A Wedding of the Rails in Utah

April 16, 2019Katherine RivardNPF Blog

The telegraphers sat closest to the event site, poised for action as soon as the last spike was set. It was 12:47 p.m. on May 10, 1869 when they passed the message along to the rest of the country: “D-O-N-E.”

Promontory Summit, Utah, a tent city that swelled with the arrival of the conjoined railways would eventually shrink once more. But on that day, the nailing of the final spike into the transcontinental railroad was a momentous occasion, one which transformed the nation and a story that is now interpreted at Golden Spike National Historical Park.

Building the Railroad

Congress passed the Railroad Act of 1862, and President Lincoln signed it into law. The transcontinental railway would create a safer route for travelers and trade. By 1864, a second act was passed, as the railroads requested more government funding.

The Civil War, having just ended, enabled Union Pacific Railroad to employ Irish immigrants and veterans from the Civil War. The railway was one way to connect East and West, even as the North and South grappled with Reconstruction.

Meanwhile, the Central Pacific Railroad relied heavily on Chinese immigrants. Over 11,000 Chinese laborers produced high-quality work that quickly proved to be an immense asset to the project. Despite being paid smaller wages, the Chinese workers were more dependable and healthier. Due to the nature of the work however, many workers died during the project, and few of the injuries or deaths were recorded.

The Wedding of Railroads

Historic photo of two men on two train engines pouring a bottle of champagne into the other’s cup. A crowd of men stand all around, shaking hands, standing on the engines.

East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail.

Andrew J. Russell

Four special spikes were presented during the ceremony. A golden spike came from a friend of Central Pacific President Leland Stanford, a silver spike from Nevada, a gold-plated iron spike from the Arizona Territory, and a second gold spike ordered by Frederick Marriott, the proprietor of the San Francisco New Letter newspaper company.

According to various reports, between 300 and 1,500 visitors came to the ceremony on May 10, 1869. Andrew J. Russell took the most well-known photograph from the event, and it features two men on either engine pouring a bottle of champagne into the other’s cup. A crowd of men stand all around, shaking hands, standing on the engines, and as Russell described, ushering in a new era in human progress.

Coast to Coast

The new railroad meant that the trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific now took about one week, an astounding improvement from the 6-month wagon-ride. Despite this accomplishment, by 1903 a new path was created across the Great Salt Lake, saving time and money and providing a more level route. The original route became used for supplying local ranches, and was ultimately taken apart and re-laid in military depots in 1942 to assist with war efforts.

Visiting Today

A late summer sunset looking south from the Big Fill Trail at Golden Spike National Historical Park

Big Fill Trail

National Park Service

Opened in 1965, Golden Spike National Historical Park commemorates this important event in history and keeps alive the stories of those who were involved. Films play in the visitor center, focusing on a range of topics including how the locomotives were recreated and the life story of Andrew J. Russell. Visitors can also enjoy guided tours or outside activities such as a walking trail or auto tour.

We cannot lose sight of just how impactful railroads were in shaping the future of this nation. The completion of the transcontinental railroad transformed our history. From linguistic implications to the transfer of goods across the country, the effects of this accomplishment can still be seen today. #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque in Utah for yourself to receive an even deeper understanding of this event, right where it took place.  


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