THE celebration came with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. When the Golden Spike went into the last tie to connect the last rail, it brought together the lines from east and west. Lee’s surrender four years earlier had signified the bonding of the Union, North and South. The Golden Spike meant the Union was held together, East and West.
The nation had known many celebrations, beginning with the Declaration of Independence. Victory in the Revolutionary War, the adoption of the Constitution, the election of George Washington, the peaceful passing on of power, the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition had involved virtually all citizens in celebration. But the annexation of Texas, victory in the Mexican War, the acquisition of California had been marred by the controversy over slavery. And of course most white Southerners could not celebrate Lee’s surrender. But present at the pounding of the Golden Spike were former Confederates alongside former Yankees. The ceremony brought together all Americans.
Hyperbole was common in the nineteenth century. In part that was because people had had so little with which to compare inventions, advances, or changes, in part because they just talked that way. Words like “the greatest achievement ever” came naturally to them. Thus the transcontinental railroad was called the Eighth Wonder of the World. The building of the road was compared to the voyage of Columbus or the landing of the Pilgrims. It was said that the road was “annihilating distance and almost outrunning time.” The preacher at the Golden Spike ceremony, Dr. John Todd, called it “the greatest work ever attempted.”1 In 1883, General Sherman, in his last annual report as head of the army, called the building of the road “the most important event of modern times.”2
They may have exaggerated, but for the people of 1869, especially those over forty years old, there was nothing to compare to it. A man whose birthday was in 1829 or earlier had been born into a world in which President Andrew Jackson traveled no faster than Julius Caesar, a world in which no thought or information could be transmitted any faster than in Alexander the Great’s time. In 1869, with the railroad and the telegraph that was beside it, a man could move at sixty miles per hour and transmit an idea or a statistic from coast to coast almost instantly. Senator Daniel Webster got it exactly in 1847, when he proclaimed that the railroad “towers above all other inventions of this or the preceding age.”3
IN the twenty-first century, everything seems to be in a constant flux, and change is so constant as to be taken for granted. This leads to a popular question, What generation lived through the greatest change? The ones who lived through the coming of the automobile and the airplane and the beginning of modern medicine? Or those who were around for the invention and first use of the atomic bomb and the jet airplane? Or the computer? Or the Internet and E-mail? For me, it is the Americans who lived through the second half of the nineteenth century. They saw slavery abolished and electricity put to use, the development of the telephone and the completion of the telegraph, and most of all the railroad. The locomotive was the first great triumph over time and space. After it came and after it crossed the continent of North America, nothing could ever again be the same. It brought about the greatest change in the shortest period of time.
Only in America was there enough space to utilize the locomotive fully, and only here did the government own enough unused land or possess enough credit to induce capitalists to build a transcontinental railroad. Only in America was there enough labor or enough energy and imagination. “We are the youngest of the peoples,” proclaimed the New York Herald, “but we are teaching the world how to march forward.”4
America had the Civil War behind it and the Industrial Revolution ahead. It was an empire of liberty, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast. The railroad was the longest ribbon of iron ever built by man. It was a stupendous achievement. It had spanned a continent, opened new lands for settlement, opened the mountains with their minerals. It had crossed a frontier of immense possibilities. It had inaugurated a new age, begun what would be called the American Century (which lasted beyond a hundred years).
One year before the rails were joined at Promontory, Walt Whitman began to celebrate this new force when he wrote in his “Passage to India”:
I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier,
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers,
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world,
I cross the Laramie plains, I note the rock in grotesque shapes, the buttes,
I see the plentiful larkspur and wild onions, the barren, colorless, sage-deserts …
Tying the Eastern to the Western sea, The road between Europe and Asia….
PARTS of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific ran through some of the grandest scenery in the world, but the spot where the two were joined together was improbable and undistinguished. No one had ever lived there, and shortly after the ceremony no one would ever again. The summit was just over five thousand feet above sea level. To the south the terrain rose sharply, covered with cedar. Its out-thrust offered a magnificent view of the great inland sea, a thousand feet below. To the north the bench again rose to form a parallel parapet. The summit itself was a flat, circular valley, bare except for sagebrush and a few scrub cedars, perhaps three miles in diameter. The only “buildings” were a half-dozen wall tents and a few rough-board shacks, set up by merchants selling whiskey. They ran along a single miserable street.
