The Golden Spike c. 1995


Meeting of the cowcatchers (1995)

Milestones are always happening, and when we look back, we sometimes can't see what the big deal was.

But this one was a big deal.

Thirty years after planning began, and roughly six years after the work started, two locomotives rolled up and touched cowcatchers in an otherwise-deserted place in north central Utah in 1869, symbolically tying the country back together just four years after the end of the Civil War.

This month minus 150 years, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, and the "Golden Spike" (merely symbolic, and removed to a museum at Stanford University after the festivities) was driven at Promontory Point by university founder, former Governor of California, former U.S. Senator, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, robber baron, and at the time President of the Central Pacific Rail Road: Leland Stanford. The east-to-west--or, more specifically, Sacramento, California (680 miles to the west via the Central Pacific) to Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the Missouri River (1,086 miles to the east on the Union Pacific)--were at last united. Both endpoints were already connected to rails that led to the Pacific and Atlantic, respectively.

Leland spikes it! (1995)

This sped passengers and freight, mainly from the east to the west--no more need for wagon trains or stagecoaches or travel on foot. What once might have taken six months or more could now be done in about 10 days. The country was literally tied (get it?) together. It changed everything.

Ironically, in the early 20th century, the tracks were rerouted; the last regular transcontinental passenger train passed through Promontory in 1904. The line was shut down for financial reasons during the Great Depression, and the tracks removed in 1942 and the steel used in the war effort.

Starting in the 1950s, re-enactors began re-driving the last spike, and in 1957 the site was recognized by the federal government. The Southern Pacific gave the right-of-way to the government, and a National Historic Site was founded in 1965. (Since March of this year, it's Golden Spike National Historical Park, thankyouveddymuch.)

Los dos locos. (1995)

Two sweet little locos, replicas of the originals (hight "Jupiter" and "No. 119"), were added to the celebrations in 1979 (the 110th anniversary), along with a mile and a half of track for them to run on. The originals had been busted up for scrap in 1901 and 1903. (Is nothing sacred?)

This was one of America's first "media events," with telegraphers spreading the news far and wide, but there were some interesting kerfuffles. For one, Stanford missed the spike on his first whack. For another, the spike itself was engraved "May 8th"--but weather and a labor dispute (so American!) delayed the ceremony to the 10th. Finally, though gold is symbolic and beautiful, it's also rather soft, so they pre-drilled the hole in a special laurelwood tie, allowing for gentle taps rather than full-on blows.

This year is the sesquicentennial, and quite a big deal has been made. But I was there in 1995, for the... the... 126th anniversary. (Is there a word for that?) The photos seen here are a bit dark due to poor scanning; I may replace them with better when I have a chance, but I wanted to rush this out.

Praying they won't miss the spike again? (1995)

In 1995, I was living with actor Robert Urich and family in Park City, just two hours away from lonely Promontory. (The nearest "city" to the spike site, Tremonton, has fewer than 8,000 people--and that's nearly 30 miles away. Farming communities lie in between. Mail for the Park goes to Brigham City, also 30 miles away, a metropolis of nearly 20,000--about the number that attended the sesquicentennial whack!) I remember very little about the experience (thank goodness for the photos!) except it was fairly crowded for such a lonely place. It seems today the reenactments and "locomotive demonstrations" run all summer long (11:00 am and 1:00 pm, Saturdays and holidays, Memorial Day to Labor Day--locos only at 1:00 pm); I don't think that was the case a-way back 24 years ago.

The best angle I could get on a truly historic moment--ceremonial champagne! (1995) See below.

Photographer A. J. Russell's iconic shot--champagne in the center. (1869) (Click to enlarge)


A GALLERY

Just a few more self-explanatory shots of the purpose-built replicas first rolled out for the 100th anniversary in 1979. All photos in 1995.






Last updated May 12, 2019

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