PROMONTORY SUMMIT — As a boy many years ago, Doug Foxley recalls many springtime visits with his family to the dusty, remote area where the spike completing the transcontinental railroad was pounded into the ground in 1869.
"It was always a rite of passage at Easter time to go to the site," said Foxley, who grew up in Tremonton. The family would picnic and breathe in the fresh desert air, and his parents would hide eggs for him and his siblings.
This was the 1950s and early 1960s, and at that time there wasn't much in the area, just a lonely marker noting the place called Promontory Summit where the last spike had been pounded on May 10, 1869. "There was nothing there aside from sagebrush and this white monument. ... You had to already know of it, know what your were looking for," he said.
A visitors center took shape at the spot in 1969, four years after the U.S. Congress designated the location the Golden Spike National Historic Site, thanks notably to the efforts of boosters like Bernice Gibbs Anderson. Fast forward 50 more years and it's received a new, elevated designation — the Golden Spike National Historical Park. Now, as the 150th anniversary of transcontinental railroad completion looms, Foxley and others are optimistic the new designation and the many activities planned to mark the sesquicentennial will help bolster the profile of the area and the museum.
Foxley, who heads up the Spike 150 Commission, the entity formed to promote the anniversary and the many activities statewide organized around it, hopes for more tourists. A busy schedule of activities is planned for May 10, 11 and 12 at Golden Spike to mark the anniversary, aside from a dizzying array of events already occurring around the state.
Completion of the railroad connected the eastern and western portions of the United States, making transcontinental travel much quicker. "It was the equivalent of the moonshot," Foxley said, referencing for comparison the first moon landing by U.S. astronauts in 1969.
Officials at the Utah Office of Tourism have committed $150,000 to promote Spike 150 activities this year and encourage tourism at the Golden Spike facility in Box Elder County and other Northern Utah landmarks. Jay Kinghorn, associate managing director at the agency, pointed to other draws like Union Station and 25th Street in Ogden, Bear Lake and the Spiral Jetty, saying they could be marketed in conjunction with the transcontinental railroad museum to draw visitors.
Given the number of Chinese workers who helped complete the railroad, Foxley thinks the museum could also be marketed to Chinese tourists passing through the region.
"We’re optimistic this celebration will be a breakout event for the Golden Spike region and attract a lot of lasting attention to the area," Kinghorn said. He would like to see increased promotion to get travelers heading north to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton National Park to make pitstops at Golden Spike and other Northern Utah attractions.
Transcontinental railroad network?
The new designation of the Golden Spike facility, from historic site to historical park, doesn't by itself confer new resources on the U.S. National Park Service facility, located some 40 miles west of Tremonton. President Donald Trump inked legislation in March upgrading the status of the Golden Spike facility, and signage reflecting the new name is to be unveiled as part of the sesquicentennial celebrations.
But Leslie Crossland, the Golden Spike superintendent, echoed the optimism of the other boosters. Officials, she said, "are excited about the possibility that having a different name might encourage more visitors to the park itself (and) also other locations in Box Elder County and Northern Utah in general."
Compared to historic sites, usually focused on a single historic feature, historical parks typically encompass a broader geographic area, maybe multiple buildings or natural features. Golden Spike, measuring 2,735 acres, encompasses the site where the transcontinental railroad was completed as well as adjacent sections of original railroad bed, long ago abandoned with relocation of the rail line.
Crossland also noted another provision of the federal measure upgrading the designation of the park that calls for a study into possible creation of a Transcontinental Railroad network. The idea is to create a program within the National Park Service, depending on the outcome of the study, "to commemorate and interpret" the broader railroad network linking the eastern and western United States, the legislation reads.
"If the network is created, Golden Spike would likely be a part of it, along with many other locations significant to the building of the transcontinental railroad," Crossland said.
The 1,912-mile segment completing the rail network across the country went from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Francisco, California, by way of Promontory Summit and was built between 1863 and 1869, when that last spike was hammered into the ground.