese, actually hammered home the iron spike with an iron maul, both wired to the telegraph line so the whole country could “hear” the blows as the spike was driven. Finally, telegraphs sent out the message to the world: D-O-N-E.

golden spike
Joining of the Rails at Promontory, Utah, May, 1869

The awkward end to years of planning and building seems a fitting finish to a project that had a high-minded but commercial purpose, had seen so many deals gone wrong and promises broken and spawned a moving town to accompany the work, served by cooks and prostitutes, gambling halls and apocalyptic, portable churches. But the rail line was, indeed done. 

The fancy spikes, the laurel-wood tie and the silver maul were all just for show, manufactured to create a legend. And they did. On May 10, 2019, Utah will celebrate the sesquicentennial of the driving of the Golden Spike which completed the last link in the First Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit. The whole state will celebrate (see sidebar) an event that happened 150 years ago—about which most of us either know nothing, are misinformed or accept legend instead of facts. Because 150 years can distort reality like a game of telephone (or telegraph). It’s the historians’ job to separate myth and reality. 

The Golden Spike
Max Chang, Doug Foxley and Cindy Gubler helped plan and spread the word about Spike 150.

And that’s the goal of this year’s celebration. “We don’t want to just party like it’s 1869,” deadpans Doug Foxley, chair of Spike 150 which is organizing the event. The goal is to leave a more accurate and inspiring picture of the hows and whys of the Transcontinental Railroad—one that celebrates people and cultures, not just iron and steel.”

Finishing the First Transcontinental Railroad was a big deal—the second biggest deal in Utah’s history, just behind the arrival of the Saints. And in terms of symbolism, telecommunications, photography and America’s sense of self, the Golden Spike was monumental. Some have said the connection was equivalent to the moon landing. Like setting foot on the moon, it proved that we can do anything. 

Even when we don’t really need to.

Railroad Roots 

Golden Spike
Commemorative Plaque at Golden Spike Historical site in Promontory

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, a former railroad attorney, urged Congress to pass the Pacific Railway Act, with the goal of building a railroad that would connect East to West. The deal granted 6,400 acres of land and $16,000 in government bonds for each mile of track laid. Leland Stanford, a wealthy former California governor who had run on an anti-Chinese immigrant platform, and fellow financiers—Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Charlie Crocker, together known as the Big Four—supported railroad construction east from Sacramento, at first only through California. 

The Union Pacific Railroad, headed by Thomas C. Durant who had illegally managed to get controlling interest, would build west from the Missouri River. His crony, Herbert M. Hoxie won the Union Pacific construction bid, only to sign the contract over to Durant; thus Durant could pay himself for construction with no congressional oversight, meaning big money. Later Railroad Acts—lobbied for by Thomas Durant with the aid of $400,000 in under-the table handouts—modified the agreement and doubled the land and money. In 1864, the railroads were given rights to all the natural resources on the line. The tracks would meet in the middle—a place not specified until weeks before the final spike. 

The race was on.

The Spike(s) 

Golden Spike
A replica of the famous Golden Spike. The original is usually housed at Stanford University; it’s on view this spring in Utah.

Yes, actually, there were four. Maybe more. Nevada ordered a silver spike on May 5, 1869, just a few days before the scheduled ceremony. Twenty-five ounces of silver were hurriedly forged into a six-inch spike, then rushed 20 miles to Reno, barely in time to be given to Leland Stanford on his train heading to Promontory Summit. Arizona Territory’s new governor, Anson P.K. Safford, also contributed a spike—made by gold-plating the head of an ordinary 6-inch iron spike and silver-plating the shaft. A second golden spike was ordered by Frederick Marriott, proprietor of the San Francisco
News Letter newspaper company.  

But the spike, the 17.6-karat capital-letter Golden Spike for the final ceremony, was the grandiose brainchild of David Hewes, a San Francisco financier. Its sides were engraved with the names of the railroad officers and directors and
the date—May 8, 1869. 

Golden Spike
Andrew J. Russell (American, 1829–1902), Promontory Trestle Work and Engine No. 2, 1869.

