The Iron Spine


At Promontory, Utah Territory, on the raw afternoon of May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford, the beefy, pompous president of the Central Pacific Railroad, hefted a silver-plated sledge hammer while David Hewes, a dedicated railroad booster from San Francisco, stood by the golden spike he had donated to complete the laying of the nation’s first transcontinental rail line. At a nearby table sat a telegrapher, his hand on the key. Across the country lines had been cleared; when Stanford’s sledge struck the golden spike, cities on the shores of both oceans would know that America was finally and forever bound by a single spine of iron. A parade four miles long stood ready in Chicago, and at Omaha on the Missouri River, whence five years before the Union Pacific tracks had started west to meet the Central, one hundred cannon were primed for a thunderous salute. Before Stanford squared himself away to swing, a crew of Chinese tracklayers from the Central stepped forward witli the last rail of the 1,775 miles of line between San Francisco and Omaha. Just then a bystander, alive to the import of the scene, shouted to a cameraman, “Shoot!” The Chinese dropped the rail with a loud clang and scrambled for cover. It took several moments to round up the gun-shy Orientals and convince them that this shooting would not be like those they knew all too well from brutal months of pounding the line through a lawless wilderness. The rail was duly set in place.

Stanford drew back his hammer. A hush came over the assemblage—politicians, railroad dignitaries, track foremen, gaudy dancers, Irish and Chinese track hands, hunters, mountain men, gamblers, gimfighters, exconvicts, and nymphes du grade —massed in the heavy mud where the rails joined. The prevailing sounds were the hissings from the Central’s handsome locomotive Jupiter and the U.P.’s gleaming Number 119, standing one hundred feet apart at the junction point.

The telegrapher clicked the penultimate message: “All ready now. The last spike will soon be driven. The signal will lie three îlots for the commencement of the blows.” Leland Stanford swung, the silver hammer head flashing in the sun.

He missed.

The hammer thonked dismally against the tie, leaving the golden spike undriven; nonetheless the telegrapher signalled, “Dot, dot, dot.” Across the United States cannon fired, bells rang, parades went forward, prayers were said, men cheered, and ladies wept. Jupiter and 119, nswarm from headlamp to cab with shouting, bottle-waving men, nosed gingerly across the last rail until their cowcatchers almost touched. Bottles popped and champagne splashed. So far as everyone but Stanford and a group of discreet onlookers was concerned, the United States was now truly—physically—one nation indivisible. One of those looking on was Thomas C. Durant, vice president of the Union Pacific. No sooner had Stanford committed his historic gaffe than Durant took the hammer and himself whacked the tic next to the golden spike, as if to suggest that Stanford had missed on purpose. (The spike was eventually driven home.) If it was the superb bit of tact that it seemed, it was the first evidence of co-operation between the two roads. Ever since the rail companies were chartered, they had been almost as busy wrangling or picking each other’s pockets (and those of Uncle Sam) as laying track. As the railroad historian Stewart Holbrook has written, “Americans do not build a railroad from Omaha to the Pacific in five years, making grade and laying track under almost impossible conditions, meanwhile fighting savage tribes and prehensile politicians, without at least a trace of corruption.”

There had been a number of proposals earlier in the century for a transcontinental railroad, but most congressmen had found them foolish. Nevertheless, the idea gradually became more respectable. In 1845 Senator John M. Niles of Connecticut put before Congress a proposal, drawn up by his friend Asa Whitney, to set aside for a railroad 75,000,000 acres in a strip sixty miles wide from the Mississippi to the Columbia River valley. The project would finance itself from land sales, industrial development, and mining and lumbering along the route. Besides tying the northern free states to the New West, the route would be the fastest means of transshipment for ocean trade between Europe and the Far East—trade that now labored around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope.

European-Asiatic trade considerations aside, glowing reports were reaching Washington from explorers in the lush Mexican province of Upper California. There was mounting agitation for the United States to annex this splendid land and make it into a freesoil state, and that agitation gave prorailroad men yet another reason to urge the laying of a transcontinental line. But Congress failed to act favorably on the Whitney proposal. Such schemes sat poorly in the minds of southerners like Sam Houston, of the new proslavery state of Texas, and the wellconnected railroad promoter James Gadsden of South Carolina, who plumped for a southerly route to the Pacific. California was indeed a rich prize, made far richer by the discovery of gold in 1848. The only way to get there was still the Overland Mail’s seventeen-day stage ride from St. Joseph, Missouri, or the even longer sea voyage from New York to San Francisco with a Central American land-crossing en route. Men could sail around the Horn or go by oxdrawn wagon across the desert, but both ways took six months and neither could guarantee a safe arrival. Despite the need for a transcontinental line, attempts in the late eighteen forties and early fifties foundered on the question of route location—North or South?