- Historic Sites
Where Two Lines Raced To Drive The Last Spike In Transcontinental Track
June/July 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 3
Promontory Summit, the site of the first terminus, is also very much worth a visit. From Ogden, it’s a 50-minute drive through the kind of rugged, oppressive emptiness that makes you wonder what the hell the pioneers were thinking. The 2,700 acres surrounding the junction point have been designated Golden Spike National Historic Site, named for a gold spike that was driven into the railroad’s last tie, but it’s not immediately clear how the area differs from a sprawling nature preserve. Look harder, though, and you’ll see something fantastically unnatural: parallel grades forged by the Union and Central Pacific crews in their furious race across Utah. The Pacific Railroad Acts passed by Congress in the 1860s were vague about where the lines should meet, and the companies could legally grade—prepare a path for the rail—300 miles ahead of track. So, in an effort to secure ownership of the longest stretch of the transcontinental railroad (and the government subsidies and land grants that came with every mile), each sent its graders well past the other’s until April 10, 1869, when Congress approved Promontory Summit as a temporary terminus. Hence the parallel grades that snake across Golden Spike. Visitors can walk or drive along them to view some of the well-preserved engineering feats the competing crews left in their wake. The Central Pacific’s Big Fill, for example, is 10,000 cubic yards of earth and rock piled across a 500-foot span of a ravine 70 feet deep. At the Union Pacific’s Last Cut, several tons of rock were blown loose to make way for a level grade. At the edge of the cut, detritus from the blast remains in piles neatly stacked by UP laborers, from largest chunk to smallest pebble, 137 years ago.
If you’re here between May 1 and Labor Day, you can catch a re-enactment of the Last Spike Ceremony, which was held on May 10, 1869, as the final spikes were driven into place. Re-enactors play representatives from both companies assembled to celebrate the culmination of their triumph. Jupiter, the Central Pacific’s wood-burning locomotive, arrives first from the west, and about 20 minutes later No. 119, the Union Pacific’s coal-burning locomotive, arrives from the east (in 1869, No. 119 was actually two days late). They are exact structural reproductions, but there is no record of the original colors, so the bright blues, reds, and golds that adorn the replicas were chosen to reflect the embellishment characteristic of Victorian-era trains. The engines meet right where their archetypes did in 1869, and several appropriately overblown speeches follow, punctuated by the key clicks and commentary of a telegrapher, who narrates what he’s communicating to the nation in that staccato, I’m-speaking-whatI’m-writing cadence: “Hats … off. Prayer … is … being … offered [silence]. Bulletin! We … have … got … done … praying,” et cetera.
Finally, Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, and Thomas Durant, vice president of the Union Pacific, attempt to drive in the last spike. These men had been rival orchestrators of a fierce corporate battle since 1863. Their armies—together more than 20,000 men —had crossed the country, blowing holes into mountains and bridging vertiginous canyons, in pursuit of victory. And although the selection of Promontory Summit on April 10 eliminated the practical impetus for competition, workers continued their dogged race to the end (needless to say, this epochal effort had always meant more than business).
Charles Crocker, the CP construction boss, bet Thomas Durant $10,000 that his crew could lay down 10 miles of track in one day. At daybreak on April 28 the UP track was 9 miles from Promontory Summit and the CP track 14. By 7:00 p.m., Crocker had won his bet. With the CP track 4 miles from the summit, the crew had advanced 10 miles and 56 feet east in just 12 hours. Two weeks later, on the day of the Last Spike Ceremony, the companies’ tensions had not eased. Durant and Stanford reportedly argued for close to an hour over who would put in what spike. Both men swung and missed the last one, but it made no difference to the telegrapher. “Promontory to the country,” he tapped out. “Bulletin: done.”
Crowds had gathered in cities across the nation and abroad to hear this message. It was the first time so many people would learn the same thing at once. I’m not one for re-enactments, but I wasn’t entirely immune to the force of the telegrapher’s “Promontory to the country” announcement. It was the first national moment. This was the world’s longest railroad. These people were celebrating what was, for better or worse, the end of the frontier.