A SESQUICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
THE GOLDEN SPIKE NATIONAL HISTORIC Site in Promontory, Utah, is a remote interpretive reconstruction that marks the time and place where the first transcontinental railroad was completed, in 1869. Every year, for at least the past 50 years, re-stagings of the ceremonies held there in 1869 to celebrate the completion of the railroad has been performed, but no more so than last year—the 150th anniversary of this important event.
Promontory may be one of the most significant historic sites in the nation, commemorating the initial connecting of east and west through mechanical means, and the closing of the frontier, in a nation that had recently been split North and South by the Civil War. In addition to bringing legions of settlers west, the railway established the first rapid and reliable commercial link between the cities and bankers of the northeast with the bounty of the Orient off the Pacific Coast.
It is therefore of little surprise that as the event’s 150th anniversary loomed, railway companies, politicians, railway historians, and fans of important interpretive sites (like members of the CLUI), started getting excited. In 2017, a group known as Spike 150 was formed by the state of Utah to plan and coordinate commemorative programming over the whole of 2019, including several exhibitions, but especially the grand reenactment and ceremony about the May 10, 1869 ceremony. This occurred on May 10, 2019, and was attended by more than 20,000 people.
The construction of the railway was initiated by the Pacific Railway Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862. Over the following seven years, thousands of people, in the west mostly Chinese workers, laid 1,912 miles of track, connecting Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. This included 15 tunnels blasted through the Sierras, and involved laying as much as ten miles of track in a single day.
Gaining territory as they went, the Central Pacific Railroad (building the line from the west) and the Union Pacific Railroad (building the line from the east) went past each other for 200 miles, before Congress stepped in and designated the meeting point at Promontory. Central Pacific got there by May 1, 1869. Union Pacific was a bit behind schedule, but agreed to a May 8 meeting time. However, the train bringing the dignitaries of Union Pacific to the event was forced into a siding by railworkers, who held the company’s Vice President, Thomas Durant, hostage, and threatened his life, until payment they were owed was produced. When it was, Durant was released, and the train made it to Promontory for the delayed celebration on May 10.
What actually, exactly, happened at the Ceremonial Driving of the Golden Spike in 1869 is debated. The event was hastily planned, and firsthand accounts are surprisingly few, and conflicted. Though the event was attended by at least several hundred people, mostly railroad workers and soldiers, it was difficult to see and hear what was happening around the short piece of track where the ceremonial activities were taking place.
It is generally accepted that at around 12:30 pm, after speeches by Arizona’s governor, a newspaper editor, and railroad representatives, the president of Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, was handed two ceremonial spikes manufactured for the event, and Thomas Durant, vice president of Union Pacific, was given another two. The two executives placed the spikes into four pre-drilled holes in a polished ceremonial railroad tie, made by a billiard table manufacturer in San Francisco. The spikes were then tapped into place by Stanford and Durant with a ceremonial maul.
Soon after, the anointed precious metal spikes were removed for safe-keeping, and the ceremonial tie was replaced by an ordinary pine tie, into which three ordinary and functional iron spikes were driven, by someone, probably a railway worker. Then, according to one account, a special spike hammer that was wired to a telegraph, so that the world could hear the pounding of the real and final last spike, was handed to Leland Stanford, whose swing missed the spike, and hit the tie. It was then given to Thomas Durant, who missed the spike and the tie completely (he was said to have been hungover from the celebrations the night before, in Ogden, or maybe was just out of sorts from being held hostage).
The hammer was then handed over to a rail worker who expertly drove it in. The Western Union operator at the nearby telegraph table made up the missing dots and dashes to send out the final one word message—DONE, and the railway was thus opened to traffic, uniting the nation.
That traffic started with a traffic jam, as the two trains bringing the dignitaries from east and west were pointed head to head, as depicted in the famous photo of celebrants by Andrew J. Russell. The trains used the nearby Y-track to turn around, and then headed back to where they came from, crossing over the last spike in the last tie for the first time.
Immediately after the ceremony, spikes were pulled out of the last tie for souvenirs, and replaced with others, generating possibly dozens of additional, unofficial last spikes. The tie itself was scraped away by souvenir hunters, and replaced a number of times. Eventually things settled down, and stayed in place, at least for the next 50 years or so.
This stretch of the transcontinental railroad ended in 1904, when the Lucin Cutoff opened, with its wooden trestle spanning straight across the Great Salt Lake, shaving 44 miles off the original route, from Promontory over the north shore of the lake. Apparently no commemoration was held at the site for the Golden 50th anniversary of the Golden Spike, in 1919.
After a few decades of little to no use, the tracks from Corrine to Lucin were removed to provide steel for the war. As part of this, on September 8, 1942, a “pulled golden spike” was ceremoniously removed at Promontory, before a crowd of railroad and state officials, including the Governor of Utah, in front of two steam locomotives facing each other. This marked the end of the old rails, though they would return as reconstructions a few decades later.
In the meantime, the lack of tracks didn’t stop people from coming out. Local historically-minded citizens, including members of the Sons and Daughters of the Pioneers, arranged educational reenactments annually on the anniversary, where Leland Stanford was frequently portrayed missing the spike with his hammer.