• • •
ON May 6, Durant and UP director John Duff were riding a UP train headed west on their way to the ceremonies. Their train was about to pull in to Piedmont, just east of the Wyoming-Utah state line, when, like a bolt of lightning on a clear summer’s day, rifle bullets zinged past their car as the locomotive was stopped by ties piled on the track. A mob of some three hundred men, all of them tie cutters and graders for the UP, loomed outside the windows of Durant’s car. Just as quick as that, the mob uncoupled the official car, removed the ties from the rails, and waved to the engineer to go ahead. When Durant came to the door of his car to demand what the hell was going on, he was surrounded.
A spokesman for the mob said they wanted their back pay, overdue for months. They intended to hold Durant and Duff until it was paid. Something over $200,000 was due.
Durant said he didn’t have such a sum on him, but assured the mob that he was in full sympathy with their demand. Taken to the telegraph station, he sent a message to Oliver Ames in Boston to send the money. But Oliver sent his own telegram later to Dodge, in Echo City, to call for a company of infantry from nearby Fort Bridger to free Durant. Dodge did, and the company was apparently sent, but for unknown reasons the troop train was waved right through at Piedmont.
The affair is shrouded in mist. No authoritative account exists. At some point the kidnappers wired Dodge to put up the money within twenty-four hours, or else. What the “or else” signified is not clear. In some accounts, it was that the mob would hang or shoot Durant if he called for troops rather than money.
Director Sidney Dillon was with Dodge in Echo City. He had been sending a series of telegrams to Boston begging for more money, to satisfy at least some of the demands in Utah. The Ames brothers had scraped up several hundred thousand dollars, but it had all been dispersed (which might have been the cause of the kidnapping: the word may have flashed through Utah that some railroad workers were being paid; word of Durant and Duff’s kidnapping had spread). Now Dillon wired that he must have half a million more at once.
Dodge seconded Dillon’s plea. On May 7, he sent a second message to Oliver: “You must furnish funds.” He added a warning: “If you wait until [all the UP’s] trains are stopped it will be too late to release them until we are forced to pay in fact every thing due on line.” A half-million dollars, he felt, “will relieve necessities and enable us to keep moving.” The money was dug up somewhere and furnished and distributed to the men, and Durant and Duff were released in time for the ceremony.5 A reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin said Durant had turned over to the men some $253,000 in cash.6
Perhaps, but, as usual with Durant, there is more to the story. Both Dodge and Oliver Ames thought the whole thing a put-up job—put up by none other than Durant, who had a deal with one of the contractors, James W. Davis and Co., and wanted the money to pay what Davis was due. In his autobiography, Dodge wrote that without doubt Durant had staged the whole thing “for the purpose of forcing the [UP] to pay.” Ames was the first to suggest that such was the case. He wrote to Dodge on May 12, “Davis & Associate men were the parties stopping the train. Could it be one of Durant’s plans to have these men get their pay out of the Road and we suffer for his benefit.” He closed with a generalization to which everyone who had ever dealt with Doc could subscribe: “Durant is so strange a man that I am prepared to believe any sort of rascality that may be charged against him.”7
THE ceremony was scheduled for May 8. The Central Pacific’s regular passenger train left Sacramento at 6 A.M. on May 6, with a number of excursionists. Leland Stanford’s special train followed. It was made in the early Pullman style, with a kitchen, dining room, and sleeping accommodations for ten. Aboard were Stanford, the chief justice of California, the governor of Arizona, and other guests. Also on board were the last spike, made of gold; the last tie, made of laurel; and a silver-headed hammer.
