- Historic Sites
The Big Road
Building the transcontinental railroad was the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century. Was it also the biggest swindle?
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
Only in America was there enough space to utilize the locomotive fully, and only here did the government own enough unused land or possess enough credit to induce capitalists to build a transcontinental railroad. Only in America was there enough labor or enough energy and imagination. “We are the youngest of the peoples,” proclaimed the New York Herald , “but we are teaching the world how to march forward.”
One year before the rails were joined at Promontory, Walt Whitman began to celebrate this new force when he wrote in his “Passage to India”:
I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier, I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers, I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle, I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world, I cross the Laramie plains, I note the rocks in grotesque shapes, the buttes, I see the plentiful larkspur and wild onions, the barren, colorless sage-deserts … Tying the Eastern to the Western sea, The road between Europe and Asia.…
Parts of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific ran through some of the grandest scenery in the world, but the spot where the two were joined together was improbable and undistinguished. No one had ever lived there, and shortly after the ceremony no one would ever again, as it is today a National Park. The summit was just over 5,000 feet above sea level, a flat, circular valley, bare except for sagebrush and a few scrub cedars, perhaps three miles in diameter. The only “buildings” were a half-dozen wall tents and a few rough-board shacks, set up by merchants selling whiskey.
The ceremony was scheduled for May 8. The Central Pacific’s regular passenger train left Sacramento at 6:00 A.M. on May 6, with a number of excursionists. A special train followed, carrying Leland Stanford, the former governor of California and president and director of the CP; the chief justice of California; the governor of Arizona; and other guests. Also on board were: the last spike, made of gold; the last tie, made of laurel; and a silver-headed hammer.
The Stanford special moved along briskly with its excited and expectant passengers. But up ahead, just over the summit, some Chinese were cutting timber above the entrance to Tunnel No. 14. After seeing the regular train pass, with no way to know that another, unscheduled train was coming right behind, they skidded a 50-foot log down on the track. The engine struck the log and was damaged. A telegraph was sent ahead to Wadsworth to hold the passenger train until Stanford’s coach could be attached.
Leland Stanford raised his hammer over the Golden Spike. Reporters compared what was coming to the first shot fired at Lexington.
This was done. The locomotive pulling the passenger train was named Jupiter . It was the CP’s Engine No. 60, built in Schenectady, now headed toward a permanent place in railroad history.
On Friday afternoon, May 7, the train arrived at Promontory Point, but there was no one from the UP. Stanford sent a message to the UP’s Ogden office, demanding to know where the hell the delegation was. Casement replied that because of very heavy rains, the UP wouldn’t get its trains to the summit before Monday, May 10.
Stanford and party were stuck in one of the least scenic spots, with the fewest residents, on a train that had food but made no provisions for entertaining its passengers on a two-day layover. Stanford had the train pull back to a more pleasant location at the Monument Point siding, 30 miles west of the summit, where at least there was a view of a lake. There he and his party spent a quiet Sunday. For most of the day, it rained.
The Alta California correspondent spent the day poking around the summit, looking for a story. He got it. As he was watching, the Wells Fargo Overland Stage No. 2 came onto Promontory summit with its last load of mail from the West Coast. “The four old nags were worn and jaded,” he wrote, “and the coach showed evidence of long service. The mail matter was delivered to the Central Pacific Co., and with that dusty, dilapidated coach and team, the old order of things passed away forever.”
The dawn on May 10 was cold, near freezing, but the rising sun heralded a bright, clear day, with temperatures rising into the seventies. Spring in Utah, as glorious as it can be. A group of UP and CP workers began to gather, but there were not many of them left, and the best estimate put the crowd at 500 or 600 people, far fewer than the predictions (some had gone as high as 30,000). During the morning, two trains from the CP and two from the UP arrived at the site, bearing officials and their guests, as well as spectators.