The Band Between the Seas

by AMELIA WHITWORTH

In 1869, a momentous event occurred in Utah history, the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah. What the union of these two lines would mean for the state was uncertain, but certainly inspired a lot of excitement, conflict, and hope. The primary means through which Utah residents learned about the construction of the line, and the implications of its completion, was through the LDS church-run Deseret News. The manner in which The Deseret News as well as local authorities presented the construction of the railroad was of paramount importance in terms of the lasting effect that the construction itself would have. The conflict between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies, details about the construction and its dangers, as well as the threat of outside influences were newsworthy issues that were regularly reported in The Deseret News. Through the use of these editorials and articles, the LDS church was able to establish an economic policy that solidified their culture and secured their settlements in Utah.

The construction and completion of the railroad offered many things to the areas that it passed through. Among these were increased exposure, increased opportunities for commerce, boosts in tourism, and definitely the opportunity for expanded communication within the United States. In addition to the changes that the completion of the railroad would bring, the actual construction itself brought a lot of shifts and presented many issues, too. The Mormons in Utah, especially the Salt Lake Valley, were a relatively cloistered group, whose isolation from outsiders was critical for maintaining their kingdom of heaven on earth. (Arrington, 144) Church leaders were fully aware of the threat to their culture that a massive influx of outsiders would bring. As a means of combatting what they feared would dilute their culture of local industry, and inter-church commerce, The Deseret News published a series of editorials preparing the public for what the coming railroad could bring. Church leaders knew that the railroad would either make or break their settlement, and they aimed for the former. “The railroad will not be an unmixed benefit to us unless we prepare for it. It will not put an abundance of money in circulation unless we lay the foundation of branches of business that will bring it to us.” (“Changes It Will Produce” )

Prior to the emergence of the railroad, Utah’s economy relied heavily on agriculture. (Bolino, 409) As Utah is situated in the middle of a desert, the water needed to support this economy came at a high cost. Church leader Brigham Young knew that with the incoming railroad, crops that were grown here at a fairly high cost could now be imported at half the price, eliminating agriculture as a viable primary source of income for Utah’s economy. The next obvious option was mining. (Bolino, 410)

In regards to mining, church policy was based on the idea that the building of their utopian society, or heaven on earth, required a regimented, balanced development of area resources by a unified people for the support of a permanent society. (Arrington, 146) The threat that large-scale mining posed to the valley and the state in terms of economy and culture was substantial. The Mormons had come here with the idea that this was their promised land and would be their home for years to come, a dream that would not be realized if it became a ghost town after all of the mining was exhausted. To maintain economic control, and to ensure that the development that had happened here was not in vain, Brigham Young enforced policies that prevented too much of the mined material from being exported. A substantial amount of rock and ore extracted from the valley had to be put toward building up local industry and the city itself. If the city could become strong and well established, it was sure to survive. (Bolino, 410)

Construction of the railroad instilled fear in local residents, fear of the dangers of the construction, and of the people who would come with it. In a June 1868 letter to an associate abroad, Salt Lake City local George Q. Reynolds wrote:

It is not the men actually working on the line that I should fear so much, though no doubt they would cause some trouble, and raise a muss occasionally, but it would the bummers, gamblers, saloon and hurdy-gurdy keepers, border ruffians, and desperadoes generally, who prey upon laborers, whom I should fear the most. (Quoted in Arrington, 149)

Reynolds’ fear was not unfounded, as upwards of 25,000 Chinese workers were employed by the Union Pacific railroad company, and around 10,000 Irish by the Central Pacific Railroad Company. The presence of outside workers did in fact lead to the opening of several of Utah’s earliest whiskey stops and dance halls. (Bolino, 410) From a numbers perspective, it is not difficult to imagine what a scene the construction site would have been. Descriptions of the work as viewed from afar likened the scene to that of a great army, as there were tents, people, and a cloud of dust as far as the eye could see. (“By Telegraph”)

The construction of a hand-made track between the seas spanning all sorts of terrain is a veritable engineering feat by any standard, even today. This notion was the primary focus of most other accounts of the railroad construction as published in local papers. (“End of Track U.P.R.R.”; “Work on the Railroad”; “The Pacific Railroad Bill”) What was happening all around these people, from the masses of workers, to the triggering of explosive charges was not commonplace anywhere. They were living in the midst of something great, and they knew it.

