This May marks 150 years of one of the most pivotal events in U.S. history: the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. On May 10, 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met in Promontory, Utah and drove a ceremonial last golden spike into a rail line that connected their railroads, linking the United States from shore to shore. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary, follow our #TranscontinentalRailroad blog series all week for untold stories of this iconic event.
What began as an improbable endeavor to build the largest industrial infrastructure project in history had evolved into something more. The means by which the Transcontinental Railroad achieved its goals became emblematic of the interplay between technology and capitalism, state regulation and free enterprise, with it all embodying America’s increasingly imperialistic tendencies. And as the following excerpts from Roland De Wolk’s American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford and J.S. Holliday’s Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California show, everything changed in a dusty backwater town in the desert—Promontory, Utah. America’s industrial nationalism had been secured for the decades to come.
It was a practical location, not a romantic one. Albert D. Richardson of the New York Tribune described it that summer of 1869:
“Promontory is neither city nor solitude, neither camp nor settlement. It is bivouac without comfort, it is delay without rest. It is sun that scorches, and alkali dust that blinds. It is vile whiskey, vile cigars, petty gambling and stale newspapers at twenty-five cents apiece. It would drive a morbid mind to suicide. It is thirty tents upon the Great Sahara, sans trees, sans water, sans comfort, sans everything.”
The month of May in the high desert just north of the Great Salt Lake can be unkind to anyone counting on good weather. But on May 10 1869, seven years before the congressionally mandated deadline, it was fine enough for what is not infrequently compared to the symbolic significance of the first man on the Moon almost exactly one hundred years later.
The story, told often, bears repeating: The Union Pacific’s boss arrived late for the big ceremony, having been held up by angry workers who did not get their pay. Central Pacific president Stanford had to cool his well-cobbled heels in a luxurious executive railcar for two days waiting for him. The last, ceremonial spikes were made of gold and silver. Another was attached to telegraph wires that would transmit nationwide the great moment of the spikes being driven into their ordained slots, emblematically uniting the recently divided United States of America. On the big day, Stanford, who had scooped the symbolic first shovelful of western soil for the project 650 miles away in Sacramento six years earlier, took the first swing, aiming for the gold spike—and missed. He got a second chance, prompting champagne to rupture coast-to-coast. Leland Stanford sent Collis Huntington a telegram: “The Rails Connected with appropriate Ceremony.” That was it.
The iconic photograph of the two train lines joining, workers reaching out from each side with bottles of champagne, shows Leland Stanford’s locomotive to the left: the Jupiter. It had been a last-minute substitute because the engine originally sent to the ceremony had broken down. It was almost as if a power with a salty sense of humor had intervened: Scolds had suggested the haughty Stanford was arrogantly fashioning himself after the supreme Roman god. Votaries countered he was a titan more appropriately compared to the great planet but in the firmament of American elites. Learn more about American Disruptor.
Of all the trackside shanty towns, none garnered more lasting recognition than Promontory, Utah, 690 miles east of Sacramento and 1,086 miles from the Union Pacific’s eastern terminus at Omaha, Nebraska. At the Miserable assemblage of shacks and tents, on the tenth day of May 1869, several thousand odorous laborers, various silk-hatted railroad dignitaries, and newspapermen from California and eastern states gathered to celebrate the wedding of the rails, an event of symbolic importance likened by some to the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers.
To complete the joining of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific rails, Leland Stanford held a maul with which to drive the last spike, cast from California gold. He swung and missed. But who cared? Locomotive whistles shrieked, laborers cheered. (“We all yelled like to burst.”) In contrast to the self-important speakers (“completion of a work so magnificent in contemplation, so marvelous in execution”), the telegrapher tapped out a terse message to the waiting nation: “Done.” In Washington crowds shouted a thunderous approval in front of the Capitol, in New York a hundred cannon roared, in Philadelphia cheers echoed against the walls of Independence Hall. Chicago, Omaha, and Salt lake City exulted with processional parades and pistols firing salutes.
For the people of Sacramento, the news from Promontory justified more than a spontaneous celebration. A proud front-page editorial in the Daily Union expressed the city’d deep sense of vindication that, unlike San Francisco’s timid moguls, its merchants “were bold enough to plan and take the lead in building the greatest enterprise of modern times.” After lyrical passages affirming “patriotism, enterprise, courage, and pride,” the Daily Union remembered that “when the financiers of New York and San Francisco were perfectly confident that the money could not be raised,” it was Sacramento’s businessmen who bought the railroad’s stock and bonds and Sacramento’s risk-takers “whose mining, packing, staging, grading, and teaming experience; whose brave triumphs over Nature had qualified them . . . to take the lead in building this great high-way of the nation.”
Moved only by self-interest and not immune to the misjudgments of hubris, San Francisco’s magnates by 1868 had begun to ponder how the changed environment of a soon-to-be-completed transcontinental railroad might benefit them. If it threatened their monopoly on ocean commerce, it opened new opportunities as well. By the time Stanford missed his stroke at Promontory, they had largely embraced the Central Pacific Railroad and its anticipated connection with their busy wharves. They foresaw new prosperity from trade with the Orient, with San Francisco serving as transfer point for eastbound goods sent along with California’s grain and gold across the continent in only seven days. Thrilled by the prospect, San Franciscans reveled in their city’s continued primacy. One parade banner proclaimed: “San Francisco annexes the United States.” Learn more about Rush for Riches.