Community

Train Buffs Unite in Utah

Sesquicentennial Celebration of Transcontinental Railroad

Deanna Devey Jul 9, 2018

When Brad Westwood was in sixth grade, he memorized railroad songs to sing at a 100th anniversary event celebrating the joining of the transcontinental railroad. Now 50 years later, he, along with many others, is planning events to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

“Over the next year, we will welcome Utahns, the nation and the world to join in the anniversary celebration,” says Westwood, director of the Utah Division of State History. “We will likely have tens of thousands coming to Utah — including Chinese workers’ descendants, railroad buffs and historians — all celebrating the completion of the world’s first transcontinental railroad.”

Connecting the Nation

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act authorizing and incentivizing the Union Pacific Railroad Company and the Central Pacific Railroad Company to create a route that would connect the nation.

On May 10, 1869, the two companies joined their rail lines at Promontory Summit, Utah, creating the first railroad connecting the country. Historians labeled the event as one of the most important in U.S. and Utah history, particularly in the development of the West.

This year’s statewide history conference, on Sept. 27-28, will examine the national and local stories concerning the transcontinental railroad. It will include a keynote address, panels, films, research papers and education sessions. The conference will study both the positive and negative effects of the railroad.

“History is not just about recounting and romanticizing facts,” Westwood says. “It’s taking our own frame of reference today and asking, ‘How do I feel about the Chinese immigrants who built the railroad? How do I feel about Mormon efforts at entrenchment? How do I feel about the Native American experience?’ It’s a case study to understand our present condition and what can help us in our lives today.”

workers standing in a grassy field
Excursion to the transcontinental railroad grade that included leaders from Utah’s 150th Anniversary Commission, BLM (federal managers of the grade and surrounding lands), Utah historians, archaeologists, local ranchers and leaders from the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association. Taken by the “Last Cut,” and excavation accomplished with only picks, shovels and wheelbarrows by the transcontinental Chinese railroad workers.
Photo by Brad Westwood

Anniversary Events

The Utah Legislature’s Spike 150 Commission, chaired by Doug Foxley and Spencer Stokes, is coordinating the events that start this fall and lead up to the May 10, 2019, sesquicentennial celebration (spike150.org).

There will be many art displays including an exhibit of 150-year-old photos at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, transcontinental railroad art from a Chinese artist at the Kimball Art Center and a display of rare photographs and artifacts at the Utah State Capitol Building.

The commission is also planning a variety of musical performances. A Chinese composer is creating a new piece for the Utah Symphony, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will sing commemorative songs and the Utah Opera will write several operas to tell the story of the railroad.

Along with commemorative events, the Utah Division of State History is helping develop learning tools. These include a Utah Office of Education curriculum and geospatial or GIS maps with links to historical photos and rare documents connected to the train route.

“One of the things we’ve talked about as a commission is how the transcontinental railroad united the country,” says Jill Remington Love, executive director of the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts. “Time and time again Utahns have come up with solutions, whether in technology or social impact, that lead out for the country. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate and unite the country and think of future innovations.”  

Railroad Remnants

For those who would like to see the original railroad grade firsthand, remnants of the 1869 route are still intact today in Box Elder County and preserved as a 90-mile Transcontinental National Backcountry Byway.

The railroad companies stopped using this part of the line because they created a faster route across the Great Salt Lake in 1904, eventually closing this section and removing the rails in 1942. Since then, the abandoned path has remained largely untouched while the functioning rail line has been changed and modernized.

Now visitors can follow the original route on a gravel and dirt road starting just west of the Golden Spike National Historic Site and heading toward the abandoned railroad town of Lucin. Along the old rail grade are trellises, stonework and interpretive signs. Drivers should watch out for old rail that can puncture car tires.

“I liken this trail to a trunk that had a bunch of stuff and was put up in the attic and largely forgotten,” Westwood says. “Now people have an opportunity to experience the grade and actually see what the railroad would have looked like in the 1860s. It allows people to experience history firsthand — not just read about it.” 

black and white photo of people standing by a train
Railroad construction at Promontory, May 10, 1869. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society
an old railroad trestle in the middle of nowhere
Wooden railroad trestles near the ghost town of Terrance, Utah.
Photo by Brad Westwood
black and white photo of railway workers
Railroad construction at Promontory, May 9, 1869. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society

Share This Article With Your Community