The Glitch 

Wait, what? We all know the Golden Spike ceremony was on May 10, 1869. We also know the best-laid plans of mice and railroad men often go awry. Here’s the deal: Leland Stanford had chosen the locomotive, Antelope, to pull his train from Sacramento to Promontory. Work on the track was still in progress. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains a crew was removing trees along a steep mountain cut: They rolled big logs down onto the tracks where they could be sawed into smaller pieces. The crew waited while a train passed, but didn’t see the signal that meant another was right behind it, so they let the log roll—right into the path of the Antelope, which was seriously damaged. So the nearby Jupiter was called into action and history. 

Golden Spike
Golden Spike material as originally displayed in Stanford Museum.

The Durant Special carrying UP’s vice-president, Thomas Durant, stopped to take on water in Piedmont, Wyo. They didn’t leave that spot for two days. Turns out about 400 laid-off tie-cutters hadn’t been paid in three months—they chained Durant’s train to the siding and refused to free it until they were paid. But the money didn’t arrive until May 10, two days after the scheduled ceremony. Then the train was stopped again, this time by the Weber River whose waters had damaged a bridge. 

The locomotive shoved Durant’s coach and lighter cars across the teetering bridge. Durant and the dignitaries walked—very carefully—across the bridge and ensconced themselves in their luxurious cars, going nowhere: The bridge was too frail to stand a locomotive’s weight. Luckily, No. 119 was sitting on a siding in the Ogden yard. It was rushed up the canyon to haul Durant to Promontory.

So it was the wood-burning passenger train Jupiter and coal-driven freight train No. 119 that stand nose-to-nose in all the famous pictures. Less than a decade later, they were both sold as scrap for about $1,000. For the centennial ceremony in 1979, the locomotives were rebuilt, 22-carat gold leaf and all, at a cost of $750.00. (And the builder gave them a good deal.) Today, a full-time crew of three and a slew of volunteers keep the brass polished. “Lots of folks get the steam bug,” says Richard Carrell, facility manager at Promontory. 

Rail Workers

Look at Andrew J. Russell’s famous “champagne photo” (the bottle edited out of some images because of the country’s growing Temperance movement) and you might be reminded of today’s U.S. cabinet—it’s all white men. Most people know that’s not true: Immigrant Chinese built the railroad. Irish immigrants built the railroad. Black men built the railroad. Mormons built the railroad. And yes, white men built the railroad. The working crew, like Kanye West, had an entourage: Cooks, prostitutes, ministers and photographers all did their bit to support the cross-country endeavor. The Union Pacific crew developed a reputation for the rowdy culture it created, called Hell on Wheels, way before the Harley was invented. (The TV series is painfully accurate.) 

Golden Spike
A Chinese gang curving iron rail in 12-mile Canyon (also known as Palisade Canyon), Nevada, during construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868.

Tea. But No Sympathy

Initially railroads intended to hire only white Americans, but an 1865 advertisement for 5,000 workers brought in just a few hundred. And many who took the jobs were lured away to the Nevada silver mines where they received better wages and could dream of striking it rich. The railroad project hired all the California Chinese population they could, then started using agents to sign up workers directly from mainland China. 

These workers, of course, ate Chinese food: rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters, dried abalone fish, some pork and poultry. Fresh vegetables came from California. They also drank tea and hot water (and occasionally drank wine and smoked opium). The Chinese diet and especially the use of boiled water reduced the outbreaks of dysentery and other diseases that plagued the other crews.

Racism was blatant: Unlike whites, the Chinese had to foot the bill for their lodging, food and even their tools. (The Irish or white workers were fed mainly meat and potatoes along with whiskey.) Few Chinese laborers were known by name: ­They were all referred to as “John Chinaman.” Chinese workers were paid less and worked more. At one point, Chinese workers went on strike for higher wages and reasonable hours. Progress through the Sierras stopped. In response, the railroad cut off all food and even communication to the Chinese—a week later, the Chinese returned to work at the same wage. Despite the fundamental role of Chinese workers building the Transcontinental Railroad, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning immigration from China for a decade. The Act was extended in 1892 and 1904, indefinitely. 

