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Golden Spike Sesquicentennial

Honoring the Transcontinental Railroad ‘As One’

Natalie Hollingshead | Photos by Ian Matteson Jul 1, 2019

A light wind kicked up dust as crowds gathered under a nearly cloudless sky to witness the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869. A hiss of steam punctuated the air and smoke rose from the Jupiter and No. 119 engines.

As the final golden spike was ceremoniously driven into railway ties to officially unite the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, the telegrapher transmitted “D-O-N-E” to locations across the globe.

Exactly 150 years later, tens of thousands gathered once again in remote and dusty Golden Spike National Historical Park at Promontory Point, Utah, for a reenactment of that historic event. But this time, attendees snapped pictures and recorded videos on their smartphones as the telegrapher tapped out his message. And, more importantly, this time around the previously ignored contributions of marginalized Chinese and Irish railway workers were lauded and the historical record set straight. 

Setting the Story of the Rails Straight

Close to 40,000 people made the trek to Golden Spike for the sold-out, three-day Sesquicentennial Celebration and Festival on May 10-12. With the theme “As One,” the celebration focused on telling the whole story behind one of the most iconic and life-altering events in America’s history.

"The transcontinental railroad is the story of America, for better or worse,” said keynote speaker Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and presidential scholar. “The story is not perfect, but then neither are we.”

Most historical reenactments focus on the accomplishments of the owners, who deserve credit but didn’t do the backbreaking work of laying the track, said Spike 150 board member Max Chang. Previously ignored were Chinese and Irish rail workers and Mormon graders, whose ancestors felt the sting of omission at the 100th anniversary in 1969.

Men in period garb hammer a ceremonial spike
Utah Governor Gary Herbert drives in the Utah Spike.
Big crowds attend celebration of golden spike
An estimated 20,000 spectators join the May 10 celebration at Promontory Summit.

“We wanted to widen the lens of history beyond just a champagne photo, because there is so much more to the story,” Chang said. “This ceremony is finally the first in history to be so inclusive and to really tell the full story.”

Dignitaries, officials and thousands of visitors from 49 of the 50 states and six continents witnessed a reenactment that included Irish and Chinese workers who ceremoniously laid the last rails and heard from Mecham and Chinese American writer and historian Connie Young Yu.

More than 80 credentialed media organizations attended, with follow-up stories in major media outlets including The New York Times and BBC.

“This was far more than just a local interest story,” Spike 150 Chair Doug Foxley said. “How wonderful that we can celebrate something that brought us all together. It was pretty amazing what a diverse group of outcasts were able to accomplish. I think at this time right now, where there is such discord and dysfunction in the country, people are happy to be celebrating something that brought us together.”

Men in period garb re-enact golden spike
Irish and Chinese actors take part of the driving of the Golden Spike re-enactment.

Celebrating as One

Even though joining the railroads was an American event, many international visitors were moved by the celebrations, which included the world premiere of “As One,” a musical-theater reimagining of the 1869 event, complete with “Newsies”-esque song-and-dance numbers, and a Chinese dragon dance.

One of Foxley’s favorite moments was when 150 schoolchildren from across Utah’s 29 counties sang a Kurt Bestor arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while daytime fireworks exploded in the sky and four jets did a flyover. He was sitting next to the Irish ambassador’s wife, who teared up during the song.           

“She literally starts to cry and looks at me and says, ‘Doug, I’m emotional and I’m not even American,’” he recalled. “It was an amazing moment, a high of highs.”

The May 10 ceremony was livestreamed to homes and classrooms throughout the state, so even those who couldn’t make it to rural Box Elder county could witness the celebration.

For those who visited in person, there was the Hell on Wheels frontier village and STEM Innovation Summit area to explore. The gift shop was a big hit with souvenir hunters, and a U.S. Postal Service pop-up tent selling commemorative stamps was another important stop.

All in all, Foxley and other Spike 150 members believe the two-and-a-half years spent planning the event were well worth the effort. 

“I think we went a long way in accomplishing what we set out to do, in bringing a lot of wonderful diverse cultures and people together in a harmonious way,” Foxley said.

Chang adds: “We from diverse backgrounds can accomplish great things when we work together.” 

People sign a wall with markers
Spike 150 Festivalgoers write where they will be in 50 years.
Actors performing in front of an old train
Actors perform the world premiere of "As One," a new musical imagining the 1869 event.
Men playing guitar and banjo
The Black Irish band performs at Promontory Summit on May 10, 2019.
Mitt Romney on a train
Utah Senator Mitt Romney rides aboard the Union Pacific 119 train.
Military man lays a wreath on railroad tracks
A ceremonial wreath is placed on a section of rail to honor those who lost their lives while building the nation's first transcontinental railroad.
Bunch of people standing behind a big sign
Dignitaries unveil the new sign for the Golden Spike National Historical Park, which was designated in March 2019.
Big bronze buffalo statue
'Distant Thunder' by sculptor Michael Coleman is unveiled prior to the ceremony as a permanent piece to be placed at Golden Spike National Historical Park.
Woman speaks at a podium in front of a train
Historian and Chinese railroad worker descendant Connie Young Yu speaks of the contributions of the Chinese in building the nation's first transcontinental railroad.
Kids singing by a train
150 children from all 29 Utah counties sing as part of the Spike 150 Choir.

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