The spike was a gift from David Hewes of San Francisco. Hewes had been a resident of Sacramento and was a friend of the Big Four. He was somewhat embarrassed that he had not had enough money in 1863 or 1864 to participate in the financing of the CP. After moving to San Francisco and becoming a real-estate developer, he did have some money. He decided to make a gesture to thank his friends for building the road, and picked the spike as appropriate. It was six inches long, had a rough gold nugget attached to its point (later used to make rings for President Grant, Secretary of State William Seward, Oakes Ames, Stanford, and some others), and weighed eighteen ounces. It was valued at $350.8
The Stanford special moved along briskly, with excited and expectant passengers. But up ahead, just over the summit, some Chinese were cutting timber above the entrance to Tunnel No. 14. After seeing the regular train pass, with no knowledge that another train was coming right behind, they felled a log onto the track. The log was big, fifty feet long and three and a half feet in circumference. It landed in a cut, with one end against the bank and the other on a rail. As Stanford’s train rounded the curve, the engineer had barely enough time to apply brakes. A guest, riding the cowcatcher, jumped off just before the collision. The engine struck the log and was damaged. A telegraph was sent ahead to Wadsworth to hold the passenger train until Stanford’s coach could be attached.
This was done. The locomotive pulling the passenger train was named Jupiter. It was the CP’s Engine No. 60, built in Schenectady, now headed toward a permanent place in railroad history.9
On Friday afternoon, May 7, the train arrived in Promontory. The telegraph operators for each line were present and set up to send and receive wires, but there was no official from the UP. Stanford sent a message to the UP’s Ogden office, demanding to know where the hell the UP delegation was. Casement replied that very heavy rains had sent gushers through Weber Canyon. Devil’s Gate Bridge had been damaged. The UP wouldn’t get its trains to the summit before Monday, May 10.
Stanford and party were stuck in one of the least scenic spots, with the fewest and least agreeable residents, on a train that had made no provision for entertaining its passengers on a two-day layover. The UP did have a train in Ogden, beyond Weber Canyon, and on Saturday morning, Superintendent Reed sent it to the summit to invite Stanford and party for an excursion to Ogden and the mouth of Weber Canyon. That evening, on returning to the summit, Stanford had the train pull back to a more pleasant location at the Monument Point siding, thirty miles west of the summit, where at least there was a view of the lake. There he and party spent a quiet Sunday. For most of the day, it rained.10
SACRAMENTO and San Francisco had been told that the joining of the rails would take place on May 8, and that was the date they intended to celebrate. When telegrams arrived informing the city fathers of the postponement, they decided to go ahead anyway. At 5 A.M. on Saturday, a CP train pulled into Sacramento carrying celebrants from Nevada, including firemen and a brass band. They got the festivities going by starting their parade. A brass cannon, the very one that had saluted the first shovelful of earth Leland Stanford had turned over for the beginning of the CP’s construction six years earlier, boomed once again.
The parade was mammoth. At its height, about 11 A.M. in Sacramento, the time the organizers had been told the joining of the rails would take place, twenty-three of the CP’s locomotives, led by its first, the Governor Stanford, let loose a shriek of whistles that lasted for fifteen minutes.
In San Francisco, the parade was the biggest held to date. At 11 A.M., a fifteen-inch Parrott rifled cannon at Fort Point, guarding the south shore of the Golden Gate, fired a salute. One hundred guns followed. Then fire bells, church bells, clock towers, machine shops, streamers, foundries, the U.S. Mint let go at full blast. The din lasted for an hour.
In both cities, the celebration went on through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.11
THE Alta California correspondent spent Sunday poking around the summit looking for a story. He got it. As he was watching, the Wells Fargo Overland Stage No. 2 came into Promontory Summit with its last load of mail from the West Coast. “The four old nags were worn and jaded,” he wrote, “and the coach showed evidence of long service. The mail matter was delivered to the Central Pacific Co., and with that dusty, dilapidated coach and team, the old order of things passed away forever.”12
There is a famous, often reproduced Hart photograph in which the Jupiter is just pulling into Promontory Summit while a wagon train is headed west, just to the north of the train. The various captions usually read something like “The old gives way to the new” and identify the wagon train as the last immigrants headed for California. But the wagons, apparently, are bringing on supplies. They might have been returning to Monument Point after bringing up equipment for Strobridge’s men. In any case, no immigrants would cross Nebraska, Wyoming, and a part of Utah on wagons when the UP would carry them.
