May 10, 1869
In 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act chartered the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies, and tasked them with building a transcontinental railroad that would link the United States from east to west. Over the next seven years, interrupted by the Civil War, the two companies would race toward each other from Sacramento, California on the west and Omaha, Nebraska coming from the east, struggling against great risks before they met at Promontory Point , Utah, on May 10, 1869.
Along with the development of the atomic bomb, the digging of the Panama Canal, and landing the first men on the moon, the construction of a transcontinental railroad was one of the United States’ greatest technological achievements. Railroad track had to be laid over 2,000 miles of rugged terrain, including mountains of solid granite.
Before the advent of the transcontinental railroad a journey across the continent to the west and the Pacific Ocean meant a dangerous six-month trek over rivers, deserts, and mountains costing up to $1,000. Alternatively, a traveler could hazard a six-week sea voyage around Cape Horn, or sail to Central America and cross the Isthmus of Panama by rail, risking exposure to any number of deadly diseases in the crossing. Interest in building a railroad uniting the continent began soon after the advent of the locomotive. The transcontinental railroad would make it possible to complete the trip in five days at a cost of $150 for a first-class sleeper.
On April 9, 1869, Congress established the meeting point in an area known as Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake. Less than one month later, on May 10, 1869, locomotives from the two railroads met nose-to-nose to signal the joining of the two lines. At 12:57 p.m. local time, as railroad dignitaries hammered in ceremonial golden spikes, telegraphers announced the completion of the Pacific Railway. Canons boomed in San Francisco and Washington. Bells rang and fire whistles shrieked as people celebrated across the country. The nation was indeed united. Manifest Destiny was a reality. The six-month trip to California had been reduced to two weeks.
Six years after the groundbreaking, laborers of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. It was here on May 10, 1869, that Leland Stanford drove The Last Spike (or Golden Spike) that joined the rails of the transcontinental railroad. The spike is now on display at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, while a second “Last” Golden Spike is also on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. In perhaps the world’s first live mass-media event, the hammers and spike were wired to the telegraph line so that each hammer stroke would be heard as a click at telegraph stations nationwide—the hammer strokes were missed, so the clicks were sent by the telegraph operator. As soon as the ceremonial “Last Spike” had been replaced by an ordinary iron spike, a message was transmitted to both the East Coast and West Coast that simply read, “DONE.” The country erupted in celebration upon receipt of this message. Travel from coast to coast was reduced from six months or more to just one week.
An eyewitness to the driving of the last spike, Alexander Toponce, recalled the following:
When they came to drive the last spike, Governor Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, took the sledge, and the first time he struck he missed the spike and hit the rail.
What a howl went up! Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, and everybody yelled with delight. “He missed it. Yee.” The engineers blew the whistles and rang their bells. Then Stanford tried it again and tapped the spike and the telegraph operators had fixed their instruments so that the tap was reported in all the offices east and west, and set bells to tapping in hundreds of towns and cities. Then Vice President T[Thomas] C. Durant of the Union Pacific took up the sledge and he missed the spike the first time. Then everybody slapped everybody else again and yelled, “He missed it too, yow!”
It was a great occasion, everyone carried off souvenirs and there are enough splinters of the last tie in museums to make a good bonfire.
When the connection was finally made the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific engineers ran their engines up until their pilots touched. Then the engineers shook hands and had their pictures taken and each broke a bottle of champagne on the pilot of the other’s engine and had their picture taken again.
Each year on May 10th the National Park Service celebrates the driving of the last spike (Golden Spike). The Central Pacific’s steam engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s engine #119 are fired up and the famous Champagne Photo is recreated. If you are in the area on May 10th make the trip to Promontory Point, about 90 miles north of Salt Lake City (1.5-hour drive). Remember in 2019, only two years from now, the 150th anniversary will be celebrated. Even though no program has been announced, it is sure to be a memorable celebration.