- 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
Among those representing the CP were Stanford, Strobridge, and some minor officials, plus George Booth, engineer of the Jupiter ; R. A. Murphy, the fireman; and Eli Dennison, the conductor. The UP contingent included Dodge, Durant, and Casement. Sam Bradford was the engineer on No. 119, the opposite number to the Jupiter , with Benjamin Mallory as conductor. Cyrus Sweet was the fireman (twenty years old, he would live through World War II and die on May 30, 1948).
A battalion of soldiers, from the 21st Regiment, under Maj. Milton Cogswell, was there. The soldiers had come by train and were headed to the Presidio of San Francisco, which surely must make the 21st the first Army unit to cross the continent by rail. The military band from Fort Douglas, Wyoming, was also there, along with the Tenth Ward Band from Salt Lake City.
In the twenty-first century, public-relations officials from the two companies would have long since taken over the ceremony, but as things were, almost nothing had been planned. Still, it had been decided to have a telegraph wire attached to the Golden Spike, with another to the sledgehammer. When the Golden Spike was tapped in, the telegraph lines would send the message all around the country. (The spike would be placed in a hole already drilled, so that it had only to be tapped down and then could easily be extracted; the spike today is at Stanford University.)
If it worked, this would be something wholly new in the world. People in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, and Los Angeles, even people in Montreal, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and London, England, would participate, by listening, in the same event.
Many other decisions had to be improvised. Before the scheduled time to begin, which was at noon, Dodge, Durant, and Stanford are said to have argued for nearly an hour over who should have the honor of putting in the Golden Spike. “At one time the Union Pacific positively refused connection,” the San Francisco News Leader reported, “and told the Central people they might do as they liked, and there should be no joint celebration.” Just a few minutes before noon, Stanford and Durant settled the controversy.
The crowd pressed forward. On the telegraph, W. N. Shilling, a telegrapher from Western Union’s Ogden office, beat a tattoo of messages to impatient inquiries from various offices: TO EVERYBODY. KEEP QUIET. WHEN THE LAST SPIKE IS DRIVEN AT PROMONTORY POINT, WE WILL SAY “DONE!” DON’T BREAK THE CIRCUIT, BUT WATCH FOR THE SIGNALS OF THE BLOWS OF THE HAMMER .
The preacher was introduced. Shilling clicked again: ALMOST READY. HATS OFF; PRAYER IS BEING OFFERED .
The spikes were brought forward. Shilling clicked, WE HAVE GOT DONE PRAYING . Stanford gave a brief, uninspired speech. Dodge spoke up for the UP. He mentioned Sen. Thomas Hart Benton and Christopher Columbus. Shilling again: ALL READY NOW; THE SPIKE WILL SOON BE DRIVEN. THE SIGNAL WILL BE THREE DOTS FOR THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE BLOWS .
Strobridge and Reed put the last tie, the laurel tie, in place. Durant drove in his spike—or rather tapped it in, for it was partially seated in the pre-drilled hole already. Then came Stanford. When he tapped in the Golden Spike, he would signal the waiting country. Reporters compared what was coming to the first shot fired at Lexington.
Stanford swung and missed, striking only the rail. It made no difference. The telegraph operator closed the circuit, and the wire went out, DONE !
Across the nation, bells pealed—even the venerable Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Then came the boom of cannon, 220 of them in San Francisco at Fort Point, 100 in Washington, D.C., and countless others. Everywhere there was the shriek of fire whistles, firecrackers and fireworks, singing and prayers in churches. In New Orleans, Richmond, and Atlanta, and throughout the old Confederacy, there were celebrations. Chicago had its biggest parade of the century, seven miles long.
A correspondent there caught exactly the spirit that had brought the whole country together. The festivity, he wrote in the Chicago Tribune , “was free from the atmosphere of warlike energy and the suggestion of suffering, danger, and death which threw their oppressive shadow over the celebrations of our victories during the war for the Union.”
At Promontory, the Jupiter and the UP’s No. 119, uncoupled from their trains, moved forward ever so slowly, until their pilots touched. The photographer A. J. Russell urged the crews to form a wedge radiating out from the point of contact. When he told his subjects they were free to move, two more whistles joined the others across the nation and a roar exploded from the crowd. Champagne bottles were smashed against each engine.