The thought had occurred to both Dodge and Crocker that, if their railroad built a siding at Promontory Summit, it could claim terminal rights there. Crocker got all geared up. He had a train loaded with the rails, ties, spikes, bolts, and fishplates ready to go, along with a Chinese crew to build the siding and Strobridge to boss them. His plan, meticulous as always, was to run up to the summit during the early hours of Monday morning, May 10, and go to work at first light. That way he would have the siding in place well before any ceremonies began.
Dodge beat him. He talked to Jack Casement and had him start his gangs to work during Sunday night and through the wee hours of Monday morning. Under the light of lanterns and the moon, the UP men had a complete siding and Y-track in place before first light. Just as they finished, the CP construction train and the Chinese crews arrived. Casement’s men greeted them with a hoot, a holler, and a laugh.13
The dawn on May 10 was cold, near freezing, but the rising sun heralded a bright, clear day, with temperatures rising into the seventies. Spring in Utah, as glorious as it can be. A group of UP and CP workers began to gather, but there were not many of them left, and the best estimates put the crowd at five or six hundred people, far fewer than the predictions (some of which went as high as thirty thousand). During the morning, two trains from the CP and two from the UP arrived at the site, bearing officials, their guests, and some spectators.
Among those representing the CP were Stanford, Strobridge, and some minor officials, plus George Booth, engineer of the Jupiter; R. A. Murphy, fireman; and Eli Dennison, the conductor. The UP contingent included Dodge, Durant, Duff, Dillon, Reed, Hoxie, Jack and Dan Casement, and Seymour. Sam Bradford was the engineer on No. 119, opposite number to the Jupiter, with Benjamin Mallory as conductor. Cyrus Sweet was the fireman.*
A battalion of soldiers, from the Twenty-first Infantry Regiment, under Major Milton Cogswell, were there. The soldiers had come on by train and were headed to the Presidio of San Francisco, which surely must make the Twenty-first the first army unit to cross the continent by rail. The military band from Fort Douglas, Wyoming, was also there, along with the Tenth Ward Band from Salt Lake City.
• • •
IN the twenty-first century, public-relations officials from the two companies would have long since taken over the ceremony, but as things were, almost nothing had been planned. Mainly this was because it was the nineteenth century, with no radio, much less television, but it was also because only a month before the event no one had known where the meeting of the rails would take place.
To show how little preparation went into it, consider who was not there. Huntington was in New York. Crocker and Hopkins were in California. Lewis Clement was absent. The Ames brothers were in Boston. One of the most notable among the missing was Brigham Young, who was in southern Utah. He sent Bishop John Sharp to represent him. Given that the ceremony marked the completion of a dream that went back to before the Mexican War, and that it was of the type that modern politicians would kill to attend, the absence of politicians was striking. There were only a couple of territorial governors present. President Grant had expressed a wish to be there but could not because of other business.
There were reporters present from the Associated Press, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, many from the various newspapers in San Francisco, Sacramento, and throughout California, Boston, Springfield, Massachusetts, the Salt Lake City newspapers, and a number from New York. Except for the Chicago Tribune, none of the reporters wrote that there were few women and children, something that their successors would immediately notice. Mrs. Strobridge was there, of course, along with the wife of Stanford’s private secretary, and Mrs. S. B. Reed, Reed’s wife, and the wives of two or three of the reporters and some of the army officers. Only a few children, including Mrs. Strobridge’s adopted daughter Julia, age ten, and son Samuel, age seven, were there.14
Some decisions on what to do had been made earlier, including the two most important. One was to have a telegraph wire attached to the Golden Spike, with another to the sledgehammer. When the Golden Spike was tapped in, the telegraph lines would send the message all around the country. (The spike would be placed in a hole already drilled, so that it only had to be tapped down and could then be easily extracted.*)
If everything worked, this would be a wholly new event in the world. People from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston, and all across the East Coast, people in Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and all across the midsection of the country, people in San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, Los Angeles, and all across the West Coast, even people in Montreal, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and London, England, would participate, by listening, in the same event. What people of the radio and later the television age came to take for granted was here taking place for the first time. At the moment it happened it would be known, simultaneously, everywhere in the United States, Canada, and England.
