June/July 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 3
Where Two Lines Raced To Drive The Last Spike In Transcontinental Track
If you were asked to name pivotal meetings in American history, the linking of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads might not immediately come to mind. But it was perhaps the most important. Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, it took months to get from coast to coast, and more than $1,000. After these two lines met at Promontory Summit in northern Utah, a New Yorker could travel to California in a week for as little as $70.
If you were asked to name pivotal meetings in American history, the linking of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads might not immediately come to mind. But it was perhaps the most important. Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, it took months to get from coast to coast, and more than $1,000. After these two lines met at Promontory Summit in northern Utah, a New Yorker could travel to California in a week for as little as $70. Freight and mail costs also plummeted, and deliveries became quick and predictable. Earlier in the decade transcontinental telegraph lines had made possible instantaneous communication across incredible distances, and now, with a railroad traversing the continent as well, the movement of people, money, and goods was similarly unhindered by space and time. A proto-Internet was born, and modern America rapidly took shape.
Less than a year after the tracks were linked, the terminus was moved from Promontory Summit (a slapdash cluster of tents and shacks) 60 miles southwest to Ogden, a small but established town at the foot of Utah’s Wasatch mountains in what is now Weber County. This would remain the nerve center of Western migration until the Great Depression.
But as air travel outpaced rail travel, Ogden was increasingly overlooked in the shadow of nearby Salt Lake City. Curious to learn the fate of the erstwhile boomtown and the landmarks of its epoch defining railroad, I thought I’d take some time to explore this quiet corner of northern Utah. As I walked down Ogden’s Historic 25th Street on my first evening in town, the scene felt almost fictionally Western in the crepuscular silence. I had never ventured west of Chicago, and my impression of this humble main street, with the surrounding vastness of Utah seeping between buildings dating from the railroad’s halcyon days, felt at once completely alien and cinematically familiar. In 1977 someone realized that 25th Street had the most “complete, continuous selection of turn-of-the-century architecture in Utah,” according to a historical marker on the sidewalk. Consequently, this selection was restored and the word historic was appended to the street’s name. Many of the storefronts display plaques explaining their history, my favorite of which summarizes the story of the early 1880s Greek Revival London Ice Cream Parlor building: “What probably started out as a legitimate boarding house in the upper story apparently degenerated into a common bordello not unlike the 50 or so others in the neighborhood.” From the railroad’s beginning through the Second World War, 25th Street (once Fifth Street) was notoriously louche. The “common bordello” in the London Ice Cream Parlor building, reportedly run by Dora Belle Topham, was evidently not her only operation on the strip. Topham’s name appears on a couple of other plaques as well.
At the west end of Historic 25th stands Union Station, the old terminus of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific (later the Southern Pacific). It was erected in 1924 on the foundation of the town’s previous depot, which had been destroyed by fire the year before. Until the decline of rail travel, this building bustled with the movement of an entire country, and it is now home to the Utah State Railroad Museum, dedicated to the history of the station and the transcontinental railroad.
The most impressive feature of the collection is an extensive series of photographs that chronicle the construction of both the Union and the Central Pacific lines. Each company hired a photographer to document its progress, and these men captured a vivid and intensely human record of the accomplishment. The museum also holds a 407-foot-long model of the Central Pacific’s route from Sacramento to Ogden. I was particularly charmed by the details: At Dale Creek Bridge, in Wyoming, you can see tiny people descending a steep incline alongside a giant trestle. Apparently the wind was so powerful at this point on the route that as a safety precaution passengers had to get off the train before it crossed the trestle, climb in and out of the creek bed on foot, and board again on the other side.
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.