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Pandemonium At Promontory

May 2024
3min read

The official painting is full of dignity and decorum lamentably absent in the actual photograph.

Thomas Hill's famous painting depicts the ceremony of the driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, UT, on May 10, 1869, but was a largely fictional vision. California State Railroad Museum.
Thomas Hill's famous painting depicts the ceremony of the driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, UT, on May 10, 1869, but was a largely fictional vision. California State Railroad Museum.

Historians are agreed that the most dramatic and at the same time the most significant single date in the record of the American West was May 10, 1869, when the rails of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads met and were joined at Promontory Point, a desolate spot in the Utah desert, about forty miles northwest of Ogden. Here in a single day and hour worlds met head-on, the American people achieved a continental dimension, Manifest Destiny was realized, and the Old West reached its apotheosis. All that had gone before in the conquest of the American continent by white men was met and recapitulated in the driving of a spike of California gold in a ceremonial tie of laurel, along with a tie of Nevada silver from the Comstock Lode and another from Arizona of silver, gold, and iron in equal parts.

But Promontory’s great hour was not only a shining moment of splendor and achievement of empire, it was also a scene of low comedy and lamentable moral tone that redeemed it forever from holy or virtuous significance. The details of Promontory’s finest hour were just a little out of drawing.

To begin with, the Union Pacific train from the East was delayed by heavy rains and washouts in Weber Canyon and was a day late. The ceremonies were postponed from May 9, but no word of the change in plans reached San Francisco in time, with the result that the entire city closed up shop a day before the event it was celebrating and stayed at a fine pitch of patriotic alcoholism for three whole days.

The weather at Promontory was inclement. Low clouds and rain and a chill wind off Great Salt Lake made for discomfort. Collis Huntington, one of the Central’s “Big Four,” was in New York, while Charlie Crocker and Mark Hopkins, other members, had been unable to leave Sacramento and San Francisco, respectively. Brigham Young, president of the Latter-day Saints, sent his excuses and stayed away in a huff because the right of way had avoided the Mormon capital at Salt Lake City. William Henry Jackson, greatest of western photographers, got mixed up in his dates and arrived a week after the excitement was over, but his place was taken by Colonel Charles Savage, who immortalized the event on wet plates in his enormous view camera, capturing the scene at a moment when a timid sun emerged briefly from behind the dull gray clouds.

But if a number of distinguished guests who should have been present were elsewhere than at Promontory Point, a considerable number of celebrants arrived to maintain to the end the low and joyous moral tone which had characterized the progress of the Union Pacific all the way from Omaha and constituted the “Hell on Wheels” that accompanied the track-laying gangs across Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and part of Utah. A generous contingent of prostitutes arrived from Corrine, a construction camp a few miles down the track. “They contributed a quota of furbelows,” recorded Edwin Sabin, the U.P.’s official historian, delicately, but their presence was the occasion of hard looks from the Reverend John Todd of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, imported to lend piety to the doings.

Then, too, the construction workers themselves displayed a lamentable lack of restraint. Bottles passed freely from hand to hand amidst uncouth salutations, to show up prominently in Colonel Savage’s official photograph of the great moment.

At the ceremony itself contretemps of a minor nature gathered and multiplied. Everyone had to wait on the Western Union telegrapher, who was testing the circuits that would instantly convey to Washington, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other great eastern cities the news that the spike had been driven. When the gold spike itself was inserted in the hole prepared for it, President Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific took a mighty swipe at it with the official silver spike maul and missed by a generous margin. There was rude laughter among the numerous experts present. Vice President Thomas C. Durant likewise missed. A professional, General Jack Casement, head of U.P. construction, finally smote the spike home amidst ironical cheers from the Paddies.

Col. Savage's photograph of the event was not inspiring enough for the railroad executives.
Col. Savage's photograph of the event was not inspiring enough for the railroad executives.

When Colonel Savage’s historic wet plate was developed, the result was beyond all question the most important single photograph in the iconography of the Old West, but it wasn’t altogether satisfactory to Stanford. It was raffish in its general tone, uncouth, and, for a perpetual candidate for public honors, a bit boozy. Three champagne bottles showed in the precise center of the picture, and the presence of others was strongly suggested. Stanford himself didn’t show up in the group and neither did the imported man of God. From Stanford’s viewpoint it was all most unfortunate.

Stanford, therefore, commissioned Thomas Hill, an understanding portrait painter, to clean up history a little, and Hill set about including the likenesses of seventy citizens of blameless life in one of the greatest portrait studies in the history of art. It was also one of the most monumental historic fakes. No ladies from Corrine appeared in the finished masterpiece. There were no bottles. A look of appropriate solemnity was on every bearded face. Included were at least four persons who hadn’t actually been present—Stanford’s three associates, Crocker, Hopkins, and Huntington, and Theodore Judah, original engineer of the Central Pacific, who had been dead for years. Conspicuous in the foreground were the Reverend John Todd and, of course, the well-composed features of Leland Stanford.

Even though Hill’s painting had been tailored to his explicit directions, Stanford, when he saw the finished work, wanted no part of it, any more than he had of Colonel Savage’s photograph. Several people whom he felt might be useful to him politically did not appear very prominently.

The painting hangs today in the California capitol in Sacramento, a bogus re-creation of a dramatic and hilarious moment in American history, an object for mirth, pity, or cynicism, whichever may move the individual beholder.

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