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Golden Spike National Historic Site

Brigham City, Utah

Harper’s Magazine Lithograph of Chinese Workers in 1869

Harper’s Magazine Lithograph of
Chinese Workers in 1869
Courtesy of the National Park Service

On May 10, 1869, Andrew J. Russell captured one of the more captivating images of America’s history in the photograph most commonly known as the “Champagne Photo.” Shot during a railroad ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah, the image highlights the emotions and sense of fulfillment that the workers and engineers of the nation’s first transcontinental railway felt when they drove the last spike at the joining point of the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad of California and the Union Pacific Railroad. Otherwise known as the Golden Spike Ceremony, this historic event not only celebrates the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, named the Pacific Railroad, but it also recognizes the significance of the immigrant workforce that helped the nation accomplish what many believed was impossible.

Today, Golden Spike National Historic Site continues to commemorate the joining of the western and eastern tracks at Promontory Summit and the history of the workers who built the first transcontinental railroad. Constructed between 1863 and 1869, the first transcontinental railroad created a revolutionary transcontinental transportation network and became one of the technological feats of the 19th century with the driving of the last spike at Promontory Summit that opened it to traffic on May 10, 1869.

Driving the golden spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869

Driving the golden spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869
Courtesy of the National Park Service

An article published by The Emigrant in 1832 was the first to sound the call for the construction of a railroad to the Pacific, however, the United States government did not officially begin contemplating the idea until the 1850s. By this time, major cities around the nation had begun hosting conventions to promote the idea of a transcontinental railroad. As a result, public officials from both political parties began voicing their support. Among them were John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Stephen A. Douglas, who with other prominent politicians began including the transcontinental railroad in their political platforms.

The failure to agree on whether the Pacific Railroad would follow a southern or northern route and the imminent threat of the Civil War delayed the construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railway. Despite these concerns, Theodore D. Judah, the chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, and a group of railroad advocates from California continued to lobby Congress to fund the transcontinental railway. After numerous visits to the nation’s capital, and since there was no southern opposition during the Civil War to vote against a northern route, Judah garnered enough support to obtain passage of the Railroad Act of 1862.

Once President Lincoln signed the bill into law, construction began the following year with the groundbreaking ceremonies of the Central Pacific in Sacramento, California on January 8, 1863, and the Union Pacific in Omaha, Nebraska on December 2, 1863. The Civil War greatly affected the progress of the Pacific Railroad, since labor was scarce and the price of materials continued to rise. Unable to finance the construction of the northern railway, representatives of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads requested that Congress provide further financial aid, which resulted in the enactment of the Railroad Act of 1864. This law increased the Union and Central Pacific’s resources and doubled each of the railroad corporations’ land grants.

Locomotive 119 Winter Steam Demo

Locomotive 119 Winter Steam Demo
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Although the Railroad Act of 1864 solved the financial problem, labor shortages during the Civil War continued to delay the construction of the transcontinental railway. Fortunately, with the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, the Union Pacific was able to employ veterans of the Union Army, many of them Irish immigrants. For the Central Pacific in California, the situation was different, since California failed to attract the eastern veterans. As a result, the Central Pacific recruited over 11,000 workers from China. Without their hard labor, according to the Central Pacific president Governor Leland Stanford, “it would have been impossible to complete the western portion of this great National highway.”

Even though the workforce increased, the progress for each railroad company varied as each encountered difficult terrain and learned to deal with the harsh winters. Despite these conditions, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads managed to lay the last rail at the Golden Spike Ceremony on May 10, 1869. Held in Promontory Summit, the ceremony began with the presentation of the four special spikes-- the Nevada Silver Spike, Arizona’s Golden and Silver Spikes, and the Last or Golden Spike. Receiving these ceremonial spikes were Governor Stanford of the Central Pacific, who received the two Golden Spikes; and Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific, to whom Stanford presented the two silver spikes. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Stanford, Durant, and a regular rail worker drove the last spike where the plaque signaling the completion of the transcontinental railway still stands today.

Golden Spike Monument

Golden Spike Monument
Courtesy of Mike Renlund through
Flickr's Creative Commons

At Golden Gate Spike National Historic Site, visitors may begin their tour at the visitor center, where they can see the replica No. 119 and Jupiter steam locomotives that, at the conclusion of the Golden Spike Ceremony, rolled in from the east and west tracks until they nearly touched. Tourists can also learn about the history of the transcontinental railroad by watching any or all of the five short films: Golden Spike, Andrew J. Russell, The Great Train Robbery, Jupiter and No. 119, and for the children, This is America, Charlie Brown.

Beyond the visitor center, tourists can hike the mile and a half long Big Fill Loop Trail to see the site of the Union Pacific’s trestle and walk through the cuts and drill marks made by the workers who blasted the rock formations to make way for the transcontinental railway. Visitors can also follow the West and East auto tours along the Central and Union Pacific Grades to see evidence of the construction methods used to build the railroad and the spot in the Central Pacific Grade where workers laid 10 miles of track in one day. Other activities at Golden Spike National Historic Site include guided tours of the Engine House and reenactments of the Last Spike Ceremony during the summer season.


Plan your visit

Golden Spike National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located on Hwy. 83, 32 miles west of Brigham City, UT. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The visitor center is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Outside attractions are open during daylight hours. The Engine House Tours are available 10:00am to 4:00pm. There is an admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Golden Spike National Historic Site website or call 435-471-2209.

Many components of the Golden Spike National Historic Site have been documented by the National Park Service Historic American Buildings Survey, including: Golden Spike Monument, Visitor Center, Promontory Route Railroad, and Southern Pacific Mole & Pier.
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