Lobbying efforts to increase awareness and appreciation of the site gained momentum in the 1960s, with the approach of the 100th anniversary of the Golden Spike. The federal government acquired the land, and in 1965, the Golden Spike National Historic Site was established on paper. A visitor center, displays, and staff housing for the remote site were constructed by the time of the centennial celebrations and reenactments, which were attended by as many as 12,000 people.
After the centennial, at least once every year, and often more often, the Golden Spike ceremony of 1869 has been performed by reenactors on site, as a kind of local national pageant, developing its own mythic mutations of fact and lore. On the 110th anniversary, replicas of the two locomotives that were present in 1869 were placed on a 1.5 mile stretch of re-laid track, into which golden spikes were pounded and removed year after year. Since then this has occurred over and over on weekends between May 1 and Labor Day.
On the sesquicentennial, May 10, 2019, events began with a Chinese lion dance, and an address by the head of the Chinese Historical Society of America, attempting to make up for the historic lack of acknowledgement of the role that Chinese workers had in building the railway, especially in the western section, where many lives were lost, and racism was rampant.
More addresses followed, first by the Secretary of the Interior, who speculated that President Trump would have loved to be here, and would have enjoyed this event. Then the superintendent of the Golden Spike National Historic Park spoke, followed by prayer, blessing, and drumming and dancing by members of the Northwestern Shoshone. A pledge of allegiance was then led, followed by singing of the National Anthem. Then the Governor of Utah spoke, followed by a Congressman.
Several VIPS then collected on the stage, including Mitt Romney, when Russell Nelson, the president of the Mormon Church, started a ceremony to hammer in a new ceremonial spike. This one, made of copper, was offered up by Rio Tinto, meant to correct the imbalance of commemorative state spikes: there were two for California, one for Nevada, and one for Arizona, but none, up to this point, for Utah. Its inclusion also recognizes the fact that Rio Tinto’s copper mine, the Bingham Pit, has been one of the largest generators of revenue in Utah for over a century and is called the “Biggest Hole on Earth.”
After this ceremony, the Federal Secretary of Transportation gave a speech, followed by comments from Lance Smith, the CEO of the Union Pacific Railway, now the largest railway in the land, having swallowed up most of the others, including the Central Pacific. Then the keynote speaker, the historian and author Jon Meacham, took the podium. And so went the day, until the reenactment of the 1869 Driving of the Golden Spike, by the professional commemorative Golden Spike drivers of the Golden Spike Association, followed by a toast led by the Ambassador of Ireland, and a video address by the Chinese Ambassador. A musical performance called As One, and a children’s chorus closed the festivities.
And What of the Spikes?
The notion of a “golden spike” as an anchor of time and place was established and asserted here at Promontory, like nowhere else. Its effect is like that of a map pin, placed on a one-to-one scale map of the landscape. However, the actual golden spikes, removed from the site, made their own journeys, becoming historical reference points.
Three of the four ceremonial spikes from 1869 ended up in collections and are often on public display. The main Golden Spike is the one made by David Hewes, an early developer of San Francisco, and a friend of Leland Stanford. It apparently was his idea to make a Golden Spike for the ceremony, so he is the likely progenitor of the concept, and the term. The spike he had made for the event was cast in 17.6 carat gold, and weighed 14 ounces.
Hewes donated some of his art and artifact collection to Stanford University in 1892, and the spike is generally on display there (at the Cantor Arts Center), though on May 10, 2019 it was on display in the Utah State Capitol, joining two other spikes used in the 1869 ceremony, three out of the four golden spikes together again for the first time since the 1869 ceremony.
Unknown to most people, Hewes actually had two golden spikes made for the event. The other stayed in his family’s possession until 2005. It is now on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.
One of the four official ceremonial Golden Spikes was made of silver, not gold, as it represented Nevada, the Silver State. It was made hurriedly in Virginia City days before the event, and was given to Leland Stanford when he was on his train in Reno, on his way to the ceremony at Promontory. It became part of the collection at Stanford University, and is often displayed with the main Golden Spike.
The Arizona Spike used in the 1869 ceremony is an iron spike plated in gold and silver. It was presented by the governor of the Arizona Territory at the Golden Spike event, then taken back to the New York City headquarters of Union Pacific, and owned by its president, Oliver Ames. His family donated it to the Museum of the City of New York, which has loaned it to Union Pacific’s museum at Council Bluffs, Iowa, since 2003.
The fourth Golden Spike used in the 1869 ceremony is the rogue spike. It was made for the event by the eccentric San Francisco newspaperman and aviator Frederick Marriott, who is said to have personally given it to Leland Stanford before he left San Francisco for the ceremony. It is an inch or so shorter than the main Golden Spike, but is also made of gold. It is suspected to have been lost in the chaos of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, when the ceremonial railroad tie was also lost, in a fire. Whether it was or not, or was secretly recovered, or remains in the debris in the ground, or in private hands, is unknown to history, at present. ♦