The golden spike at last

On several ski trips to Utah I had picked up a brochure about the Golden Spike national historic site. I’m not a train foamer (enthusiast) by any means, but as a history geek I felt a small obligation to see the site where the transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869. It was a major event in American history, right? I knew it was north of Ogden somewhere. My Utah friend asked why I would ever want to see that, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Clearly, he’s not a history geek.

I can report that I finally made it there and think I had a moment of train foamer-ness today. Probably wasn’t converted, but definitely was in total fascination of the place. My friend was right, it’s remote and the landscape is barren and brown. No one lived nearby then and no one lives nearby now. Why there? In 1862 Congress had authorized the Central Pacific Railroad to build a railroad eastward from Sacramento, California and chartered the Union Pacific Railroad which eventually began building toward the west from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Of course the Civil War was raging and there were problems supplying labor. Eventually Irish and Chinese immigrants joined the workforce and after tackling such little obstacles as the Sierra Nevada mountains, the crews eventually got into a routine and on the best day managed to build ten miles of track in one day! Apparently the government subsidies were so good that even when they finally sighted the other crew, they passed and kept building. President Grant stepped in and forced them to join tracks and to pick a point for the meeting. They chose Promontory Summit, UT near the northern end of the Great Salt Lake – a place they had first sighted each other.

Most history students have seen the celebratory photograph taken on the grand day. Today the site features two replica engines built in 1979, one red, one blue pulled up as they were on May 10. One burned coal, the other wood. One, the Jupiter, made in New York, the other the 119, made in New Jersey.

About 500-600 people witnessed the event but surprisingly few politicians given the major triumph that it was.  A huge deal in press, reporters compared it to the first shots fired at Lexington. Bells pealed across nation including the Liberty Bell. It is said that more cannons were fired in celebration than ever took part in Gettysburg. T he last spike was gold and printed on it was: May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world. The hammer was silver and the last tie was laurel wood. Though apparently souvenir hunters whittled the last tie to splinters, and six extra ties were cut up by end of day.

The site includes a film and exhibition, a small monument to the Irish workers and one to the Chinese workers. The engines are put into storage every night and brought out again every morning. It’s great fun to see them moving through the landscape. I tried to imagine what the event must have been like.

Ironically, a shorter route to the south called the Lucin Cutoff was completed in 1904. In 1942 the last spike of the northern section was ceremonially undriven and the steel of the rails went to the World War II effort.

Thankfully the National Park Service eventually got involved and preserved the place, this mecca for train foamers. Is it worth a trip? Absolutely!

Other posts about Utah:

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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