Utah: Golden Spike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This is where the transcontinental railway line was completed. The line was disassembled and contributed as scrap for the metal drives of World War II. The site is now a National Historic Site.

Site Office

Golden Spike National Historic Site

P.O. Box 897

Brigham City, UT 84302-0923

ph.: (435) 471-2209

Web site: www.nps.gov/gosp

When the Founders of the United States first envisioned the nation, they probably did not realize that eventually it would border the world’s two largest oceans. They certainly could not have imagined that, less than a century later, citizens would be able to traverse the three thousand-mile width of the continent in the span of days. The struggle to achieve that feat came to a conclusion in a little Utah town called Promontory.

Development of the Railroads

As in Great Britain and continental Europe, the development of railroad transportation in the United States heralded a new era of exploration and commerce. In fact, railroads were most likely the single largest economic spark the young nation had ever known. Whereas the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers were open deep into the Midwest for ship traffic, much of the nation, particularly the newly settled areas in the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific coast, was virtually inaccessible. While settlers had reached these areas by horse and wagon, supplies could not be delivered quickly via that method. Therefore, the penetration of the railroad into these areas changed the new economies dramatically. The agricultural products and mineral ores of the West could now be transported to the manufacturing centers of the East. In addition, food, supplies, and other raw materials could be sent to the West over the railways, helping to bolster the fledgling industries there.

However, the railroads into the West reached only so far. A great natural barrier in the form of the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains had, until the mid-nineteenth century, precluded any rapid travel directly from the East to the Pacific coast. While the pioneers had been able to cross the mountains via horse and wagon, the trip was difficult and often deadly during searing summer heat and the bitter winter snows. Even so, the admission of California to the Union in 1850 and the news of its bounty of natural resources enticed many easterners. In that year, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Roads and Canals issued a statement that a transcontinental railroad would “cement the commercial, social and political relations of the East and West [and be] a highway over which will pass the commerce of Europe and Asia.” Previously, commerce across the country had been almost entirely dependent on the long journey around South America’s Cape Horn or across the dense jungles of Central America. Many congressmen believed a railroad link would reduce time and expense in transporting goods, as well as the mail and government troops to Pacific coast defense posts.

Plans for a Transcontinental Railroad

Soon, the Republican and Democratic political parties each had written the development of a transcontinental railroad route into their party platforms. Congress began to debate where the eastern terminus of the line would be located, with many lawmakers arguing that their particular city offered the most political and economic benefits. To help settle the dispute, the army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers was commissioned by Congress to determine the most practical railroad route from the Mississippi to the Pacific. By 1855, the engineers had decided that there were four possible routes: two in the North and two in the South. The transcontinental link that finally was built followed none of those routes, however.

Theodore D. Judah, a Sacramento Valley railroad engineer, became obsessed with the idea for the railway. He mapped out a route of his own that would pass through California’s Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass, the famed crossing where many settlers had died in winter snows on their way west. Judah lobbied politicians in Washington, D.C., but his most sympathetic supporters turned out to be four Sacramento merchants: Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford. As they were interested in promoting their businesses, the four investors wanted the line to pass by several Nevada mining towns once it had surmounted the Sierra Nevada. In June, 1861, the four incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, while Judah worked with the nation’s lawmakers to secure funding for the route’s construction.

The Civil War and the Railroads

The Civil War had already erupted in April, 1861, and so the railway line took on new, military significance for the North. The Union also hoped to solidify ties with California, which had threatened to secede with the Confederacy. With the backing of President Abraham Lincoln, the Railroad Act of 1862 was passed by Congress in June, 1862, and signed into law in July of that year. The act created the Union Pacific Railroad and authorized it to build a railway westward from the Missouri River to the California border or at whatever point it met the Central Pacific Railroad tracks being built eastward. Without the congressmen from the seceded states to lobby for a southern route, the northern route was chosen. Omaha was selected as the Union Pacific’s terminus. The federal government gave land grants and subsidies along a four hundred-foot right-of-way beside the railroad that cut through public domain land in the intermountain West, allowing for homesteading and the creation of towns.

The 1864 Railroad Act earmarked more government subsidies for the project. Even with that, federal loans provided no more than half the transcontinental railway’s needed capital. It was hoped that land grants or private investment would make up the rest. The success of the proposed transcontinental railroad was far from certain, and few investors appeared. As a result, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific formed dummy construction companies that funneled business back to themselves, free from government regulation. Consequently, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific reaped large profits.

