The Golden Spike
The date was May 9, 1869, four years after the end of the civil war. The time was 2:47 PM. The place was promontory Summit, Utah. Two trains faced each other a railroad tie apart. A large crowd had gathered. Railroad Financier and California Governor Leland Stanford using a silver hammer drove a golden spike into the final tie with a single blow. A telegraph went out to the world with the single word “done”. And the first transcontinental railroad was born, linking the east to the truly wild, wild west.
The rail line was first ordered by congress 7 years earlier. Travel to the west was accomplished by a dangerous six-month wagon train journey over the California and the Oregon trails. The rail line would cut travel time from the 6 months to a mere week.
The Central Pacific Railroad (who would build the line eastward from Sacramento, California) and the Union Pacific (who was to build the segment westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa) accomplished the building of the railway itself. Mountains, rivers and the Civil War dictated where the rail lines could be built.
Although the two company’s lines would eventually meet, their founders, labor and use of government funds could not have been more different.
The Central Pacific was owned by the “Big Four” who consisted of Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. They used the recent Chinese immigrants from California and Mormon laborers from Utah to do the dangerous work of installing rail ties and blasting through mountains.
The Union Pacific was owned by Thomas C. Durant, former cotton smuggler and medical doctor. Durant knowing that the government was busy with the Civil War and that the government paid Union Pacific for each mile of track it laid, he installed large amounts of unnecessary track across land that he owned.
After the war’s end, Union Pacific hired Union and Confederate war veterans and recent Irish immigrants, and ended up completing two-thirds of the entire railway.
None of that mattered when the golden spike was driven into the ground. It bore the phrase, “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world,” (The golden spike was eventually removed from the tie, to be replaced with a normal steel spike)
It was another year before bridges and extensions created an all-rail link between Atlantic and Pacific. In 1904, the Lucin Cutoff spanned Utah’s Great Salt Lake, rendering the Promontory Summit rails redundant. The rails from Promontory were recycled during World War II. The spike itself lives on at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. Promontory Summit is home to the Golden Spike National Historic Site.