Max Chang, a Spike 150 board member, and a native-born Utahn with Taiwanese heritage, remembers his “aha” moment. “We studied Utah history in seventh grade and the teacher quoted U.S. Transportation Secretary John Volpe from the San Francisco Chronicle report about the 1969 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Golden Spike:“Who else but Americans could drill ten tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” Federal law denied citizenship to Chinese at the time. I vowed I would never go to Promontory Summit until that was altered and the thousands of Chinese were recognized.”

Chang visited the Promontory monument for the first time last year.

The Route

Golden Spike
Promontory Point facility manager Richard Carrell and locomotive engineer Cole Chisam on Jupiter’s cowcatcher at the historical park.

The route from east to west had been discussed hundreds of times. Should the track be laid along a southern route or a northern route? Where would it begin and end? It would have been easier to run the tracks through the South, but the Civil War was still being fought when the project was started and barely over when the actual building began. So they took the Northern route. There was no designated “meeting point.” Each railroad built as fast as they could, collecting land grants and cash with every mile, until they met. Never mind that railroad land grants cut right across Indian hunting grounds and the vast herds of buffalo that was native lifeblood. Nothing stood in the way of “progress.”

golden spikeThat’s my

Numerous Utahns claim an ancestor appears in the famous “Champagne Photo.” But. Yeah. Right. Sometimes, however, it is true. Editor Jeremy Pugh grew up on lore about his Great-Great-Grandfather, William Henry Tout, who was an experienced railroad engineer. Jeremy’s mother, Marlene Burton, has collected dozens of pictures of Tout as well as records of his work on the railroad, which prove he was an assistant engineer for the Central Pacific RR and present at the ceremony. Tout stands in front of the smokestack of the Central Pacific’s Jupiter. She took the opportunity of the photo’s grand display at the UMFA to show off the family legend.

The Mormons

Brigham Young was one of the original stakeholders in Union Pacific. Before construction began, he bought $5,000 worth of stock in the company. He was sure the tracks would come through Utah, maybe even Salt Lake City, and bring more Latter-day Saints as well as money to the young state. After all, Mormon pioneers blazed the original trail for much of the decided route. Plagues of crickets, grasshoppers and locusts meant the Mormons needed money. 

In 1868, Brigham Young signed a contract with Union Pacific for more than $2 million for the Mormons to do all the grading, tunneling and bridge masonry from Echo Canyon to Ogden. He subcontracted the work to his son, Joseph, Bishop John Sharp and a gentile, Joseph Nounan. (All the subcontractors paid a tithe to the church.) In the end, the railroad moguls decided they were not going through Salt Lake City because of the steep mountain ranges around the city—it would take too much coal. And the train had to run near a river—steam engines needed two thousand gallons for every 15 miles traveled. On Sunday August 15, Brigham Young addressed his faithful with a revelation upholding the railroad’s reports. But he was angry—he did not attend the Golden Spike celebration. 

When the project was finished, Union Pacific was practically broke. But it still owed Young. They finally agreed to a deal: The railroad companies gave Brigham Young enough material to get a connector line from Salt Lake. Still, after Young died in 1877, it was found he only profited $88,000 from the whole deal. 

New Media

The single word “done,” flashed by telegraph around the country has come to be considered one of the first nationwide media events. The railroad barons were totally aware of how photographs could create the public’s perception of the project—each had hired photographers to document the construction and the final ceremony, largely with the goal of using the shots to encourage immigrants to go west. Alfred J. Russell for UP and Alfred A. Hart for CP, assisted by Utah photographer C. Savage, took hundreds of images, each one taking about six hours.

“Except for Matthew Brady’s chronicles of the Civil War, this was the first photo-journalism,” says Leslie Anderson, who curated “The Race to Promontory” exhibit at Utah Museum of Fine Art. “But an image is only a moment. There’s a whole backstory to the photos.” 