Construction on the Transcontinental Railroad Begins

When actual construction began on each end of the railway in 1865, the logistics of the undertaking became even more complicated. The Central Pacific had to ship all equipment, tools, rails, and bolts around South America’s Cape Horn or across the Panamanian Isthmus in Central America to San Francisco, delaying work for weeks. The Union Pacific could ship supplies more easily to Omaha, but both companies expended great amounts of money and effort relaying supplies from the terminal points to the ends-of-track, where the construction workers made camp. Then, supplies were shipped by wagon train even farther into the wilderness to the surveying parties and grading crews, who prepared the trackbed. In the Great Plains, Union Pacific graders prepared trackbed about one hundred miles ahead of the track being laid by the construction crews; in the mountains, the graders tried to stay two hundred to three hundred miles in advance of the track.

Tent cities sprang up adjacent to each of the railroad workers’ base camps along the Union Pacific line. Brothels, saloons, and gambling houses proliferated in these cities as a diversion for tired workers. Many of them developed into full-fledged towns. North Platte, Nebraska; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Laramie, Wyoming; and Green River, Wyoming, all began as raucous railroad boomtowns. On the Central Pacific line, tent camps were nonexistent. Most of the workers were Chinese laborers, not known to be drinkers or gamblers. In addition, Charles Crocker, who headed Central Pacific’s construction firm, imposed law and order, outlawing liquor and vice in his workers’ camps.

Construction Difficulties

Strict discipline was necessary among Central Pacific workers as they faced nearly insurmountable construction obstacles from the start. Their Union Pacific counterparts were laying track through the flat Platte Valley in Nebraska. Central Pacific crews, on the other hand, encountered their toughest work immediately. The ominous Sierra Nevada mountains loomed only a few miles east of Sacramento, their starting point. At one point, the Central Pacific was forced to construct nearly thirty-seven miles of snowsheads over the mountains to shelter the track from avalanches during the winter. Many men died in the winters of 1866-1867 and 1867-1868 when unusually heavy snowfall buried base camps overnight. It took nearly two years for the Central Pacific line to be laid to the Sierra Nevada summit, only one hundred miles east of Sacramento.

Union Pacific work crews, while working on flat land, faced danger of a different kind: Indian attacks. Sioux and Cheyenne Indian tribes attacked Union Pacific workers repeatedly. Soon, several U.S. military battalions were stationed along the route in new forts constructed to protect the railroad workers. Work progressed on the Union Pacific line quickly; from 1865 to 1868, crews laid 350 miles of track.

As Central Pacific crews descended the Sierra Nevada into the Nevada desert, Union Pacific crews began to work feverishly. It became a race to see which company first would reach the Great Salt Lake Basin in Utah. Both companies wanted to control as much of the rail route and the Great Basin trade as possible. Moreover, both wanted to be able to retire the debt on the government loans they had used to build the line before the loans’ due date in 1875. Central Pacific and Union Pacific leaders also became convinced that whichever company built the longest portion of the transcontinental railway would enjoy greater prestige in the eyes of the nation.

Conflicting Union Pacific-Central Pacific Plans

By the spring of 1868, Central Pacific and Union Pacific survey teams were working side by side near Fort Bridger, Wyoming, but it soon became apparent that the two survey parties were planning to lay lines in different places that would not connect. The Central Pacific submitted its planned line to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Secretary of the Interior Orville Browning approved the Central Pacific line because he was hostile to the Union Pacific. The Union Pacific protested Browning’s ruling. Browning, therefore, appointed a special commission to hear the two companies’ complaints and determine the most equitable line. As a result, the meeting point of the railways was set forty-eight miles west of Ogden, Utah, in a circular basin at the summit of the Promontory Mountains. Building the lines to this terminus proved to be even more challenging. On the eastern flank of the Promontory Mountains, the ten-mile grade was very steep, averaging a climb of eighty feet to the mile. The Union Pacific brought in extra workers, many of them Irishmen and Mormons from the surrounding areas.

By mid-April, 1869, the two railheads were only fifty miles apart. Central Pacific and Union Pacific company officials set May 8 as the day for the ceremony to unite the rails. About that time, officials from both companies began traveling toward the terminus in trains on their respective tracks. Central Pacific officials were the first to arrive. They carried a $350 golden spike engraved with the words “The Last Spike” and presented it to officials in San Francisco by David Hewes, a construction magnate from the city. The train with Union Pacific officials aboard was stopped at Piedmont, Wyoming, when five hundred workers demanding back wages surrounded the car. The workers chained the car’s wheels to the rails and vowed not to release the officials until they were paid. The officials wired the Union Pacific’s offices in Boston for money and the train was allowed to pass.

