Horse of a Different Color

Old picture of the Jupiter painted red.
Horse of a Different Color

What was the color of a steam locomotive? Most people would say they have no color, no dazzle or sparkle; they’re just a flat, dirty black. That image typically comes to mind because the steam locomotives we see in movies and on television are of 1900’s vintage, and were without color. But the locomotives of the 1860’s? Now that is a horse of a different color!

The 1860’s were the height of the Victorian Era, which was characterized by elaborate, and often ostentatious workmanship. Locomotives were no exception; they were seen as the company workhorse, showpiece and public relations department all rolled into one. The train coming to town was a major event of that era, and as it rolled out again the townsfolk were left awestruck in its wake.

The Jupiter and 119 are arguably our country’s two most renowned, readily recognized locomotives. Each, by a mere stroke of fate, represented their respective companies in the “Golden Spike,” or “Wedding of the Rails” ceremony. Both were immortalized in Andrew J. Russell’s “East Meets West” photograph, plus a number of other photos taken on that day by Russell, Charles Savage, and Alfred Hart.

The image of the Jupiter and 119 facing each other across the last spike site has become an image recognized around the world. Would the true colors of the Jupiter and 119 be forever enshrouded in the black and white images of historic photos? With the completion of the replica locomotives in 1979, the Jupiter and 119 burst upon the scene in living color. Ward Kimball, one of the six original Disney animators, was commissioned to head the painting operation. Absent any documentation on the actual colors of the original Jupiter and 119, Kimball chose bright reds and vermilions for eye-catching, popular appeal.

Between 1979 and 1993 thousands of visitors came to Golden Spike National Historic site and viewed the replicas of the Jupiter and 119. They watched and often participated in recreations of the last spike ceremony. The locomotives were captured on film and postcards, and featured in newspapers and magazines. Railroad buffs world-wide marveled at the Jupiter and 119. Thus the striking colors chosen by Kimball became the accepted identity for the locomotives.

This comfortable, popular, and familiar scene was shattered by a very simple 3 1/2 line entry:
Locomotive -The new engine Jupiter, fresh from the paint shop, gleaming in blue and crimson with gold appeared on the track this morning.

This item appeared in the March 20, 1869 issue of the Sacramento Daily Bee, and then went unnoticed for over a hundred years until brought to light recently by researchers. This revealing, yet vague, bombshell set historian Jim Wilke on a personal quest to research the exact color schemes for the Jupiter and 119. It was a curiosity for Wilke; what shade of blue? Which parts were blue? How did they really appear to the photographers as they composed their black and white photos?

Wilke’s quest took him to the Smithsonian and the California and Nevada State Railroad Museums. While Wilke was unable to find definitive information on the color schemes for the Jupiter and 119, some information and color paintings were available on similar locomotives built during the same time period. From Wilke’s research the new color schemes were developed for the Jupiter and 119 and proposed to the National Park Service.

The idea of changing the long accepted colors of the replica Jupiter and 119 came as quite a shock to many people. Coincidentally, this proposal came just as the locomotives were scheduled for their first repainting since new. Still, no one had considered a drastic change in color scheme. Although the original colors on the Jupiter and 119 in 1869 cannot be verified exactly or completely, it was ultimately decided that the new color schemes proposed by Wilke would be more historically accurate than the colors the replicas had been painted.

The timing of the change of colors for the Jupiter and 119 was extraordinary. May 10, 1994 was the 125th anniversary of the last spike ceremony. This would prove to be the largest event in the history of having the locomotives at the Site. On that anniversary morning the brilliantly painted locomotives rolled out on the tracks transporting 14,000 visitors back in time. Back to what it must have been like on that day, 125 years before; and once again, they left everyone awestruck in their wake.

Last updated: January 19, 2018

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