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The Golden Spike

Remembering the Connection of Two Coasts

Photography © Corbis/Bettman Archive

Photography © Corbis/Bettman Archive

“May God continue the unity of our Country, as the Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.” So read the engraving on the golden spike driven into the final tie of the First Transcontinental Railroad connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. The Civil War had ended only four years before, and the country, though a union, was still divided—by the aftermath of bloodshed and by great expanses of land. Then, in one of the first nationwide media events (“DONE” read the telegraph zapped across the country), Americans from coast to coast were finally connected by one track of iron and timber. With that final spike, six and a half years of labor transformed a trip across the country from six months to six days and enabled a new level of commerce and transportation that would shift the nation’s focus from North-South to East-West. Popularized and promoted by railroad engineer Theodore Judah, the transcontinental vision began to take shape around 1836. But it wasn’t until 1853 that Congress spent $150,000 on surveying for a route. The Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864 finally authorized the massive project now considered one of the greatest technological feats of the 19th century. At the completion ceremony, Union Pacific No. 119 and the Jupiter, separated by only one tie, were drawn face to face. Of the “Big Four” investors in the project, only Leland Stanford was present to do the ceremonial honors. Three commemorative spikes were placed on behalf of Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker, the three absent railroad barons. Stanford drove the gilded spike into the tie of polished California laurel, finishing off almost 1,800 miles of hand-built track and realizing an American dream that would forever change the face of the West. Nowadays you can drive across Interstate 80 alongside the First Transcontinental Railroad’s path and you can see a monument at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit. But you won’t be able to find the golden spike: The ceremonial substitutes were removed immediately after the event. Ordinary iron spikes and a wooden tie were put in their place, indistinguishable from the other pieces of metal and fragments of lumber leading to the historic location and the uniting of the nation.

 

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