Golden Spike: A Worthy 150th Birthday Celebration
A Symbol of Vision, Resilience, Incredibly Hard Work
One of the greatest engineering and construction feats of the 19th century was completed 150 years ago at Promontory Summit, a barren rise in east-central Box Elder County, Utah, north of the Great Salt Lake.
Many lessons can be learned from the remarkable story of the transcontinental railroad, completed when a Golden Spike was pounded into a laurel-wood railroad tie with a silver hammer on May 10, 1869.
The linking of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads ushered in a new era of cross-country mobility, commerce and travel. It also signaled the close of pioneer travel via wagon trains and handcart companies, and the beginning of the integration of the isolated Intermountain West into the rest of the nation.
“Some describe the building of the Transcontinental as the 19th century’s moonshot. It was without question that century’s most audacious venture,” a reporter for the Boston Herald wrote recently.
A gala sesquicentennial celebration, called Spike 150 (www.spike150.org), held on May 10-12 brought thousands of dignitaries and people to the various activities of the 150th birthday celebration.
The commemoration included music, performances, storytelling, historical reenactments, steam train demonstrations, a frontier village, an innovation summit and reenactments.
Before the completion of the railroad, the journey across the country could take four months. In fact, “the fastest and safest route was by sea, not land, or by a combination of sea-land-sea by crossing the malaria-infested Panama isthmus,” noted the Boston Herald article. Many people died during the long trek.
But after the two railroad lines connected at Promontory, the journey was just four days.
Imagine, a trip that once took four months, now taking four days. The impact of this transcontinental link on the movement of people and products cannot be overestimated. Businesses, jobs, great wealth and marvelous opportunities were created thanks to the railroad, making the Mountain West area the Crossroads of the West.
It brought money and jobs to the early Utah and Idaho settlers. It heralded America as a bold, innovative and forward-looking world leader.
Pres. Donald Trump recently signed legislation turning the Golden Spike National Historic Site into the Golden Spike National Historical Park — Utah’s first-ever National Historical Park, giving it enhanced status and additional resources.
“This is a prominent symbol of the most significant achievement of the 19th century,” said Congressman Rob Bishop, ranking member of the housing committee on natural resources.
Historian Stephen Ambrose’s book, “Nothing Like It in the World,” tells the story of the men who built the transcontinental railroad — “the investors who risked their businesses and money; the enlightened politicians who understood its importance; the engineers and surveyors who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives; and the Irish and Chinese immigrants, the defeated Confederate soldiers, and the other laborers who did the backbreaking and dangerous work on the tracks.”
The Golden Spike reminds us of the value of immigrants — the Chinese and Irish newcomers, considered outcasts, facing hardship and exploitation, who accomplished one of history’s great feats.
The Golden Spike also demonstrates the importance of business competition as the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads rushed to finish first.
It symbolizes values that I hope we haven’t forgotten today — vision, resilience, incredibly hard work (Chinese laborers laying 10 miles of track in one day), sacrifice, and the ability of this country to do great things, to dream big dreams.