This blog post, describing the driving of the golden spike, is adapted from my article “Races Within A Race” that appeared in the April 2019 issue of Roundup Magazine.
Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, performed the honors on behalf of the railroad that had laid the tracks eastward from Sacramento, California. Thomas “Doc” Durant, vice president and general manager of the Union Pacific, represented the railroad that had laid tracks westward from Omaha, Nebraska. On May 10, 1869, hundreds of workers from both companies crowded around to witness the ceremonies. Speeches by various dignitaries commenced the proceedings. Twenty newspaper reporters produced differing stories because they could not get close enough to hear the speakers.
Finally, it was time for the big event. First Stanford then Durant gently touched the golden spike with a silver-plated maul, officially signaling the completion of the railroad. Then the precious spike was replaced with a regular iron one. Stanford was handed a sledgehammer connected by wire to a telegraph key to automatically send a signal when contact was made with the metal spike. Stanford swung and missed the spike. Durant took a turn and missed both spike and tie. The Western Union telegrapher manually tapped out the signal “done” to listeners around the world. The UP had laid 1,086 miles of track and the CP 690. The Pacific Railroad, finished seven years ahead of schedule, was complete at 1,776 miles.
Union Pacific’s Engine No. 119 and Central Pacific’s locomotive Jupiter inched toward each other and touched cowcatchers. Whistles blew, and bells clanged. Two brass bands blared out martial music. The witnesses toasted one another with champagne. The dignitaries enjoyed a quick luncheon, then they hurried away in their private railcars in opposite directions. With the driving of the golden spike, Manifest Destiny became a reality. The Overland Trail that had required six months to traverse in a wagon could now be crossed in six days by train. The western lands that had been home to Native American tribes for centuries were rapidly taken from them by soldiers and settlers.
The sesquicentennial celebration of what many consider to be the greatest engineering achievement of the nineteenth century will be held at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 2019. I will be present as part of a contingent from the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society which is holding its annual convention in Ogden, Utah, May 8 to 11.
The photographs illustrating this blog post are from my visit to the Golden Spike National Historic Site on May 10, 2014, during the annual reenactment of the celebration of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. You can read my fictionalized version of this significant historical event in Golden Spike, The Iron Horse Chronicles–Book Three.