The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading
  NUMBER 108


© May 4, 2008   

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May 10, 1869
A Golden Spike

The most famous railroad photograph ever taken


May 10, 1869
This is the day that is the most notable in U. S. Railroad history, as it marked a new era in American history. In celebration of the event, that would come to be know as the first nationwide media event to take place, a telegraph and temporary town were even erected to handle the expected rush of between 500 and 3000 railroad workers, dignitaries,  government representatives and reporters from over 30 newspapers.

As railroad enthusiasts, do you know what and where this event was?  Read about the event below. Was it actually where you though it was?


Written by Rick Henderson


On Monday, May 10, 1869, 12:00 noon local time, at Promontory Summit, Utah, the last spike was set to be driven, after speeches of course, affecting the new Pacific Railroad by the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. This completed the first U. S. transcontinental railroad, which was also the first transcontinental railroad of any country. The Central Pacific had come 960 miles from Sacramento California and the Union Pacific had come 1,086 miles from Omaha, Nebraska. Once completed, service was advertised as The Great American Over-Land Route and the Union and Central Pacific Railroad Line.

Central Pacific #60 and Union Pacific #119 were on hand for what became one of the best known ceremonial railroad event photos ever. A study of all photographs taken that day suggests that between 500 and 600 people were actually on hand to witness the event, not the 3,000 to 30,000 predicted.

The actual ceremony may have been one of the most poorly planned for such a significant historical event and reports from journalists, who had written their "eyewitness" accounts days before, all led to some misinformation that became recorded history. The event was planned for May 8 but was delayed due to rain and labor problems with the Union Pacific workers. Dignitaries from the two railroads only met for the first time on the morning of May 10 to discuss what to do and how to do it, while the last rail was ready to set. Everyone knew something was to going to happen, but no one knew exactly what before hand. Reporters used the name Promontory Point in their stories because it was the only name on the maps of the day.

There was some forethought by a few people who recognized the importance of the occasion, including the last minute forging of four special spikes from four different people. The famous "golden spike" with the inscriptions was not cast until May 4th as a last minute thought and represented the Central Pacific. A second golden spike came from the San Francisco News Letter newspaper, also made on May 4th. A silver spike was cast and presented by the state of Nevada on May 5th. The fourth spike was a standard spike with gold plated head and silver plated sides and came from the Arizona Territory. Additionally, a special California laurelwood tie with predrilled holes and silver plaque (right) marked, "The last tie laid on completion of the Pacific Railroad, May, 1869." A special silver plated spike maul was provided by the San Francisco's Pacific Express Company.

After the speeches, the four ceremonial spikes were placed in the predrilled holes and gently tapped in place for the dedication ceremony. During the ceremony, details of the progress of the event were being telegraphed across the nation. When the speeches were completed, the special spikes and ceremonial tie were immediately replaced with a real tie and iron spikes with three of the spikes being driven in by railroad workers. The fourth spike was set and then wires were attached to the spike and spike maul so that as the spike was driven in, it would send a single dot over the telegraph line with each blow. At 12:47, the last iron spike was driven and then word "d-o-n-e" was telegraphed to all points around the U.S. simultaneously.

The Route

A transcontinental railroad had been proposed as early as 1835, shortly after the introduction of steam locomotives in the US and the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 "AN ACT to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes" was enacted by Congress, on July 1, 1862. Due to the Civil War, the construction was delayed. A Union Pacific railroad map [above] from November 1867 shows the proposed route and how much had been completed at that time.

Both railroad had their own idea of where to meet and were doing survey and grading work that passed each other, chiefly because the government was funding each for miles of track completed. In January 1869, the government had to step in and sent a commission of civil engineers to make a decision. A final decision which was not made until April 9, 1869, when both railroads had to sit down to agree on the final connection at Promontory Summit, which was halfway between the end of each railroads current completed track.

Final Route of Central Pacific portion
Final Route of Union Pacific portion

Just about ever person who attended school in the U. S. learned in a history lesson about the competition of the first U. S. Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point UT. This original error in reporting by most of the journalists present for the event was repeated over and over, including history textbooks, articles and souvenirs into the 21st century. The correct location of Promontory Summit, 35 miles to the north of Promontory Point, is finally becoming know as the actual event location.

Was it Done?

