On May 10, 1869, workers from the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met at Promontory Summit in Utah and drove the golden and silver spikes that both symbolically and literally connected the East to the West. The joining of the two railroads is celebrated at Golden Spike National Historic Site, which was designated in 1957. America's first railroads began operation in the 1830s, and by the Civil War the Eastern states were linked by more than 30,000 miles of rail. The country west of the Missouri River, however, remained virtually unserved by railroads.
©National Park Service
The Last Spike Ceremony took place on May 10, 1869. Volunteers reenact the
ceremony during the summer season.
In 1862, Congress realized the political and economic gains to be had by a transcontinental railroad, so it authorized the Central Pacific to build a rail line eastward from Sacramento, and the Union Pacific to build one westward from Omaha. The Central Pacific crew immediately faced the rugged Sierras, while the Union Pacific had to contend with the Plains Indians. As they neared the end, each company raced to lay more tracks and claim more land. They actually worked right past each other, laying more than 200 miles of parallel grades. Finally, Congress intervened and forced them to meet at Promontory Summit. In all, the Central Pacific laid 690 miles of track, while the Union Pacific tally came to 1,086 miles.
The visitor center at the site has exhibits and films, including one of photographer A. J. Russell, who captured the event on film. Displays feature replicas of the famous golden and silver spikes, a segment of the original track, and a sculpture honoring the Chinese laborers who worked hard to complete the railroads but were mistreated and paid little more than slave wages. The Park Service has relaid almost two miles of track on the original railroad bed and operates exact replicas of two steam engines, the Central Pacific's Jupiter and the Union Pacific's 119 during the summer season.
Engineers planning the route for the railroad bed used spyglasses to help scout the land ahead, though they soon learned they couldn't always trust what they saw through this tool. According to one report, a civil engineer issued an order to charge when he saw an Indian's feather standing up in his headband. The warrior was apparently trying to hide behind some tall grass. Four men charged, blasting away with their revolvers. When they reached their target, they found a dead skunk with an erect tail like a feather.
Golden Spike National Historic Site Information
Address: 32 miles west of Brigham City, Utah, via Utah Hwy
Hours of Operation: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Admission: $5, winter, $7, summer per vehicle
Learn more about these other national historic sites:
To learn more about national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:
- National Monuments: Learn more about America's national monuments.
- National Memorials: Discover national memorials in the U.S.
- National Historic Sites: Read about American national historic sites.
- Utah State Guide: Learn about Mobil Travel Guide-rated hotels and restaurants in Utah as well as other recreational activities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eric Peterson is a Denver-based author who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.