“Never before has this continent disclosed anything bearing comparison with it,” observed one account. (“The Proceedings at Promontory Summit”) One man recalled dining at a friend’s house and being shown a 400-pound boulder that had been fully buried in the ground just 20 paces from his kitchen window, after it had been thrown half a mile by an explosion. With good humor, he elaborated on the dangerous nature of the work,“Fun is fun, but standing a straddle of four or five kegs of powder and working it into the rocks with a crowbar is a particular kind of sport that the most of men wouldn’t relish.” (“Correspondence: Promontory”)

The dangerous nature of the work was aggravated by the serious competition between the Central, and Union Pacific, railroad companies. The companies were working from opposite directions, and where they were to meet was yet to be determined. The companies owning the railroads profited off of the use of their rails, and as such more rail meant more money. (“Work on the railroad”) Each company pushed its workers to superhuman speeds, sometimes laying a mile of track in only one hour, in hopes of owning  more of the track. (“Correspondence: Promontory”) The competition was so fierce that the two companies actually began sabotaging each other’s work, endangering many workers. Toward the end of construction, they were building in very close proximity to each other, and would sometimes set off charges without warning the other company, or they would go as far as actually removing track that had been lain by their competitor. (“Correspondence: Promontory”)

The completion of the railroad put months of planning to the test, in terms of how strong of a society the Mormon Church had built in Utah. The School Of Prophets was formed in response to all of the issues promoted by the railroad, both pre- and post-construction. The school (essentially an upright citizens brigade) worked closely with Brigham Young in developing economic policies that would keep the settlement growing. (Arrington, 146)

Young stressed the importance of importing raw materials for the production of consumer goods, rather than exporting raw materials to be processed outside the settlements. Adherence to these policies guaranteed that an individual and their family would be taken care of by the church, as was the nature of their community, and straying from them could mean excommunication. (Arrington, 147) Young forbid church members from trading with, or purchasing goods from non-Mormons. Young said, “We are going to draw the reins so tight as to not let a Latter-day saint trade with an outsider.” (Quoted in Arrington, 147) Policies like this were fairly effective in maintaining their society in which what is good for the whole was good for the individual.

On May 10, 1869, the line was completed. The proceedings at Promontory were a highly publicized event, with more than twenty newspapers represented. (Bowman, 97) While coverage of the proceedings was great, much of it was speculation, as it is believed that fewer than twenty people were actually able to see the spike driven or hear the addresses spoken. (Bowman, 97-98) However, much of the ceremony was actually seen by the reporter from The Deseret News, whose description of the events was nothing short of beautiful. “The meridian hour has come and on the expansive and lofty plateau, at the summit of the Promontory, a scene is disclosed in the conception of which every exultant element of humanity is revivified.” (The Proceedings at Promontory Summit”) Whatever reservations about the railroad the church may have had, they presented its completion with only the most optimistic of coverage.

In terms of facing the potential threat that the construction and completion of the transcontinental railroad posed, no tool was more useful to the Church of Jesus Christ of  Latter-day Saints than their newspaper, The Deseret News. Through their use of the paper, the Church was able to inform members of general news about the construction, and the way in which they should deal with issues that were bound to arise with the population change that the construction would bring. Through their editorials and articles, church leaders were able to have their people benefit from the construction, yet remain somewhat insulated from outside influence. These early Mormon economic policies changed the way that Utah’s economy developed, the effects of which are still visible today, in how many local industries remain throughout the state.

Sources

Editor, “End of Track, U.P.R.R.” Daily Deseret News, April 23, 1869.

“The Proceedings at Promontory Summit,” Daily Deseret News, May 16, 1869.

Editor, “Work on the Railroad,” Deseret News, November 17, 1868.

Saxey, “Correspondence: Promontory, near Cedar City,” Deseret Evening News, March 25, 1869.

“The Pacific Railroad Bill.” Deseret News, April 28, 1869, 6.

By Telegraph,” Deseret Evening News, May 12, 1869.

Editor, “The Railroad — Changes It Will Produce,” Deseret News, August 10, 1868.

Secondary

Leonard J. Arrington. “The Transcontinental Railroad and Mormon Economic Policy.” The Pacific Historical Review 20, no. 2 (1951): 143-57.

J.N. Bowman. “Driving The Last Spike: At Promontory, 1869.” California Historical Society Quarterly 36, no. 22 (1957): 97-106.

Martin Mitchell. “Gentile Impressions of Salt Lake City, Utah, 1849-1870.” Geographical Review 87, no. 3 (1997): 334-52.

August C. Bolino. “Mormon Philosophy and Practical Railroad Building.” The Business History Review 32, no. 4 (1958): 407-22.

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