Actually, a complete and continuous rail connection from the Atlantic to the Pacific was not achieved in 1869. At least two rivers needed to be bridged, the San Joaquin river south of Stockton California and the Missouri river between Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha Nebraska. The San Joaquin river bridge was completed by September 1869 however crossing the Missouri river was not completed until 1872. Trains were ferried across the Missouri river for three years. Once this final bridge was completed, there was a 3500-mile continuous railroad connection from New York to California.

Less notably, twelve years after the Golden Spike ceremony, the second transcontinental railroad was completed at Deming, in the New Mexico Territory, on March 8, 1881, linking the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and Southern Pacific Railroads.

What Changed?

The completion of the Pacific Railway had a major impact in several areas. Until 1869, the migration of the population west of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers had been via wagon trains, stagecoach, or by ships around the tip of South America or across the Panama narrows. The short-lived Pony Express was the fastest way of sending a letter across the country. All of these became old-fashioned with the country now linked by railroads. The flow of people from east to west increased and even the remote Utah Territory doubled in population by 1880.

By 1900, approximately 90% of the entire U. S. population lived within 25 miles of a railroad. The 'Iron-Horse' had replaced wagons and stagecoaches and regained as the prime mover of people and products around the nation. The glory days were actually short lived as the move away from overburdened railroads came about after WW-I as automobiles and trucks became more common and dirt roads were improved. By WW-II, events like the Golden Spike were all but forgotten by most.

In 1904 a new route across the Great Salt Lake shortened the route between Ogden UT and Lucin UT by 45 miles and eliminated the need to go up over the very steep Promontory Pass. This effectively ended the need for the line through Promontory Summit and over the years the service to the local ranchers and small communities along the line declined until all local service ended on the branch in 1938.

For the 50th anniversary in 1919, the small town of Promontory planned a big celebration. However when they learned the event had been at Promontory Summit, over 30 miles out in the desert where there was no water and not at Promontory Point, no one would come. Instead a celebration and parade was held in larger Ogden UT that included a few of the surviving labors who had helped to build the railroad.

What Remains?

All that remains today of the event's original ceremonial items are three of the final spikes and the original silver plated spike maul used in the ceremony. The first gold spike, Nevada's silver spike and the silver plated maul wound up at the Stanford University museum. The Arizona silver spike is in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, currently on loan to the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The second gold spike was thought to have returned to the San Francisco News Letter and lost in the 1906 earthquake. The laurelwood tie was in the San Francisco offices of the Southern Pacific and was lost in fires following the 1906 earthquake.

In 1903, Union Pacific locomotive "119" is sold to scrappers for $1,000. In 1909, the original Central Pacific locomotive "Jupiter" is sold to scrappers, also for $1,000. The original rail was removed for scrap in September 1942 for the war effort and that portion of the railroad was abandoned. In 1943 a commemorative cement pyramid marker was placed to mark the spot by a few local residents. It came to be known as the most neglected historical spot in our land.

On May 10, 1952 a Golden Spike Association, lead by Bernice Gibbs Anderson, determined to keep the memory of such an important historical site and event alive, held the first re-enactment of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Summit.

Eighty-eight years after this important event, official recognition finally came when in 1957, Congress established the Golden Spike National Historic Site. The intent was to preserve the area around Promontory Summit as closely as possible to the 1869 setting. It was an additional eight years before funding came in 1965 when Congress made Promontory Summit a Federal site with full funding to re-create and maintain the historic site, almost a full century after the event.

On May 10, 1969, for the 100th anniversary and with a new visitors center, 28,000 people turned out to commemorate the Centennial celebration of the "Welding of the Rails", finally giving acknowledgment to the historical significance. Today the National Park Service maintains a recreation of the event at Golden Spike National Historical Site located at Promontory Summit, Utah.

On May 10, 2006, the state of Utah selected the image of the 1869 Golden Spike event as the design to represent Utah in the 50 State Quarter special edition coins produced by the US Mint.  
photo by Francis Brostrom
Golden Spikes in Large Scale Railroading

Many scale model railroads have held "Golden Spike Ceremonies" to acknowledge the completion of their railroad, or at least a significant portion of it. Some have markers and some hold events to drive scale spikes, usually temporary, to mark the occasion.


Eagle Point Railroad Completion
April 1, 2006
Photo by Deborah DeVries

Canton, St. Paul & Pacific Railway
January 13, 2007

Written by Rick Henderson

the end

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