The Tent City at Promontory

Drawing of travelers walking around a tent city.
Tent Cities

From May until November, 1869, a city of tents stood at Promontory Summit, the home to a variety of businesses, railroad workers, and optimistic speculators hoping that this would become a major railroad junction city. During construction of the transcontinental railroad, a string of towns arose along the line. Some, such as Reno, Nevada, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, outgrew their canvas origins and prospered as regional centers. However, the two railroads decided to relocate the terminus and transfer operations from Promontory to Ogden, Utah. When the first Central Pacific train scheduled for Ogden went through Promontory on December 6, 1869, the tent city was gone.
May 10th, 1869

Behind the crowd gathered on May 10, 1869, stood a row of wall tents; all erected during the prior week. The first structures built were tents for the railroad crews and the telegraph agent. These included a Wells Fargo office, which operated the overland stage line between the railheads and the Casement brothers' construction camp. North of the tracks, saloons and restaurants opened to serve workers, travelers, and celebrants coming to watch the driving of the last spike. Across the tracks from the row of “rum-holes,” were tents for the railroad workers. Nearest the last spike site, telegraphers erected a tent and prepared to send news of driving the last spike throughout the country. By May 10, fourteen tents in two rows paralleled the tracks. Inside the largest wall tent, the “grocery” of J. S. Conner served thirsty participants that day. Conner had moved his store from railroad camp to camp. He and other businesses at this junction of the Union and Central Pacific railroads hoped to make a new home on the Promontory. When the railroads built transfer operations here, it fueled their optimism.
Promontory City 1869

Within weeks of the May 10 ceremony, the instant community of “Promontory City” sprouted over thirty tents, some with wooden false fronts. Besides the usual saloons and card rooms, “city” ammenities included boarding houses for railroad workers, and fruit and novelty shops with supplies for travelers. Beds were in short supply, so agents of the Western Union telegraph, express companies, and the post office usually slept in their office tents. The Central Pacific built a wood frame telegraph and ticket office. In September, the Union Pacific opened a combined hotel-eating house, ticket and telegraph office, and home for the UP agent and his family. Some 100 railroad workers lived around Promontory. A Chinese section crew lived in tents near the west yard. Chinese entrepreneurs operated a laundry. Most of the engineers, brakemen, and conductors bunked in the tent city’s row of boarding houses. Travelers bought lunch or snacks, tea or coffee in the tents, and perhaps joined in card games and gambling in the tents.
Drawing of men conducting business around a table. One man is holding up a paper, possibly selling something.
"Sodom on the Sage"

Travelers, weary with waiting for connections between the Union and Central Pacific trains, were easy marks for the con-men of Promontory City. These notorious gamblers were denounced by newspaper editors and travel writers. Card games, especially three-card-monte, fleeced the gullible of limited funds. After a German immigrant family lost everything to these swindlers, workers in Promontory organized a vigilante committee. They put notices on telegraph poles telling all “con-men,” “garroters,” and gamblers to leave town by sunset, Sunday, November 21, 1869, or they would be lynched. A general exodus occurred without violence.

Last updated: August 13, 2023

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