The Golden Spike or the joining of two railroads. (Part 1)

Just recently, the 2019 NRHS (National Railway Historical Society) convention was held in Salt Lake City, Utah. For quite some years Brad and I had decided not to attend these annual conventions. I shall be polite here and only say that these yearly gatherings just were not us.

However this year was just a bit different. The 2019 shindig was going to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Arguably, it is one of the most important events in US history.  On the 10th of May 1869 the last spike was hammered down. It was now possible to go from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California via train. What had taken about six months or more, was now reduced to about a week. However, contrary to popular belief, a true transcontinental route from the East Coast to the West Coast was not established until 1872. Until then there were still gaps in the rail line. For example Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa were not connected until a bridge across the Missouri River was completed in 1872. In 1876, a train called “The Transcontinental Express”, took roughly 83 hours from New York City to San Francisco.

Golden Spike 15

Photographer Andrew J. Russell took this photo of the joining of the two railroads on the 10th of May 1869. He used a method called “collodion glass plate negative”. The Central Pacific’s “Jupiter” locomotive is on the left, the Union Pacific’s “119” is on the right. (Oakland Museum of California)

The two major railroads in all of this were the Central Pacific Railroad building towards the east from Sacramento, California and the Union Pacific Railroad, building west from Omaha, Nebraska. The US government had passed legislation authorizing the construction of the railroad. This legislation included huge incentives for the project through federal funds and land grants. The legislation was badly written and ripe for corruption and graft. Of course that is exactly what happened. In fact it became one of the largest and sordid scandals in US history ever, even affecting the presidential election of 1872.

And of course during all this nobody even cared or gave a thought about the people who already lived on the land the railroads were appropriating for themselves: The Native Americans. Or how inhumanly the roughly 15000 Chinese workers were treated by the Central Pacific Railroad. Not that the Union Pacific Railroad treated its mostly Irish and German work force all that much better. At one point the Union Pacific’s Mormon workers in Utah had to sue for their rightful wages and only received a fraction they were owed. All the while the owners of the railroad got richer and richer. Hmm…sounds a bit like 2019.

Delving into this not altogether flattering history is beyond the scope of this blog. For anybody interested in a more detailed account about this part of our history, there are a myriad of sources on the Internet to study in more detail.

This year’s event was put up by the Spike 150 organization. The only railroad left which was part of the 1869 event, the Union Pacific Railroad, also put up quite a program with their “The Great Race to Promontory” events. The Central Pacific Railroad had ceased to exist officially in 1959, having been merged into the Southern Pacific Railroad, which itself was eventually absorbed by the Union Pacific Railroad.

Union Pacific's 119

Central Pacific's Jupiter

Fully working replicas of the two locomotives used in 1869 at the Golden Spike National Historical Park. 

More about the Golden Spike events in my next blog.

 

Photos by Ralf Meier, unless otherwise indicated. (Sony A6500 and IPhone X)

 

 

 

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