The second decision was to have Hart, Russell, and Colonel Savage of Salt Lake City free to roam, take whatever pictures they liked, ordering men to get into this or that pose and to stand still, and doing all the other things that modern men are accustomed to doing for photographers. Thanks to that arrangement, some of the most famous photographs in American history were taken.
Many of the decisions had to be improvised. Dodge, Durant, and Stanford argued for nearly an hour before the scheduled time to begin, which was at noon, over who should have the honor of placing in the Golden Spike. The CP officials declared that, since Leland Stanford had tossed the first shovelful of earth in the construction of the road, and since the CP had been incorporated earlier than the UP, Stanford was the man to drive the last spike. Dodge said Durant should do it, because the UP was the longer railroad. “At one time the Union Pacific positively refused connection,” the San Francisco News Leader reported, “and told the Central people they might do as they liked, and there should be no joint celebration.”15
Just a few minutes before noon, Stanford and Durant settled the controversy.
Strobridge and Reed came forward, from the CP train, bearing the laurel tie. Alongside them was a squad of Chinese, wearing clean blue frocks and carrying one rail, and an Irish squad with the other rail. The Jupiter and the No. 119 were facing each other, a couple of rail lengths apart. The engineers, Booth and Bradford, pulled on their whistles to send up a shriek. Cheers broke out. One veteran said, “We all yelled like to bust.”
The crowd pressed forward. On the telegraph, W. N. Shilling, a telegrapher from Western Union’s Ogden office, beat a tattoo of messages to impatient inquiries from various offices: “TO EVERYBODY. KEEP QUIET. WHEN THE LAST SPIKE IS DRIVEN AT PROMONTORY POINT, WE WILL SAY ‘DONE!’ DON’T BREAK THE CIRCUIT, BUT WATCH FOR THE SIGNALS OF THE BLOWS OF THE HAMMER.”
The preacher was introduced, and he offered a prayer. Shilling clicked again: “ALMOST READY. HATS OFF; PRAYER IS BEING OFFERED.”
The spikes were brought forward. Shilling clicked, “WE HAVE GOT DONE PRAYING. THE SPIKE IS ABOUT TO BE PRESENTED.” Stanford gave a brief, uninspired speech. Dodge spoke up for the UP. He mentioned Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Christopher Columbus. Shilling again: “ALL READY NOW; THE SPIKE WILL SOON BE DRIVEN. THE SIGNAL WILL BE THREE DOTS FOR THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE BLOWS.”
Strobridge and Reed put the last tie, the laurel tie, in place. Durant drove in his spike—or, rather, tapped it in, for it was partially seated in the predrilled hole already. Then Stanford. When he tapped the Golden Spike in, he would signal the waiting country. Reporters compared what was coming to the first shot fired at Lexington. One said the blow would be heard “the fartherest of any by mortal man.”
Stanford swung and missed, striking only the rail. It made no difference. The telegraph operator closed the circuit and the wire went out, “done!”16
Across the nation, bells pealed. Even the venerable Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was rung. Then came the boom of cannons, 220 of them in San Francisco at Fort Point, a hundred in Washington D.C., countless fired off elsewhere. It was said that more cannons were fired in celebration than ever took part in the Battle of Gettysburg. Everywhere there was the shriek of fire whistles, firecrackers and fireworks, singing and prayers in churches. The Tabernacle in Salt Lake City was packed to capacity, with an astonishing seven thousand people. In New Orleans, Richmond, Atlanta, and throughout the old Confederacy, there were celebrations. Chicago had a parade that was its biggest of the century—seven miles long, with tens of thousands of people participating, cheering, watching.
A correspondent in Chicago caught exactly the spirit that had brought the whole country together. The festivity, he wrote in the Tribune, “was free from the atmosphere of warlike energy and the suggestions of suffering, danger, and death which threw their oppressive shadow over the celebrations of our victories during the war for the Union.”17
In Promontory, the Jupiter and the UP’s No. 119 were unhooked from their trains. Then they moved forward ever so slowly, until their pilots touched. Russell urged the crews to form a wedge radiating out from the point of contact. Men clinging to each engine held bottles of champagne aloft. On the track, Dodge and Montague clasped hands, framing the last tie beneath them. Russell captured the moment for posterity. When he told his subjects they were free to move, the whistles shrieked and a roar exploded from the crowd. Champagne bottles were smashed against each engine.