Joining of the Railroad Lines

On May 7, Central Pacific crews had reached the summit, but Union Pacific crews had not. It was not until two days later that the Union Pacific laid its final 2,500 feet of track. Crews left one rail length between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railheads. On May 10, 1869, two days after the ceremony had been scheduled to take place, some five hundred to six hundred dignitaries, railroad officials, guests, construction workers, and local spectators gathered in the chilly mountain air, squinting in the spring sun.

Excited by the impending event, the crowd quickly became unruly, pressing forward to get a view of the last spike being driven. In the end, only about twenty people were able to see the uniting of the rails. Telegraph companies attached a wire to the last spike in order to transmit the sound of the final blows to an expectant nation. The golden spike was one of many pounded into the last railroad tie. The actual “last spike” was an ordinary iron one. At exactly 12:47 p.m., officials from both the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific took turns swinging at the wired spike and celebrations broke out across the country. After the ceremony, locomotives from each line advanced over the connected rails. Engineers from both engines joined hands across the divide and a bottle of champagne was broken over the final tie to christen the new transcontinental link. The actual completion of the railroad occurred later in the afternoon as the special spikes and ties were lifted up and replaced with ordinary spikes and ties. For the first time, American citizens could cross the young nation directly and rapidly.

The Rise of Promontory

The town of Promontory, Utah, grew up around the terminus point. For about a year, the town and the rail station boomed, providing a transfer point between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines. Rows of tents (many with false fronts) housed hotels, lunch counters, saloons, gambling dens, and several shops. However, the prosperous days of Promontory, like those of many other railroad boomtowns, were limited. In early 1870, the terminus of the two lines was moved east to Ogden.

The first transcontinental route hastened the development of several others. In 1883, three other lines were completed: the Northern Pacific line from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Portland, Oregon; the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe from Kansas to Los Angeles, California; and the Southern Pacific from New Orleans, Louisiana, to San Francisco, California. Ten years later, the Great Northern line from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, was opened.

Decline of the Transcontinental Route

Soon after the turn of the twentieth century, the Promontory transcontinental route began to fall into disfavor. The steep grade on the eastern slope of the Promontory Mountains forced the railroad companies to run helper engines on the line to push the cargo uphill. These extra engines cost nearly $1,500 per day to run. Consequently, the companies began looking for a more economical route. In 1902, the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had absorbed the Central Pacific, chose to shorten the line through the Great Basin by building a railroad trestle south of the existing line that would run directly across the Great Salt Lake.

The Lucin Cutoff, as it was called, decreased shipping expenses across the Great Basin for the Southern Pacific by nearly sixty thousand dollars per month. For almost forty years, the Promontory line was used only when bad weather threatened a crossing on the cutoff. In 1942, the Southern Pacific decided to tear up the Promontory line and contribute the scrap iron to efforts in World War II. The “undriving” of the last spike received as much fanfare of the initial ceremony seventy-three years before. One of those in attendance at the “undriving” was Mary Ipsen, an eighty-five-year-old woman who lived in nearby Bear River City, Utah. At age twelve, she had worked as a waitress on the mess car of a work train involved in building the Central Pacific-Union Pacific line over the Promontory Mountains.

In the late 1960’s, the Department of the Interior built a visitors’ center, marker, and replica locomotives and rails at the spot where the two rail lines were united more than a hundred years ago. Although air travel now makes it possible to span the nation’s coasts in a matter of hours, the Golden Spike National Historic Site is a tribute to America’s nineteenth century railway visionaries and the laborers who made their vision a reality.

For Further Information
  • Dowty, Robert R. Rebirth of the Jupiter and the 119: Building the Replica Locomotives at Golden Spike. Tucson, Ariz.: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1994. Discusses the construction of replica locomotives for the site by the Department of the Interior in the late 1960’s.
  • Utah Historical Quarterly 37, no. 1 (Winter, 1969). In commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the railway’s completion, this entire issue is devoted to the subject of the railway, its construction, and its impact.
  • Utley, Robert M., and Francis A. Ketterson, Jr. Golden Spike. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1982. Presents an excellent overview of the creation of the transcontinental railway.
Categories: History Content