The Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in Promontory, Utah

by KEITH THOMAS

The transcontinental railroad was completed May 10, 1869, in Promontory, Utah, when the Union Pacific Railroad of the East met the Central Pacific Railroad of the West. Many people said that building a single railroad that spanned the United States was impossible, but it was essential to expedite travel, communication, and business. It also helped to cement California’s allegiance to the United States during the Civil War, and win the fight for land with the Native Americans; it was easily one of the greatest of the United States’ achievements during the nineteenth century. (Utley, 45)

In 1850, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Roads and Canals stated the basic motives for building a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, saying that it would “cement the commercial, social, and political relations of the East and the West,” and would be a “highway over which will pass the commerce of Europe and Asia.” (Utley, 1) At the time, trade from China and Japan to the East Coast of the United States was only possible by ship, but building a railroad to the Pacific meant great trade and business opportunities. The railroad would also help win land from the Native Americans, through quick and easy transport of military supplies, soldiers, and citizens to occupy the West. The new possibilities for more efficient transport of mail and journalists would make communications faster. And the railroad would strengthen political bonds with California, ensuring that the new state would not secede from the Union as the Civil War began. (Utley, 1)

In 1862, Congress passed The Railroad Act of 1862. Under the act, the Union Pacific Railroad was authorized to build a railroad westward until it met with the Central Pacific, which was authorized to build eastward from California. (Kraus, 49) The construction of the railroad was not actually begun until 1865, after the Civil War ended, making more resources available to the project, and the Railroad Act of 1864 was signed, making the government the main endorser of the railroad. (Kraus, 100-107)

On May 10, 1869, the two railroad companies finally came together in Promontory, Utah. Leland Stanford, president of Central Pacific Railroad, and Dr. Thomas Durant, vice-president of the Union Pacific Railroad, pounded in the last two stakes to complete the railroad. (New York Times, May 12, 1869) Telegraph stations all across the country were waiting for the signal that the railroad was complete, and with the single word “done,” the country was informed that the task was completed. (Utley, 45)

A silver sledgehammer and golden spikes were used to complete the project, and on the final spike there was a silver plate with the inscription, “The last tie laid on the completion of the Pacific Railroad, May 10, 1869.” (Derby, 352) After a ceremony and celebration, the golden spikes were taken out and replaced with regular spikes, driven by a standard hammer. (Deseret News, May 18, 1869) At the time, this was considered to be one of the greatest industrial feats ever achieved.

The completion of the railroad meant progress in a lot of areas. According to E.H. Derby, an early traveler of the transcontinental railroad, riding the railroad was a pleasant and comfortable experience for passengers, and a great way to travel across the country in a quick and efficient manner. (Derby, 15; Pine 13-19) Political bonds with California were strengthened as well, leaving trade with Asia to be the only expectation that fell short, which ironically, was the main reason for building the railroad in the first place. The completion of the Suez Canal, however, made the railroad unnecessary for trade. (Utley, 57)

Now, the site where the two railroads met in 1869 is the Golden Spike National Historic Site, and although the section of track at Promontory, Utah, is no longer in commercial use, visitors can see reenactments of the trains coming together on a daily basis, through the use of replicas of the Union Pacific’s No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s Jupiter locomotives.

Keith Thomas is a communication major at The University of Utah. He is planning to graduate with his bachelor’s degree after he completes fall semester 2010, after which he is planning to join the Navy and sail the open seas.

Sources

E.H. Derby. The Overland Route to the Pacific. Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1869.

George W. Pine. Beyond the West. New York: T.J. Griffiths, 1870.

Union Pacific Railroad and Connections 1870. Map.

Robert G. Athearn. Union Pacific Country. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1971.

Andrew J. Russell. East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail. 1869. Photograph. National Park Service.

“The Pacific Railroad,” The New York Times, May 12, 1869.

“The Proceedings at Promontory Summit,” The Deseret News, May 19, 1869.

Union Pacific Railroad 1867. Map. N.F. Mraz.

Union Pacific Railroad Collection. Promontory, Utah. 1969. Photograph.

George Kraus. High Road to Promontory. California: American West Publishing, 1969.

Robert M. Utley. Golden Spike. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1969.

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