Many of the photos appeared in Great West Illustrated. The government and the railroads were selling the idea of the project as the realization of Manifest Destiny, as a conjoining of the East and West in contrast to the North-South conflict that had ripped the nation apart. But Durant and Leland Stanford’s Big Four really saw it all as a way to cash in. The more miles, the more money—this was a financial race.

End of the Line

Golden Spike
The century Golden Spike celebration sold elaborate memorabilia, like this gun, replica spike and certificate.

Although the driving of the Golden Spike marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad, it did not actually mark the completion of a true coast-to-coast railroad: neither Sacramento nor Omaha was a seaport. A coast-to-coast rail link was completed in August 1870 with the Denver extension of the Kansas Pacific Railway. Even though train technology was not really advanced during the building of the Transcontinental line, innovations and invention were constant in the building and redesign of trestles, trusses, tunnels and grading.

The original Utah track was salvaged for the war effort—an event marked by a ceremonial “undriving” of the last iron spike.

In 1957, Congress established the Golden Spike National Historic Site.   

The Sesquicentennial Celebration

Events celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the driving of the golden spike kick off at Promontory Point on May 10, 2019 at 8:30 a.m.

The Spike 150 Foundation, which supports the Spike 150 events, wants The Year of the Train declared by Governor Gary Herbert to be informative and thought-provoking as well as fun. “We want kids to learn to appreciate history and to ask questions about it,” says Doug Foxley. The year-long celebration will take place in towns all across Utah—at hundreds of separate concerts, performances, plays, conferences, lectures, art exhibits and reenactments.m Those attending the sesquicentennial celebration at Promontory Summit must purchase a $20 vehicle ticket. Visit spike150.org to purchase a vehicle ticket and for complete information about Spike 150.

Other Spike-related fun: 

  • The Utah State Capitol displayed the original spikes April 8-12, as well as the exhibit A World Transformed: The Transcontinental Railroad and Utah, photographs and documents exploring the impact the transcontinental railroad had on individual Utahns. Another exhibit, Tracing the Path: Chinese Railroad Workers and the First Transcontinental Railroad sheds light on the long-overlooked and crucial part Chinese workers played in building the historic railroad.
  • The O.C. Tanner Gift of Music Concert, features The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and the Utah Symphony, with Broadway stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Megan Hilty, Friday, May 10 at 8 pm at the Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 
  • Hill Air Force Base’s STEM program is partnering with Spike150 to inspire the next generation to think outside the box to create the next revolutionary breakthrough. Visitors young and old can explore rocketry, aviation and drone technology.
  • As One is an original musical production and ceremonial reenactment of the historic 1869 driving of the Golden Spike, written and directed by award-winning composer/ songwriter team, Stephen Nelson and Anjanette Mickelsen. Jennifer Parker Hohl, with the Utah Children’s Theater wrote and directs the piece.  Friday, May 10 from 12:30 to 1 p.m. at Promontory Summit. This performance will also be broadcast live by KSL and made available by UEN for schools across the state. 
  • Gold Mountain, a new musical by award-winning composer Jason Ma and actor and director Alan Muraoka, is a love story about a young Chinese railroad worker featuring Broadway star Ali Ewoldt. At The Eccles in Salt Lake and in Ogden at Peery’s Egyptian Theater.  For times, visit Spike150.org.
  • The Utah Symphony presents Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid with a newly commissioned work from Grammy-nominated, Chinese born-American composer Zhou Tian conducted by Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer. 
  • The Utah Opera has commissioned four composer-librettists to write 10-minute, Golden Spike-themed operas premiering in late May, in Brigham City, Ogden and Salt Lake City, and will then be performed in community concerts and “random acts of opera” over the next few seasons.  
  • The Race to Promontory The UMFA exhibits more than 150 rare photographs and stereographs documenting the construction of the transcontinental railroad 1869 by Andrew Joseph Russell and Alfred A. Hart from the Union Pacific Historic Collection. The exhibit also includes 31 works on loan from the J. Willard Marriott Library by 19th century Utah photographer Charles Savage, who composed scenes of the railroad and to boost tourism. umfa.org

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