Jupiter and No. 119 backed up and hooked onto their trains. Jupiter backed up a bit more, and No. 119 then came forward until it had crossed the junction of the tracks, halted for an instant, then majestically backed away. Jupiter came forward, crossed the junction, and backed up. The transcontinental railroad was a reality.
The Golden Spike was snatched up and safely deposited in Stanford’s car. Souvenir hunters quickly whittled the last tie to splinters. In all, six ties were cut to pieces before the end of the day.
Stanford invited the UP officials to his car for a celebratory lunch, with plenty of California fruit and wine to mark the occasion. There were speeches, including an awful one by Stanford, who argued that the government subsidy had been more a detriment than a boost to the companies, because of all the conditions attached to the bonds. People were stunned—that is, everyone except Dan Casement, who had been imbibing the champagne in heroic quantities. He hoisted himself up on Jack’s shoulders and brayed, “Mr. President of the Central Pacific: If this subsidy has been such a detriment to the building of these roads, I move you say that it be returned to the United States Government with our compliments.” There were cheers and laughter, except from Stanford, who glowered.18
Telegrams went out and came in. To President Grant: “Sir: We have the honor to report that the last rail is laid, the last spike is driven, the Pacific Railroad is finished.” Signed by Stanford and Durant. Another from Dodge to Grant. One to Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, signed by Dodge, Duff, Dillon, and Durant, but not by Stanford, who had named a town after Colfax. One from Dodge to Secretary of War Rawlins, with a nice touch: “The great work, commenced during the Administration of Lincoln, in the middle of a great rebellion, is completed under that of Grant, who conquered the peace.” And another from Dodge to Sherman, saying in part, “Your continuous active aid, with that of the Army, has made you a part of us and enabled us to complete our work in so short a time.”
Sherman’s reply: “In common with millions I sat and heard the mystic taps of the telegraphic battery and heard the nailing of the last spike in the great Pacific road. Indeed, am I its friend? Yes … As early as 1854 I was vice president of the effort begun in San Francisco.” He promised Dodge he would ride the rails from the East to the West Coast as soon as possible, and make the passage in a much shorter time than his journey by water before the Mexican War. “All honor to you, to Durant, to Jack and Dan Casement, to Reed, and thousands of brave fellows who have fought this glorious national problem in spite of deserts, storms, Indians, and the doubts of the incredulous.”19
Sherman later told Dodge that the transcontinental railroad “advanced our country one hundred years.”20
There was one telegram never sent. It was to a person none ever thought to invite to the ceremony: Anna Ferona Judah. She stayed alone in her home in Greenfield, Massachusetts. “I refused myself to everyone that day,” she later wrote. “I could not talk of the common events of daily living.” Naturally she thought of Theodore. She would have anyway, because by coincidence May 10 was their wedding anniversary.
“It seemed as though the spirit of my brave husband descended upon me,” she wrote, “and together we were there unseen, unheard of men.”21
IN Salt Lake City, where there were many speeches, there was one by a man named John Taylor that put the achievement in perspective. It was, he said, “so stupendous that we can scarcely find words to express our sentiments or give vent to our admiration.” Then he did what he said he could scarcely do. He was a Mormon from England, and old enough that “I can very well remember the time when there was no such thing as a railroad in existence.” Impressive enough, but what came next was almost beyond contemplation to the members of his audience in 1869: “I rode on the first train that was ever made, soon after its completion; that was between Manchester and Liverpool, England.”
Mr. Taylor could recall other changes in his life, such as the time when there was no telegraph in operation, “when the idea of conveying thought from one city to another, and from one continent to another by the aid of electricity, instantly, would have been considered magic, superhuman, and beyond the reach of human intellect, enterprise and ingenuity.” But nothing could match the experience of having ridden on the first train ever in operation, then being in Salt Lake City to celebrate the completion of the railroad that linked together the North American continent.22
* The spike today is at Stanford University.
* Sweet was twenty years old. He lived through World War II and died on May 30, 1948.