Actor and scholar Anson Mount ponders the creation of the First Transcontinental Railroad on the sesquicentennial of its opening.
Most American presidents come to power with a grand vision, one they believe will unify the nation and move its people collectively forward. Of course, as history has made clear, presidential visions are quickly clouded over by the necessary management of an unfolding reality. It was, after all, Kennedy who captured the nation’s imagination when he proclaimed, “We choose to go to the moon,” only to find himself countering the Soviets in a more direct manner that could well have ended in nuclear exchange. It was Johnson, and eventually Nixon, who reaped the national morale that came with the moon landing, only to find themselves managing Kennedy’s darker legacy: Vietnam.
The careful reader of American history may find himself struck silent for a moment when considering that emancipation was not, in fact, Abraham Lincoln’s grand vision at the outset of his presidency. He knew, of course, that it was a necessity — if somewhat uncertain as to exactly when such a tectonic shift in U.S. and human rights policy might happen without generating civil conflict — but he did not see the end of slavery as his inevitable legacy. Lincoln’s vision, and the legacy for which he hoped to be remembered, was a transcontinental rail system.
The binding together of our nation by means of steel was generally considered a fragile business scheme and an engineering impossibility. In other words, it was science fiction. Further hampering Lincoln’s intent at the outset of his presidency were the entrenched positions of an increasingly distrustful Congress. Unsurprisingly, northern politicians wanted a northern route and the Southerners wanted the same advantage should tensions rise to the point of a civil war.
It was with such a war finally settled — and further, with the assassination of a president who died still dreaming — that America felt a sudden, communal need: to band together, if for no other reason than to tackle an impossibility. In Nothing Like It in the World, Stephen E. Ambrose’s stunning consideration of the project, the author notes that, with the end of the conflict, the nation found itself saddled with thousands of unemployed men possessed of a rugged nerve and experience in fast deployment. Suddenly, men of every conceivable color and background, men who had been attempting to kill one another — or even to own one another — just months prior, were now working hand in hand to grade, timber, level, and connect thousands of untamed miles.
But while temporary altruism and a thirst for progress may have moved the project past political intransigence, darker motives quickly took hold. Corruption was rampant and blatant. Congressmen on the Railroad Committee cornered the market on newly available land, essentially purchasing future railroad towns for pennies. Self-dealing was the norm with railroad tycoons like Thomas C. Durant. Once contracted by the government, Durant formed his own construction company, Crédit Mobilier, and paid himself per-mile at his own price, adding long, unnecessary curves to the route.
But such boondoggles and hornswoggles did not deter our nation’s first moonshot as one might have expected. If anything, greed and cynicism kept the project afloat long enough for the men on the ground to prove that it could be done. While those in Washington and the rail offices lined their pockets, no doubt hedging against the possibility of further conflict and national collapse, it was the engineers and their men who thought through problems as immediate and daunting as punching a lake-flat hole straight through miles of solid granite. Their most advanced technology, the steam engine itself, was useful for little more than transporting pickaxes, shovels, and dynamite. Their true machine was made of hands, backs, and corded muscle. With Union Pacific chief engineer Grenville M. Dodge working from the east and Central Pacific engineer Theodore Judah working from the west, our national cynicism receded with each mile of track lain.
By the time the “Golden Spike” — the ceremonial keystone of the project — was pounded in by a cluster of press-hungry investors on May 10, 1869, the entire nation waited as one for the faint telegraph that denoted just four letters: “D-O-N-E.” By all press accounts at the time, what followed was the largest collective celebration in national history — perhaps the greatest to this day — playing out in every major city.
Such a thing is hard to imagine today when infrastructure is considered mundane,
if not a political wasteland. But the Transcontinental Railroad was more than just a civil project. From the air — a point of view afforded only by the train’s winged successor — we can now see that its tracks bear an uncanny resemblance to a suture. It is a living reminder that we — for all our division, malice, and occasional cynicism — are nothing more, and nothing less, than a proud mongrel biting at its own wounds as it forages in the borders of night. With Lincoln’s vision realized, and the rail system connecting us to our continent’s vast resources, we took our first, unwitting step toward becoming the thing that would further test our collective identity, our collective idealism, and our collective greed: a superpower.
A Spike in Activity
There are many ways to revisit history and participate in the sesquicentennial celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad’s opening. Get tickets for the official sesquicentennial festival and find out about other events and exhibits planned in Utah and beyond at spike150.org.
SPIKE 150 SESQUICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION FESTIVAL (May 10 – 12): Gather at Brigham City, Utah’s Golden Spike National Historic Site on the 150th anniversary of the original 1869 opening ceremony, at which a solid-gold spike was driven into a railroad tie. The three-day weekend festival from May 10 – 12 will include replica steam engine arrivals and demos, historical reenactments, interactive exhibits including a Hell on Wheels town, live music, and plenty of refreshments. Of special note: The official celebration ceremony on May 10 will center around a stage framed by two historic steam engines. Visitors will take in a keynote speech by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham and a premiere performance of the new musical As One. The celebration ceremony will be broadcast by the local station KSL and livestreamed at ksl.com.
ALSO, IN NEVADA: The Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City is honoring the sesquicentennial in its own way, with an exhibit featuring two authentic steam locomotives from the era of the railroad’s opening, as well as a surviving rolling director’s car that was present for the historic “Golden Spike” moment. Find out more about the exhibit, scheduled to open in May, at nvculture.org/nevada150railroad.
About Anson Mount
Anson Mount is an actor, writer, producer, and podcaster. Widely known for playing the lead role of Cullen Bohannon on AMC’s critically acclaimed railroad drama Hell on Wheels, Mount has appeared on C&I’s cover twice. He’s now in an equally high-profile role as Capt. Christopher Pike on the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery and is both producing and starring in the independent feature film The Virtuoso opposite Anthony Hopkins. Mount’s podcast The Well, co-hosted by his friend Branan Edgens, features stories and interviews on the subject of creativity. Listen at thewellpod.com. Read Mount’s previous history pieces for C&I by searching his name at cowboysindians.com.
Photography: (Lead Image) Courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Museum, courtesy union pacific railroad museum, (Middle Image) Courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Museum, Dennis Ilic/Courtesy Anson Mount
From the May/June 2019 Issue.